Roots 'n' Shoots: 2012

Why is RnS Moving to

Google had brought out an algorithm update in May 2017. With previous updates like Panda or Penguin, Mr G had penalized blogs or websites with low quality content and those more focused on aggressive adverts (including multiple ads or pop-up ads in articles). However, many blogs/websites that weren't shady got penalized beyond recovery too and a lot of people lost their income. The May 2017 update has had wide-scale effect on blogs and websites, but without any explanation from Mr G as to why or what it does. RnS has been hit by it too and hard. RnS organic search stats (i.e. users from Google) have dropped by 75% since. Even though RnS is not a source of income, I tried to figure out why RnS is being culled. It seems that it doesn't really have anything to do with RnS per se, but likely because RnS is FREE and not paying for page ranking (via AdWords or Ad Ranking). Now it is likely being aggressively shoved to lower page rankings to accommodate the paid ads.

I cannot rely on Mr G anymore to get RnS' content where it is needed. So I am busy moving RnS to Wordpress where you can find me as Whisker Flowers @

I am also imposing 301 redirects from already moved posts and pages!

- The Shroom - (AKA Whisker Flowers)

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Comfrey: How To Grow – Herb of the Month

Comfrey stats/requirements at a glance

Ease of Raising:
3/5 – Bi-weekly check-ups
2/5 – Minimal, twice per week (especially in a container)
4/5 – Full sun, shade tolerant
1/5 – Minimal (harvesting keeps plant in shape)
1/5 – Minimal, at least during the growing season
Time to Harvest:
1/5 – Immediate (purchased a seedling) to Soon (from seed)
Frost Hardiness:
3/4 – Tender (can’t take mild frost)

Medicinal, Pollinator attractor & Compost
Most Problematic Nemesis:
Some caterpillar feeding
Container Plant:
Yes definitely

Symphytum officinale
Flora of Germany, Austria and Switzerland (1885)
Kurt Stober Online Library

Quick intro

Comfrey is known for its healing properties and is currently also used as compost addition or as a liquid fertiliser, which is prepared from the leaves. Even though it has wonderful medicinal and composting properties, the plant may be considered as a weed by many.


Comfrey is native to Europe, especially Ireland and Britain, and temperate parts of Asia. It has been cultivated since 400BC due to its unrivalled potential for healing external wounds and broken bones, hence receiving its namesake ‘Knitbone’ or ‘Boneset’.

Comfrey was favoured amongst the Greek physicians, especially during times of war. Today comfrey is also grown in North America and it roots and leaves are still used for medicinal purposes.

Science Stuff

Comfrey belongs to the Boraginaceae family of herbs, the Forget-me-not family. This family mainly contains herbs with hairy leaves, including Borage, Fiddelenck, Forget-me-not, Alkanet, Lungwort and Bugloss.

There are two main species, wild or common comfrey (Symphytum offinale) and rough or prickly comfrey (Symphytum asperum). A hybrid variety exists as well between S. offinale and S. asperum, known as Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum).

Comfrey is used both internally and externally, but it is unadvised to use internally, as comfrey contains the toxin symphytine (Pyrrolzidine alkaloid), which causes liver damage and may be carcinogenic.

Comfrey leaves and roots are used to make extracts for extrernal use. These extracts contain allantoin, which stimulates the growth of new cells, rosemarinic acid, which is an anti-inflammaroty and mucilage, which soothes inflamed tissues. Roots contain twice the amount of allantoin than leaves. Comfrey is generally used as a cream and applied to affected areas that includes wounds, broken bones and is frequently used as a skin product.

Growing Comfrey

Leaves are main part of the comfrey plant used in the vegetable garden. Therefore it requires a fair amount of nitrogen to encourage good leaf production and will do well when fertilized with nitrogen-based mulch, such as animal manure or lawn cuttings.

Comfrey is difficult to grow from seed, as germination takes long (20 weeks) and is erratic. New plants can be successfully propagated from root cuttings. It is also advisable to grow comfrey in a container as it has a deep root system, making the plant nearly impossible to remove from the garden as new plants regrow from any root stumps left in the soil. Keep comfrey well-watered during the growing season if you plan to harvest leaves from it.

Russian Comfrey
Symphytumn x uplandicum

Essentially no pruning is required, since regular harvesting keeps the monster in shape J.

