In the Andy Weir novel, The Martian — which was made into the movie of the same name starring Matt Damon — the main character, Mark Watney, is stranded on Mars for months. When his supply of packaged food runs out, he grows and eats only potatoes for several weeks and is able to survive until his rescue.
Potatoes may be the ultimate urban survival crop. Although they lack certain key nutrients (such as healthy fats) for long-term health, they are rich in carbohydrates, protein, and nucleic acid. What’s more is that potatoes are easy to grow, they can handle a variety of soil conditions and climates, they store well, and they can be prepared in many ways.
Potatoes rank as the world’s fourth food staple – after wheat, corn, and rice. Let’s look more closely at why you should be planting and harvesting potatoes this year.
1. Potatoes are Nutritious
According to Potatoes USA, one medium (5.3-ounce) potato with its skin on has 110 calories, 26 grams of carbohydrates and three grams of protein. It is an excellent source of potassium and has 27 milligrams of Vitamin C, which is nearly half a day’s requirement. A plain potato contains no sodium, fats or cholesterol.
Agricultural researchers have identified 60 different phytochemicals in the skins and flesh of many varieties of potatoes. They also contain high amounts of other important antioxidants and nutrients, such as phenolic compounds, folic acid, quercetin, and kukoamines.
Potatoes are classified as vegetables but since they contain starch (carbohydrates), they are more like rice, pasta or bread in terms of their nutrition. Since certain nutrients – such a vitamins A, D, E and K — are fat-soluble, combining a potato-only diet with milk, butter or another source of fat would hit most basic nutritional requirements for sustenance.
2. Potatoes Grow Well in Many Climates and Soil Types
The potato is native to South America, but explorers, including Christopher Columbus, brought potatoes back home with them to Europe in the 15th century. Since then, the plants have thrived in many different climates and soil types throughout the world.
The potato is part of the Solanaceae or nightshade family of plants, which also includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and tomatillos. A potato is the swollen part, or tuber, of the underground stem, which provides food for the rest of the plant. If a potato is allowed to flower, it will bear an inedible fruit that looks something like a tomato.
The potato became a dominant crop in Ireland as poor farmers found them to be inexpensive and easy to grow. The Irish population grew to be so dependent on potatoes, in fact, that widespread starvation occurred in Ireland between 1845 and 1849 when the potato crops failed.
Late blight, a disease that destroys the leaves and the tubers of the potato plant, caused the crop failures.
Today, China is the world’s largest potato grower, followed by India, Russia, and Ukraine. The United States ranks as the fifth largest potato grower in the world. Ireland is not even among the world’s top 25 potato producers.
Potatoes account for nearly 15 percent of farm vegetable sales in the U.S. Of the harvested crop, about half are processed into chips, as animal feed, or as starch. Idaho and Washington grow about 50 percent of the total American potato harvest.
Speaking of soil types, check out this detailed guide to soil.
3. Potatoes are Easy to Grow
Did you know that the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in outer space when potato seeds were germinated on the Columbia space shuttle in 1995?
What makes potatoes particularly valuable as a survival crop is that you can you can grow new potatoes from old ones. That is, you can plant seed potatoes whole or cut into wedges that contain eyes.
Cure cut pieces by spreading them out in a bright, airy location for about 24 hours or until they are slightly dry and the cut areas are no longer soft.
Potatoes need sunshine and fertile, well-drained soil. They prefer slightly acid soil with a PH of 5 to 7, but they are adaptable and will produce harvest even when soil and climate conditions are less than perfect
You can plant in early spring as soon as you can work the soil, but keep in mind that plant growth will not begin until the soil’s temperature has reached at least 45 degrees F. The planting soil should be moist but not overly wet. Plant potato pieces six inches apart, covering them with four to five inches of soil.
Potatoes can tolerate a light frost, but provide protection if a hard, late season freeze is predicted. If you have a long growing season, you can plant a second potato crop as late as June 15 for harvest in early fall.
You can grow potatoes no matter where you live. Depending on how much space you have, you can use hilly areas, mulch mounds or large containers such as barrels. Here’s a video that demonstrates potato container gardening.
4. Potatoes Store Well
Another advantage of potatoes as a survival food is that you can keep them in a root cellar for up to six months.
If you do not have a root cellar, a basement or cool, dark closet are possible alternatives. You’ll want to store potatoes in a dark, dry place that maintains a temperature between 45 degrees F and 50 degrees F. Higher temperatures cause potatoes to sprout and to dehydrate prematurely, and exposure to sunlight can cause the toxic alkaloid solanine to form on the potatoes.
Here are a few other storage precautions:
- Do not store potatoes in the refrigerator. The cold temperatures will cause the starch content to turn to sugar, spoiling their taste.
- Potatoes do not freeze well.
- Do not store potatoes close to your onions, since the gases each emit will cause degradation and spoiling.
- Do store potatoes in a paper bag or a burlap bag.
- Check on potatoes often, removing any spuds that have sprouted, shriveled or spoiled before the damage spreads to the others.
Here are some tips for storing potatoes.
5. Potatoes Can Be Prepared in a Variety of Ways
Potatoes often get a bad rap as an unhealthy or fatty food, since they are commonly consumed as French fries or potato chips. However, there are many ways to prepare potatoes that are healthy and nutritious. In a survival scenario, the versatility of the potato would certainly come in handy.
Potatoes are a natural choice for urban survival gardening and preparedness. As you make your spring gardening plans, be sure to include them.
To learn more, check out these 15 ways to grow potatoes.