Potatoes and Tomatoes– Unlikely Cures for Monotony

Get ready to freak out-- purple potatoes are coming your way

I don’t think even the most faithful of my readers can handle the second part of “The horror. . . the horror. . .” without something innocuous inserted between the two. And what could be more innocuous than potatoes and tomatoes? (Just don’t eat any of the green bits on the potatoes). So, since returning to Vientiane from my land, and having been trapped here due to Hyundai’s snail-paced efforts to provide me with plates (registration) for my truck, which is needed to go to Thailand, I have been bored out of my mind. Okay, if I had some money, I would go back to the land and get more done, but I won’t be getting my summer bonus for a few more days, so I have been and continue to be almost completely broke. But I do have an internet connection and a roof over my head, so I’ve been learning about loads of neat things such as wicking beds and growing potatoes from “TPS,” or True Potato Seed.

In Laos and Thailand you can get this potato, or this potato, and even this potato

Normally, when you plant potatoes, you buy seed potatoes (not potato seeds) or use some old potatoes you bought somewhere and cut them into pieces so that they all have “eyes.” My initial thought was, surely, one could just plant potato seeds. Ha! You think, you caught me with my ignorance pants down! Well, yes and no. I should point out that this is a logistical matter for me. I want to grow a variety of potatoes, and, as those of you who live in Thailand or Laos know, there is no such thing as a variety of potatoes here. There is only the ubiquitous all-purpose potato. Not a bad potato, by any means. But unlike the lettuce seeds I just had sent to me through the post thanks to my poor father who already must think I’m insane, asking him to send me actual, living potatoes of varying characteristics didn’t seem practical, and it probably would have got me written out of his will. So, yes, I knew nothing about potatoes, but no, there is a vibrant community of people breeding potatoes and growing them from seed, and seeds are, happily, quite available.

Their availability is partially due to the persistent work of a breeder named Tom Wagner. Stolen from somewhere: “He sees so much of modern plant breeding as the domain of technology, constricted by proprietary information and genetic modification and seeds that can’t be propagated for public use. For himself, he’d rather leave shared knowledge and ‘a legacy of helping each other.'” And from another source:

Right now, with our commercial varieties, which are propagated by tissue culture in laboratories, we are at a bottleneck of genetic susceptibility.  If you save true potato seed, on the other hand, you are preserving the ancient diversity of the potato.

Eighty-three percent of modern potato varieties have a sterility problem.  Most of them are not self-fertile like tomatoes.  Many of them don’t produce much in the way of flowers or fruit.  After years of breeding for good flower production, I’ve gotten more free-blooming varieties.  I’ve had 353 berries on a single plant. You could plant five acres of potatoes out of that single plant!  If you save potato seed, you are prepaying for the future.  You can put the seed away, and it will keep for 20 years.

I also like this description of him: “. . . a man obsessed with producing ever-better varieties of tomatoes (‘maters’) and potatoes (‘taters’), whose bookcase holds binders with some 50 years of careful notes on hybridization and disease resistance, whose bathtub is full of potatoes, who has sneaked a few breeding experiments past his wife onto the extended testing ground of their back balcony. (Even after nearly four decades of marriage, he says, ‘She still kind of hates me doing this. This is like a mistress to her.’)”

Topsy Tom, a good tomato for growing upside down

And this extremely busy guy is actually helping me choose potato varieties suitable to the microclimate of the Bolaven Plateau. Wow! He and others on his forum are also helping me choose some tomato varieties that may grow well upside down. Tom suggests the Topsy Tom which was bred specifically for being grown upside down (but surprisingly not by Tom). What I need now is a purple/blue potato, a red potato, and a normal sort of potato particularly suited to becoming a tasty chip. So, Wrong Way Cafe customers, be prepared for red, white, and blue chips. Yes, I’ll be smuggling them from my farm into Thailand. You’ll also be able to buy them, along with a wide variety of salad lettuces and tomatoes, right at Wrong Way. No pesticides or any other chemicals. “Wrong Way Farms, the Future of Sustainable, Natural Farming.” Catchy?

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3 Responses to Potatoes and Tomatoes– Unlikely Cures for Monotony

  1. Tom W says:

    Thanks for such a great article! Anyway I can help with selecting types of tomatoes or potatoes to plant in the Bolaven Plateau….of course! I have lots of tomatoes and potatoes that have gone through the filter of adapting to tropical climates before being used in my breeding efforts.

    For potatoes having TPS…true potato seed…possessing late blight resistance, bacterial wilt resistance and a broad spectrum tolerance to all kinds of virus would be great. Having Pink Rot resistance would be a plus considering the high rainfall. Growing a variety of potatoes from TPS first…just to see which ones work and then saving more seed from the berries would foster even more fine tuning.

    Tomatoes with early and late blight resistance would be a start in the right direction. Time will tell.

    Tom Wagner

    • richard says:

      Hello Tom,

      Glad you took a look at my website. I’ve sort of decided on my own the varieties that I’ll play with first, unless you feel they are not suitable to my climate.

      Potatoes: October Blue, Skagit Beet Red, and Skagit Valley Gold
      Tomatoes: Bloody Butcher, Topsy Tom or equivalent

      I’d like to order these seeds from you, but your seed website won’t allow me access, even though I’ve answered the “I’m not a robot” questions correctly. If you give me the ordering information, I’ll have my dad in Massachusetts order them. He can forward the seeds to me.

  2. Chris says:

    As always, it’s nice to follow the Boloven Aquaponics Adventure, looks like you’ve moved forward re. picking seeds to plant… which I haven’t 😉
    I’ll be looking at the forum you mentioned as I’ll be filling my fish tanks (1700 + 700 liters) and planting seedlings in a couple of weeks.
    I’ll definitely be visiting tom’s web site and shop for seeds (which I’ll plant in a 6m wooden boat which used to sail the Mekong), which crops would you plant in August in Vientiane which is about 10C warmer than Paksong?

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