Other Tips

Comfrey, specifically Russian comfrey, as a compost addition or liquid fertiliser is highly recommended when you have a vegetable patch. It is high in nitrogen (hence proteins), phosphorus and potassium (Good NPK values J). For detailed NPK quantities of comfrey refer to Composting. If your comfrey is in the garden (and you tend to keep it there) then your comfrey will tap into deep nutrient reserves in the soil that can be recovered in the leaves.

Here are a few ways comfrey is used as a compost/feed addition:

ü    Compost activator – add to compost composed mainly of dry brown material. Layers of comfrey between the brown matter will heat the compost heap and assist with decomposition. Do not add too much comfrey as the comfrey will break down instead of assisting the decomposition of the heap.

ü     Comfrey mulch – a 5cm layer (2 inches) of fresh leaves around the stems of plant will break down slowly and release nutrient to the soil without removing nitrogen whilst decomposing (such as straw and leaves). It is good for just about any vegetable or fruit, but can be useful addition to nutrient guzzlers such as fruiting plants (tomatoes & fruit trees) and root vegetables (potatoes).

ü    Liquid feed – There are two ways to make liquid comfrey feed or comfrey tea. One is really smelly (the reason why I switched to the other) and the other is not.

o      Smelly: Simply cut the leaves into small pieces and add to a bottle or bucket of water and seal. After about 1-3 months, depending on the amount of leaves, you will have nasty smelling liquid feed. It works wonders, but the smell is terrible. It smells bad due to the anaerobic (no oxygen) decomposition of the comfrey in the water. Dilute this in a ratio of 1:10, 1 part of comfrey liquid to 10 parts water.

o      Not smelly: Place comfrey leaves in a plastic container with holes in the base. Weigh it down with a stone or brick. Place this container (with holes) in a second container. The second container can be lined with a plastic bag if you intend to re-use it for another purpose. Place a lid on this to prevent flies from making a breeding ground in there. As the comfrey decomposes it produces an odourless black syrup that drips to the bottom container. (Alternatively you can use one bucket with a hole and the comfrey placed on top of another. Comfrey will then drip into the bottom bucket for collection.) The comfrey liquid is a concentrate and therefore requires dilution before use. It is also diluted in a 1:10 ratio (1 part liquid comfrey to 10 parts water).

Liquid comfrey can be used on tomatoes or similar crops three times a week and potted plants once a week. The tea can be stored in glass jars in a cool dark place until further use.

If you have caterpillar feeding on your comfrey it is easiest to physically remove them from the plant. Other problems may include rust and powdery mildew. To control these, cut the plant to the ground and burn the infected leaves. New uninfected leaves should regrow rapidly.

Harvesting & Storing

Comfrey leaves can be harvested up to 5 times a year during the spring to summer months. Leaves are harvested once they are 30-60cm high (~ 1-2 feet).

Comfrey leaves can be dried, but they are brittle. Thus it is preferable to use comfrey leaves when they are fresh.

Seed Saving & Propagation

Russian comfrey (S. x uplandicum) produces clusters of pink, purple or blue flowers in summer. Common comfrey (S. officinale) produces white or pink flowers and is likely insect pollinated.

Russian Comfrey Flowers
Symphytum x uplandicum

Russian comfrey is preferred in the garden as it is sterile and does not self-seed yet bares the same nutrient-rich foliage properties of S. officinale.

Since comfrey is difficult to raise from seeds, root cuttings are used.

My Comfrey

I have the Russian comfrey. Originally one comfrey, which self-propagated from a leaf cutting if I remember correctly J. Very prickly, wear gloves if your skin gets irritated when you handle the leaves.

Russian Comfrey
Symphytum x uplandicum


Please share with fellow gardening enthusiasts via the various sharing buttons at the end of posts/pages! Else you can vote for posts through the Google reactions bar at the end of articles. To stay up to date I have provided several reader and social networking platforms with which to subscribe: TwitterPinterestRSS Feed Reader or Email/Follow directly using the Blog Followers widget on the left hand side toolbar. Thank you for reading and please feel free to ask if questions arise - I appreciate comments and ideas too! 😆

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Vegetable Garden Myths & Truths

I was going through the internet articles and blogs where I read all kinds of reasons for having a vegetable garden. But I felt like most of the reasons aren't true and many things go unmentioned. So I decided that I would make my own versions of vegetable garden myths & truths. Now, just another note on the "saving money part", here in SA we get charged a fortune for both water and electricity - so water needs to be free and anything in the vegetable garden based on electricity (such as water pumps, timed irrigation ...) is also out of the question on my little student budget. As such, the truths & myths above would mostly apply to gardeners in SA :) But that doesn't mean that the rest of the world can learn something too!


