By Glenn I. Teves, County Extension Agent
Recent studies on food security in Hawaii indicate that we don’t grow enough starches to feed ourselves, and carbohydrates are critical to our survival living in the middle of the Pacific. One overlooked crop is the Irish potato. Not new to Hawaii, the Irish potato was grown on Molokai during World War II; in the mid-1970s by Marvin Berry in the Ag Park; and more recently by Duane Craney in the old alfalfa field. And Molokai can surely grow them big. Some of Duane’s lunkers were almost a foot long and looked like clubs. The potatoes were so large that they couldn’t fit into the chipping machines and he lost the Frito-Lay contract.
Potatoes are a native of South America, and a member of the tomato family. Growing potatoes takes seeds and timing. Buying seed potatoes can be costly if buying in small amounts, but there are many internet sources, and most are certified to be disease-free or even organic. I don’t recommend planting potatoes found in bags at the store. There are many diseases that can be carried in the potato, including viruses, bacteria, and fungus, and can be introduced to your ground.
There are times of the year when minimal water is required to grow them, and they can also handle poor and acid soil, which makes them so versatile. Cold and wet weather over extended periods can produce potato late blight, a devastating fungus that can melt the plant away and spoil the tubers. This disease caused the great potato famine in Ireland in the late 1840s, killing over one million people and forcing many to emigrate to America and elsewhere. Ideal conditions for this disease occur from November to February. Two good times to start planting would be March and later, and also late summer in August so you can harvest before the bad weather.
Each seed potato should have at least one eye, but I like to go with two. These are planted in a furrow about 1 foot apart. One pound of seed is sufficient for about 10 feet of row. Fertilizing at planting or when the eyes start to sprout with fertilizers such as 10-30-10 or 10-20-20 seems to work well, and I also fertilize a little when I hill them. If you’re serious about planting potatoes, do a soil sample. The plant needs to be hilled when they start to send out little spears from the main stem. These are stolons where the potatoes will form on the tips, and will need to be covered in order to form potatoes.
Potatoes are classified as early, mid, and late season. The later the variety, the greater the potential yield. There are many good varieties to grow, including whites, reds, russets, and yellows or even novelties such as purple, pink, red and two-tones. Some of my favorites include Red LaSoda, Dark Red Norland, Yukon Gold, Red Dale, and Chieftain, but it really comes down to what seed you can get your hands on. Keeping the small ones for seed next season is a good idea. To avoid build-up of soil-borne diseases, don’t plant in the same area for a year. Eat them fast or store them in a cool place, otherwise they’ll start to sprout from the heat. And nothing beats freshly grated Yukon Gold hash browns for breakfast.