FAQ: True Potato Seed for the Apocalypse

Periodically, I get lots of questions about true potato seeds as an insurance policy against some sort of failure of the agricultural or food delivery system.  The reasoning is straightforward enough: potato tubers don’t keep indefinitely and they take up a lot of space.  True potato seeds last much longer and require very little space.  So, if you don’t grow your own food now, but think you might suddenly need to in the future, TPS could be useful.  I’ve answered these questions repeatedly by email and I’ve decided that I would rather have something published that I can point to than recapitulate every time.  For the record, I don’t really like to recommend that people buy lots of seeds to keep on a shelf.  I’m definitely in favor of people growing at least some of their own food, but I have my doubts about how well that would work without any practice.  It would be better if you got some experience growing potatoes from seed first if you have never tried it.  I would much rather sell you seeds that you are actually going to grow and have some fun with than store in a box somewhere.  If you were to grow potatoes from TPS, then you would have a start on local adaptation that would serve you better if you suddenly needed to produce more of your own food.  You would also be developing the skills necessary to produce a good crop if you need to.  Growing potatoes from seed can be a great hobby even if the apocalypse fails to deliver.

The main thing to keep in mind with true potato seed is that it doesn’t grow true.  So, you are going to get some plants that produce really well, some that produce nothing, and a lot of in between.  If I imagine a scenario where food is scarce and I needed to grow potatoes to feed myself, I would rather be a year into the process, having selected the better varieties from seed so that I could plant those out at a larger scale.  It is also cheaper.  You could buy a single packet of seeds this year, grow them, and save your own seeds for storage, rather than a large amount of seeds that you might never use.  That won’t work in every climate, but it would in a lot of places where potatoes grow well.  But, I understand the reason why people are interested in TPS for long term storage – there is just no way to store potato tubers for more than a season.

How long does true potato seed last and what are the best ways to store it?

At room temperature, about 70 degrees F, true potato seeds retain high germination for about five years.  You can greatly extend storage life just by reducing the temperature.  In gene banks, seeds stored at freezer temperature (about 0 degrees F) routinely retain high germination for 50 years or more.  If you want to maximize storage life, put your true potato seeds in an airtight container with a similar weight of silica desiccant and freeze.  You don’t need to get anything fancy or expensive.  The plastic bags that we ship seeds in will work fine.  The seeds will probably last longer than you.

Which potato seeds produce the most food?

This is not an easy question to answer, as it partly depends on your climate and latitude, but our wide tetraploid mix will generally be the best producer.  If you are in an area with mild or frost free winters, then you might also want to consider our wide diploid mix, because some of the plants will yield earlier and you may also be able to grow more than one crop back to back.

Which potato seeds are the safest?

It is true that some potatoes have higher glycoalkaloid content than others and you are more likely to find bitter potatoes when growing from seed.  That said, the odds that you will find bitter and dangerously poisonous potatoes from any domesticated TPS are very small.  Don’t keep or eat bitter potatoes and you’ll be fine.  Don’t feed potatoes that you have grown from seed to small children until you have tasted them first.

Can you grow true potato seeds without lights?

Sure.  The sun will do the job.  It just isn’t ideal for timing for an early crop.  If you need to start TPS without lights, wait until the overnight temperature rises reliably above 45 degrees F.  Start your seeds in a sheltered location with full sun exposure.  Your results probably won’t be as good as they would under lights and you will be more vulnerable to pests.  Sow twice as much seed as you would indoors and you will probably make out fine.  I have started plenty of TPS outdoors, but I have to wait until June for the nights to be warm enough.

How much potato seed would I need to plant an acre?

That depends on your planting density and the efficiency of your seed starting method.  If you figure in-row spacing of 1 foot and between-row spacing of three feet, which would be suitable for hand cultivation or a small tractor, then that would be 14,520 plants per acre.  Most of our TPS mixes germinate in the vicinity of 80% under controlled conditions, indoors.  You might get more like 50% under more difficult starting conditions.  There are about 1,100 true potato seeds per gram, so you would need somewhere between 16 and 26 grams of TPS per acre.  A full acre of potatoes grown from seed would be a lot of work though and probably not something an individual could pull off.  It would be more sensible to grow 1/10th that much and then plant a full acre with the tubers produced in that first generation.  I do offer bulk packets of 1 and 5 grams for some of our TPS mixes.

How much true potato seed would feed a family of four for a year?

This question is virtually impossible to answer, since so many factors need to be taken into account.  I’ll just give you some basic numbers and let you work it out.  Potatoes have about 350 calories per pound.  Large scale plantings on average ground without amendments tend to yield about a pound per plant.  A family of four (let’s assume that the kids are older and consuming adult amounts) needs probably something like 7,000 calories per day.  That is 20 pounds of potatoes per day, so 20 plants per day.  That requires 7,300 plants for the year, about half an acre.  This does not take into account pests, diseases, unfavorable weather, incompetence, or sheer bad luck.  With some experience, you can optimize things and do a little better, but your first time out, you will probably do worse.

So, there you have it.  Hopefully, none of us will ever need to put these answers to the test.

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