- Update 2014 -

Since posting this article the economic state of South Africa has changed a lot and growing your own veg saves a lot of R!!!

See my updated post for a list of vegetables worth growing:
Starting a Productive and Economic Food Garden

If you enjoy the content please share with fellow gardening enthusiasts via the various sharing buttons at the end of posts/pages! Else you can vote for posts through the Google reactions bar at the end of articles. To stay up to date I have provided several reader and social networking platforms with which to subscribe: TwitterPinterestRSS Feed Reader or Email/Follow directly using the Blog Followers or Follow Your Way widget on the left hand side toolbar. Thank you for reading and please feel free to ask if questions arise - I appreciate comments and ideas too! J

Friday, 30 November 2012

Squash & Pumpkin: How To Grow − Fruit(s) of the Month

Squash stats/requirements at a glance

Ease of Raising:
2/5       - Weekly check up
4/5       - Daily
5/5       - Full sun, no shade
2-4/5    – Minimal (Zucchini) to Moderate (Squash), dead or damages leaves to trellis training
3/5       – Moderate (monthly)
Time to Harvest:
2-5/5    – Soon (Zucchini) to end of summer (winter squash), 1-4 months
Frost Hardiness:
1/4       – Very Tender (can’t take light frost)

Culinary, Pollinator attractor
Most Problematic Nemesis:
Powdery Mildew
Container Plant:
Rather not

Squash Vine
Cucurbita moschata
 Quick intro

The terms squash, pumpkin and marrow are often confusing and applied indiscriminately. From what I could decipher, squash are applied to both summer and winter varieties. This again can be misleading, summer and winter squash are both grown during the summer months, the only distinction is that summer squash cannot keep for too long (zucchini, patty pans AKA soft skin varieties ect.) and winter squashes after preparation can be stored throughout the winter (hubbard, butternut, pumpkins AKA hard skin varieties). Squash are a pleasure to grow and are likely favourites at the table whether it is as soup, steamed, roasted or served with syrup. The only problem is that they take up a lot of space in the garden and are hounded by powdery mildew - grrr!...

Cucurbita pepo

The oldest archaeological remains of squash cultivation are from Mexico (7000-5500BC) and formed part of the important pre-Columbian ‘Three-sister’ diet complex. This consisted of maize, beans and squash, where the maize stalk provides support for the beans and shade for the squash. The squash limited provided ground cover to limit weeds and water loss from the soil, whereas beans (being legumes) provide nitrogen to the maize and squash. These ancient cultivars are now distributed around the world as they are hardier than other squash species and are cultivated in cooler climates, such as the United Kingdom and northern Europe.

Science Stuff

Squash belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family, which contains approximately 25 species, although only a few are cultivated plants. These belong to several species, Cucurbita (the genus, abbreviated with the first letter), C. pepo, C. maxima, C. moschata, C. mixta and C. ficifolia – and then you get several varieties under each species, such as C. pepo var. pepo and C. pepo var. melopepo. Now on with the naming game… Pumpkins are sometimes classified as winter squash or food used for animal fodder. So to solve all the confusion my very informative “The complete guide to Saving Seeds” book has provided both illustrations and comprehensive table. Here is a remade image and table of the species differences:

 Fruit stems help to identify the species in question.
Cucurbita maxima has a soft and rounded fruit stem that seems to be inserted into the fruit.
Cucurbita pepo have hard and prickly fruit stems that are enlarged at the point of attachment.
Cucurbita moschata are flattened at the point of attachment.

C. maxima (Cmax)
C. pepo (Cpep)
C. moschata (Cmos)
Can cross-pollinate with Cmax & Cmos
Can cross-pollinate with Cmos and Cpep
Can cross-pollinate with Cmax, Cmos and Cpep
Dickson Field
Boston marrow
‘Pumpkin’ cultivar
Long Island Cheese
Scallop/Patty Pan
Long of Naples
Flat white boer

I hope this will clarify some issues surrounding the naming problem. An additional terminology issue is that of Zucchini, Courgette and Marrow. Zucchini and courgette refer to the smaller C. pepo summer squash (I usually stick to the ones that look like fingers and patties), whereas marrow refers to the mature fruit of a C. pepo plant (25-30cm long!).

