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Why we love potato seeds | New World Seeds & Tubers

“Seed potatoes” aren’t seeds; they’re tubers. I’m talking about seeds, not tubers. You can grow some of our potatoes from seed rather like a tomato.

There are a few differences worth mentioning: potato seeds are smaller than tomato seeds, and produce smaller seedlings. Potatoes also have naturally lower germination rates than tomatoes, because they haven’t been artificially selected for immediate germination as tomatoes have.

Why would anybody bother coddling potato seedlings, when it’s so easy to just divide up a tuber to grow more potatoes? The answer is that planting is only one part of the difficulty of growing and maintaining a supply of potatoes. The good news is potatoes are overall an easy crop. But as with many good things there’s a catch: they’re disease-prone.

In fact, I (Rob) was so worried about disease, that when so many of my friends said that I just had to grow potatoes as part of a bigger plan to secure some food resources, I resisted. The potatoes I had grown before meeting Tom were weak, chronically chlorotic, and prone to disease.

Tom brought over some potatoes for me to try the day we met. I got my first big surprise when, to try to squeeze as many hills as possible out of them, cut them into pieces and did a double-take when I saw the flesh colors of 3 of the potatoes he brought over. One was a yellow so deep it looked like a sweet potato, and two were almost black-purple.

But the next big surprise was when they grew. One grew taller than I am (and I’m a big boy), and all of them were fairly big bushy vigorous plants.

It’s not my backyard soil, which is a sour, nutrient-poor sandy loam sadly lacking in humus. The secret is that Tom regularly grows potatoes from seed. As a result, they don’t accumulate viruses. Some of them have hybrid vigor too but that’s beside the point.

Not only does seed not accumulate viruses, but Tom cleans it pretty thoroughly. You can’t clean tubers that well, with the result that the tubers themselves can be disease vectors. The growers try to clean them up but the fields themselves get full of disease.

The way to clean up the fields is not to grow any Solanaceous crops again until the diseases thin out for lack of hosts. But if you’re saving tubers from year to year, how are you supposed to keep the tubers alive while they’re waiting for their next turn in the fields? If you’re a big operation you could move the potatoes to a new field, but if you don’t have much land, you probably simply have to buy new potatoes after the hiatus.

Potato seed simplifies the matter. Not only can you rotate potatoes in and out of a small field, but you can store them just as well for any other reason in a handy, compact form that survives for years. This point had not occurred to me until I started personally trying to help manage the logistics of tuber storage. Imagine if some disaster befell your stored tubers. If that’s all you had, a disaster. If on the other hand you had potato seeds backed up in tough air-tight packaging, it would be like having insurance on your potatoes.

Potato seeds are not only easier to store, but easier to transport than tubers. These facts also cut down dramatically on storage and shipping costs.

Potato field

Potato field nestled in the upper Skagit Valley

Is it worth mentioning a fringe-benefit of seed?

Potatoes that produce seed necessarily produce flowers, unlike most commercial varieties that are virtually sterile. Potato “vines” that bloom are surprisingly ornamental.

What about the drawbacks of seed? It turns out they are fairly negligible compared to the benefits. One of the first one that comes up is not really even a drawback, it’s just a deviation from expectations. People expect potatoes to be clones.

The problem is that being a clone does not guarantee that the variety will remain the same year after year after year; after a while it will be full of viruses and will need to be de-virused.

Another problem is that keeping varieties static is not entirely a blessing. Diseases undergo natural selection for overcoming our weapons against them. Crops that don’t undergo selective forces start to lose the arms race against disease.  Even after you devirus very old varieties you notice they still seem to be disease-prone.

If you think about it many crops are seed-raised and out-breeding. People don’t expect squashes for example to be perfectly uniform. Sometimes they tolerate and even make good use of accidental crosses. So if you grow potatoes from seed you just expect some variation, and do some roguing out. You lose predictability and uniformity but gain the opportunity to select for top quality and vigor.

What about the greater effort needed to raise the seedlings? The only significant drawback here is the infrastructure needed to shelter them. The good news is that relative to the size of the crop they don’t need a huge amount of greenhouse or windowsill space, and they don’t need it for a long time. The time factor isn’t a particularly big deal since they catch up to tuber divisions surprisingly fast. Seed to tubers in a single growing season. The time added to the production cycle is more than compensated by making it possible to grow out faster than by division of tubers.

Tubers have their place, which is why we carry them. Sometimes predictability is an over-riding consideration. Many people will not have the time, facility, or patience for growing out seeds. But the people who buy tubers Tom has raised recently from seed gain some of the benefits of seed-grown potatoes, without having had to raise seedlings.

In the future we might offer a product that combines some of the benefits of seed and tubers: mini-tubers raised from seed. Even easier than full-sized tubers because no need for dividing, with the vigor of seedlings. Not quite the compactness of seed, but you’ll get more plants than from the same weight of full-sized tubers.

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