I think that pretty much covers it.

Growing Squash

Squash are delightful, especially the zucchinis as they are prolific and start to produce fruits within two months of planting. Their seeds germinate within 5 days given the soil is warm enough (21-35oC, 70-95oF), which is usually after the first frost. If you live in an area with a short summer, start seedlings indoors 2-3 weeks before it should be warm enough and plant out once the seedlings have 3-4 leaves.

Cucurbita species
Squash seedlings

Now I have never concerned myself with spacing, as these plants do what they will. The bush varieties (patties and zucchinis) remain in a roughly 60cm circumference area, but later on they do have longer stems, as the zucchinis are produced on the new stem and so they start to move outside this area. Bush varieties have large leaves that take up a lot of space, but provide shelter to vegetables below and they retain soil moisture (carrots particularly like this arrangement J). Trailing varieties (these are hubbards, butternut, crooknecks, larger pumpkins) creep along as they please. Hubbard and pumpkins have large leaves but they are spread along the creeping vine and so do not take up much space in that sense, but the vine can creep through the entire garden soon enough – and that takes up more space that your bush varieties.

I do not restrict zucchinis on the amount of fruits they carry, since they develop and set within a week making a constant rotation of crops. The larger trailing varieties I limit to 8 fruits (for smaller fruits, such as gems, butternuts, crooknecks) and 3-5 fruits (for medium to large fruits, hubbard and pumpkins). This ensures that the fruit sets properly and the seed cavity develops (important for seed saving). One must also remember that the trailing varieties have to ‘pump’ nutrients all the way along the vine to the developing fruit, so ones further away will get the most nutrients. The amount of nutrients the closer fruits will get is less, due to the gradient in which the plant supplies nutrients, so more nutrients at the tip of the growing shoot (and fruits) to less nutrients closer to the base of the plant where the root are located. This is why the amount of fruits needs to be limited, since the plant continues producing fruit at the tip, these will steal nutrients and the others will not get enough to develop properly. So to prevent more fruit from forming simply pinch off the growing tip, this will ‘force’ nutrients to the other fruits. Be vigilant of new shoots developing and pinch these off as well, it can be quite a battle to keep a plant restricted as they want to produce as many fruits as possible, so new shoots will spring up all along the length of the vine.

Cucurbita maxima
The some squash varieties, such as butternut, large crooknecks, hubbard and pumpkin, require support for fruits. Since fruits are in contact with the soil and may rot. Fruits are supported in a variety of ways, I am still trying to find the best for me, such as straw, black plastic bags and carton. Also the side in contact with the ground will become yellow and might be a bit harder than the rest of the fruit, this is a natural process of fruit development and the fruit is safe to eat J.

I have tried planting the squash in containers, but it did not work out so great, since the plants were fairly small and did not carry fruits well. One of my reference books "Pot it Grow it Eat it" manages to get it right, so give it a try! J

Other Squash Tips

There are no squash varieties resistant to powdery mildew. This fungus grows on the top of the leaves and can soon cover an entire squash plant. Some books say that this doesn’t impact on fruit production, but I do not believe this as the fungus will sap nutrients from the plant, which will decrease fruit and growth potential. To limit the onset of powdery mildew always water squash at the base of the plant on the ground, do not water on the leaves as this increases the growth and spread of mildew. Once mildew starts, remove badly infected leaves. You can spray the mildew with an environmentally friendly spray I developed, under Pest Control.

Cucurbita species
Powdery Mildew
On that note, me and a friend were discussing that it would be awesome if you could breed squash with waxy cuticles (layer surrounding the outside of the leaf) similar to that of Brassicas (the cabbage family) so that water simply trickles off the leaf and mildew will have a harder time growing on the squash J. But this has other physiological implications, especially when concerned with energy required to grow the wax layer, hence fruit production is decreased J...

Harvesting & Storing

OK it is quite a process for harvesting and storing squash. Zucchinis are harvested when the fruit is 10-15cm, they can keep for about 5 days in the fridge (in a closed container that doesn’t let the fridge dehydrate the fruit). Fruits are cut from squash and 5cm of the stem is left on the fruit. This prevents the fruit from dehydrating and prevents infection of the fruit by fungi or bacteria. Marrows are 25-20cm long and can be store for longer periods of time as the fruit has matured. The rule for marrow harvesting is that if your thumbnail goes into the skin easily they are ready. Marrows can be stored for a few months in an airy frost free location. We are investigating whether marrows will still be edible after freezing, we grill them in a little oil before they go into the freezer.

Winter squash (hard rinds) are harvested and stored differently and include all squash except zucchini and patty pans. So these are ripe when the fruit skin is pale, dry, uniform in colour and the rind cannot be puncture by thumbnails (brown and dry stems for gourds – bicoloured squash, a more decorative ornamental squash). Then cut the fruit from the stem, leaving 3-6 inches (8-16cm) of the stem for pumpkins and no more than 1 inch (3cm) for hubbard to prevent damage to other squash during storage. Wash the fruit with soapy water and rinse with bleach to remove pathogens (1 part of bleach to 10 part water, so 1ml bleach to 10ml water). Make sure the fruits are dried properly before curing. So most pumpkins, except butternut, hubbard and acron varieties do not need to be cured. Pumpkins require curing. Curing pumpkins involved leaving them in the sun for a week (7-10 days) after harvesting. This allows the skin to harden and the fruit to fully ripen. Cured pumpkins can be stored cool dry place for 2-3 months. Store fruits on wooden pallets and do not let them touch one another, this prevents rot. For more info check out:

NB: Remember to check on stored fruit regularly and remove any rotten fruits.

Seed Collection & Storage

Squash have unisexual flowers, meaning male and female reproductive organs are borne in separate flowers. Female flowers carry small immature fruit at the back of the flower and need to be pollinated to set fruit. Male flowers do not carry fruits. Squash are pollinated by insects and this can be problematic if you pollinators are more interested in the basil plant and ignores everything else! But luckily squash are easy to pollinate J. I do this with a soft (horse-hair) brush that is similar to a bees’ body. You can use a feather as well or simply rub the anther (male part) over the stigma (female part). I find you get better pollination, pollen use and distribution when using a brush. Simply pick a male flower, strip the petals and get some pollen (yellow) onto your brush. Strip the petals from the female flower (careful not to remove the flower completely) and make sure you brush all the stigmas (3-4 lobed shaped structures). Technically you only need to get one pollen grain on one stigma, so brushing the all the stigmas with pollen will ensure pollination.

Squash male and female flowers
Cucurbita pepo

Squash male flower (anther)
Cucurbita pepo

Squash female flower (stigma)
Cucurbita pepo

Now, squash are sometimes selfish to produce male flowers when females are around. So, when the squash just start growing, they produce mostly male flowers – this is less energy expensive than producing female flower as they can disperse pollen (and genes J) by male flowers hoping that there are already plants with female flowers around. But if the male flowers aren’t used (not sure how the plant will detect this stimuli) they will start making lots of female flowers and fewer male flowers (since one male flower can pollinate multiple female flowers). So then you get lots of females waiting to be pollinated with insufficient or no males at the same time. But do not fear! As squash are promiscuous and can easily accept pollen from different species in the same family. This goes with the table I showed earlier. So you can use zucchini (Caserta or patty pan, as they have lots of male flowers with lots of pollen) to pollinate (and fertilise) pumpkin or butternut or hubbard… female flowers. The only thing is that you cannot harvest seeds from these fruits as the fruit will either be parthenocarpic (meaning the fruit does not contain seeds) or the seeds will be sterile (this is not the case for tomatoes! J). So to save seeds; select a fruit to pollinate with the correct pollen and close the female flower with twine (tie up the petals) to indicate that this is the one meant for seeds. You can also use cucumber pollen to pollinate squash (although, cucumbers do not produce lots of male flowers).

To harvest seeds pollinate the female flowers and leave the fruit to become botanically ripe (the fruit goes past its consumption point). This is necessary to allow the seeds to develop fully and become viable. Fruits are left to rot down or become calabash. Seeds can be removed and washed. Viable seeds will sink. Seeds stored in glass will last for up to 5 years.

Botanically ripe gem squash (rolet squash)
Cucurbita pepo

My Squash

I have three varieties of zucchini, a long green one, long striped one and a patty pan (scallop).
The striped one is a Mayford variety and other two are Starke Ayres. The Mayford becomes quite larger than the Starke. All others are Starke varieties which include, Butternut, gem squash and Boer Pumpkin (Afrikaaner variety of South Africa J, basically translates to Farmer’s Pumpkin).

Pumpkin Patch


Please share with fellow gardening enthusiasts via the various sharing buttons at the end of posts/pages! Else you can vote for posts through the Google reactions bar at the end of articles. To stay up to date I have provided several reader and social networking platforms with which to subscribe: TwitterPinterestRSS Feed Reader or Email/Follow directly using the Blog Followers widget on the left hand side toolbar. Thank you for reading and please feel free to ask if questions arise - I appreciate comments and ideas too! 😆

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Happy Birthday Roots 'n' Shoots!!! #1

Hoot! Yay, today my blog is one year old J. So let me have a look at how far it has come...

The reason for starting this blog was to share my practical experiences, tricks and observations you can't get from any books. I remember that the first four months I had no visitors, nada, nothing, very lonely... except for this stupid spamming website from Russia domar.something - made me think someone has been around and then it is just them again... Out of desperation I joined to get some traffic to my site and was happy to notice three followers came along with the ride, one very dedicated follower (that's you KL J ) that awarded me with the Versatile Blogger Award, Garden Medusa and GardeningBlog... there also be a Suburban Tomato in the background - I see you! J Thanx for the support! J

I am trying to join a few more garden blog hosting sites, one of which is Sustainable Suburbia.

Since posting my tomato article, I had gained a lot of 'come once visitors' from Google Images - much to my surprise this has become my main stream for visitors - increasing the pageviews by at least a hundred every month. After posting my eggplant article, my blog broke the 1000 pageview a month limit in July! YAY! With my eggplant article generating the most hits - don't know why people are so obsessed with eggplants? J Also, Roots ‘n’ Shoots has reached the 5000 pageviews total mark as another milestone.

I also got a Google Plus +1 on my Parktown Prawn article, didn't even know about this thing - me being social network impaired ... Anyways, thank you Theresa Smith for the one up! J

When I started I hoped that by this time I would have a lot more followers and millions of discussions with people on all things gardening and chickens and whatever else, but my blog has become more of a humble little diary to keep record of all my nonsense I get up to in the garden - like a garden laboratory book! Whoo hoo! J Which is a very good thing, given that I have forgotten how exactly I pruned the tomatoes last season, even though I developed the system!!! Oh, dear, good thing I did the article before I forgot.

So here I be in my own little universe and if you learn something from it in passing by - that was the whole idea and feel free to leave a comment - sharing is caring! Tee, hee ... now the next limit is 2000 pageviews, I hope that by Roots 'n' Shoots' second birthday it would have reached this J

BTW, tried to do a blog "Make-over" too. Wanted to get a more 'professional' look. Alas, that didn't work out so well, couldn't get a nice background that I was completely happy with, had major text-2-background-2-readability colour problems.... so I just stayed with the present look. J

... Me out...

Follow me on Twitter @ Roots 'n' Shoots for blog updates and other interesting stuff!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Potato: How To Grow - Vegetable of the Month

Potato stats/requirements at a glance

Ease of Raising:
5/5 - Very easy, plant & leave
3/5 – Moderate, every second day
3/5 - Full sun, can grow in shade
2/5 – Needs some (spindly branches)
3/5 – Moderate (monthly)
Time to Harvest:
3/5 – Moderate (small potatoes at 2 months and larger 3-4 months)
Frost Hardiness:
3/4 – Mildly Hardy (can’t take severe frost)

Most Problematic Nemesis:
Dust Beetles
Container Plant:
Yes – especially in small gardens

Solanum tubersonum
Quick intro

If I could eat potato fries every day without consequences around my hips I would. Store bought potatoes are no match for ones fresh from the garden. Again, there are many varieties to choose from, traditional white potatoes, red, yellow and even blue! The red and yellow potatoes have superior flavour to the traditional white ones and should be more resistant to pest and disease as there are more closely related to wild potato species. There is no end to what can be done to a potato- from baked, steamed, fried, roasted, boiled, mashed and smashed.

French fries
Rainer Zenz, Wikipedia


Potatoes have and remain an important food crop worldwide. It comes fourth in food production after wheat, maize and rice. Remains of wild potatoes from 11 000 BC were found in southern Chile. Sixteenth-century accounts describe the use of potato tubers by Indians in the Andes of South America and were brought to Europe, likely by the Spanish conquerors, but the details are unclear. And then there was the infamous Irish potato famine during 1845-1846 as potatoes was a main stable for the Irish during this time and their potato crop was destroyed by a fungus (Phytophthora infestans – an Oomycete fungus, I did my Honours seminar on oomycetes J). The crop the Irish had was susceptible due to it being an inbred cultivar. The famine led to mass emigration of the Irish population to England and America.

Agriculural research service USA, Wikipedia

Science Stuff

The humble potato belongs to a plant family already widely covered in my blog, the Solanaceae Family, which includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and the deadly nightshade… Its scientific name is Solanum tuberosum.

Again, this plant, like the most of the Solanaceae family has toxic solanines (aka glycoalkaloids) in the green parts of the plant. So do not eat green tubers! If your potato has a green spot, you can cut it out before eating – tried it myself, the toxin seems to be restricted to the green spot – just make sure you get every green bit J.

Growing Potatoes

The big thing about potatoes is getting it to form lots of tubers. All the books recommend ‘earthing up’ the soil around the base of the potato. Earthing up encourages new tubers along the length of the underground stem and also protects the tubers from sunlight. Sunlight makes tubers go green and then they are poisonous! There are various ways to accomplish earthing up.

1 potato spud) You can dig about 30cm down into the soil in the garden, plant the potato their and leave it 5cm of soil in the hole. As it grows up you can earth up the 30cm of soil until you get to level ground and then earth up another 30-60cm of soil thereafter.

Earthing up
Ranvieg, Wikipedia

2 potato spud) You can use a barrel (planting the tuber in 30cm of soil at the bottom) and earth up until you reach the top of the barrel. There are specially designed potato barrels that you can purchase or you can use a regular black plastic barrel.

Botanico Potato Barrel,
3 potato spud) You can use a potato grow-bag which has special pockets cut into the sides for easy access to potato tubers … you can get them from!

Potato bag
4 potato spud) You can use tiers and stack them up to 4 high – apparently you can get worn out tiers from garages and motor service centres.
Potato tyres

5 potato spud) I use upside-down plastic pots with the bottom cut out. As the first option takes up a lot of space, so I compact the soil into a smaller space (still enough for potato tubers). I cannot buy or import potato barrels or bags, as they are either too expensive or they cannot be imported. I cannot get tiers from local service centres, so I am stuck with doing the best I can, which is the good’ol plastic planter with its bottom out.
Potato plants
Solanum tuberosum
The plastic barrels I tried had relative success with; I think that is due to the fact that you cannot get much nutrients (or earthworms) in the barrel with the potatoes. So I moved to the garden and use upside-down plastic pots – this works fairly well, depending I think mostly on the potato plant itself… and some bugs… I can get anything from 0.4-1kg of potatoes from a plant. I read that you should get up to 2kg worth of potatoes from a plant, so I be trying for that this season.

Potatoes are grown from ‘seed potatoes’, which are small potatoes that are left to grow eyes (sprouts). We usually leave really small potatoes (not worth the effort of cooking and eating, usually the size of cherry tomatoes) in a warm windowsill. The seed potatoes are left in a bowl with plastic wrapped around in the sunny windowsill until they have sprouts that are 2-5cm (some of them will go green due to sun exposure). You can cut out the sprouts, with a little bit of potato flesh as a nutrient reserve, and plant that in the ground. So this way you can get multiple potato plant from one seed potato – just remember that you are effectively creating a crop based on clones (all plants from the same parent) as no sexual reproduction occurred, since tuber are produced vegetatively and you may get problems with resistance later on – but this will probably be >10 generations later, so as long as you replace the potatoes with some new ones every five years or so, you should be ok J

Chitted potato with eye sprouts
Solanum tuberosum

Otherwise you can use potato seeds! I was astounded to find that my potato plants produced fruits! Potato fruits! I first thought a gall mite or something got into my plants, but I checked on the internet and in my new oxford book of food plants and found that potatoes do produce fruits. Which I suppose makes sense, since technically all flowering plants will produce a fruit of some sort, it is just that I never heard of or saw a potato fruit before J. The fruits are green and are therefore poisonous – so do not eat them! If you have multiple potato plants, they will pollinate each other without much intervention from your side. The fruits are very similar to tomatoes and are jam-packed with seeds. Under the seed collection and storage section I will go into more detail on the seeds themselves.

Potato fruit
Solanum tuberosum
Other potato tips

Them nasty maize beetle larvae! And the adults are cannibals, I was appalled to witness!

Black Maize Beetle,
Heteronychus arator
Ok, so the maize beetles belong to the same family as chafers and dung beetles – Scarabaeidae. The photos I post of their larvae are similar to dung beetles, so make sure you don’t wipe out the dung beetle larvae as they are your friends J. It is safe to say that if you find larvae like this with your potatoes that they are maize beetles.

Curl grub
Toby Hudson, Wikipedia
There isn’t much you can do about them. When I dig up my potatoes I find lots of larvae and adults and holes in my potato tubes L – usually chuck them nasties in the same pot – this was where I saw the adults eating the larvae- the horror! So I thought it deserving that they all go to the chickens – the chickens thought of me as a super chicken friend afterwards (the grubs get really big and juicy in chicken terms). Besides the chickens also require protein in their diet and at least I get some use out of the nasty things.

Black Maize Beetle (Heteronychus arator) vs. Dung Beetle (Scarabaeus spp.)
The maize beetles are cosmopolitans and are found in Africa, Australia and South America, so I suppose the rest of you potato growers will have problems with weevils, which I don’t – so not much help on that front unfortunately. I know that weevils don’t like dried bay leaves’ scent, so maybe try that?

Harvesting and Storing

Potatoes are lifted from the soil with a garden fork to prevent damage about a month after the flowers have died (3-4 months after planting), you’ll probably have potatoes before carrots if planted the same time.

Potato flowers, purple and white
Solanum tuberosum
The potatoes can be left in the soil for winter storage. Otherwise dig them up, scrub them good with some dishwashing liquid – with a soft brush to get all the soil out – check the potatoes over while you clean them for any fungal growth or black spots which might indicate disease and discard these. A good potato is one with nice smooth skin, some will have a scaly skin and are still edible J. Washing with dishwashing liquid is basically a safe anti-disease (anti-bacterial and anti-fungal) treatment and a good rinse will remove the soap. Place the tubers in the direct sun for a few hours 2-4h, turning them regularly (once every half hour). This makes the skin dry out and harden slightly, readying the potato for storage in a brown paper bag or egg carton in cool dark place. Potatoes stored this way can keep for 3 months and check regularly for any disease. Otherwise boiled potatoes can be frozen and will keep for 6 months in the freezer.

Potato storage
Solanum tuberosum

Seed Collection & Storage
The potato fruit must be left to ferment (aka become rotten) on the plant – this usually means digging up the potatoes and leaving the plant to become a dry husk. The seeds are removed and cleaned. Pour enough water into the container to sort the seeds, bad ones float and good ones sink. You can allow the seeds to ferment (place in little water and allow to stand for about a week) this increases germination rate and helps with seed disease prevention. Then leave the seeds to dry for about 2 weeks on a sunny windowsill. The seeds are stored in glass bottles and properly labled.
I have not tried growing potato plants from seed yet, and it is apparently a bit challenging. The seeds is dormant immediately after collection and for immediate planting will require gibberellic acid treatment (this is a plant hormone involved in germination) – but no luck of this in my stores. Also, the plants grown from seed often do not carry a good crop.

Seeds are planted in soil of 18-27oC (65-80oF) and the germination percentage is variable. Even though, I am going to give the seeds I saved a try J

My Potatoes

Oh, dear! I do not actually have a ‘cultivar’. We couldn’t find anyone to supply seed potatoes to us (not unless you want 10kg worth!). So we left the shop-bought ones to chit (sprout eyes) and planted them in the garden, probably another reason why I don’t get 2kg of potatoes back from my plants. In the mean time we found another guy that sells seeds potatoes in 1kg bags – so I think I can cope with that J.

-Update 09 Feb 2013-

After some experimentation I have new information to share:

1) Potato seeds do not germinate, so rather use the tuber propagation method to get more potato plants
2) Potato tubers can be stimulated to produce shoots by adding a bit of water (1-2cm) in the bowl in the window sill (this even gets them going out of season!)
3) We some how got a red potato harvest as I do not remember planting any red tubers in the first place, but the plant seems to be better adapted to our hot climate and produces a decent crop. Also, the curl grubs do not like them - might be due to the pigment not being palatable (anthocyanin). The actual red potato plant has purple leaf veins and red striped on the stems.

Red Potatoes
Solanum tuberosum

-Update 30 Dec 2013-

If you are having problems with glassy potatoes check out the wonderful replies from the MyFolia community on the question I posted @ MyFolia


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