A sure-grow potato seed emerges on the market

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Something startlingly new is aut to hit the home-gardening market--potatoes that can be grown from seed just like those other members of the nightshade family, tomatoes and peppers.

Plant breeders have always grown potatoes from seed. It is the only way to develop new varieties. But it is always a long and arduous task.

Germination ranges from poor to impossible, and for every resulting seedling that yields a good crop of tubers, 99 yield a harvest that's not worth digging. But then, something happened under a rain-laden South American sky back in 1976.

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Several American plant scientists were scouring the countryside, looking for promising varieties of petunias, when they stumbled across a wild potato plant that looked, somewhat different from any they had previously seen. Instinct suggested that it had something new and different to offer the potato-growing world. It did.

Its seeds germinated readily and true. In other words, the seeds were genetically stable enough to reproduce in the seedling the same characteristics of the parent plant.

Five years have followed that accidental discovery during which testing, breeding, and cross-breeding have taken place to futher develop and stabilize the seed. Now Explorer potato seed, as it has been named, is being released onto the market. Seed merchants will sell packaged seed in 1982 and nurseries will make potato seedlings available just as they do tomatoes and other varieties.

Currently, 1 in 4 backyard gardeners are believed to grow potatoes. And these are grown the conventional way--from the eyes of tubers. Now, it is expected that the availability of seeds and seedlings will introduce potate-growing to a considerably wider range of home gardeners.

The Explorer potato is a midseason variety. Three months after setting out the young plants, they can be dug and a cluster of smallish tubers harvested for that "new potato" flavor--often the favorite way for home gardeners to eat the vegetable. If left in the ground until the vines die back, the potatoes will be considerably larger. The flesh is said to be a "creamy white and has a fresh, moist taste" when cooked.

If you have a suitable south-facing window or an appropriate space under fluoressent lights, start your potato seedlings indoors about 4 to 6 weeks before your last, expected frost. Start your seedlings in flats or individual containers. Spread the seed over a moist, well-drained soil mix and cover with about one-sixteenth of an inch of the same soil or with vermiculite. Gently water and keep moist until the seedlings germinate, generally in about 10 to 15 days, and often in two flushes.

Optmium germination takes place between 64 and 72 degrees F. Long exposure to temperatures above 75 degrees will destroy the partially germinated seed. When about a half-inch high, transplant the seedlings to individual containers.

When all frost danger has passed, set out the seedlings as you would conventional potato eyes; that is, in trenches about 10 inches deep. It is suggested that three seedlings be planted together (often as many as three stems will shoot up from one section of potato tuber) every 12 inches in rows 18 inches apart.

Keep filling in the trench as the potato plants grow, and thereafter keep hilling up around the growing plants. Always be sure to have at least 5 inches of stems showing above the soil so that there are enough leaves to keep feeding the developing tubers.

If you prefer to grow potatoes in mounds of leaves above the ground, plant your seedling as you would a pepper plant and mound up with shredde leaves and straw as the plant grows. Plant growth from the seedlings is somewhat less vigorous than from eyes in the early stages, but by midsummer there is no noticeable difference in plant size.

Potatoes grow best in light, well-drained soil that has been enriched with organic matter. Dig compost into the soil or use a balanced garden fertilizer. To increase tuber size, side-dress lightly with fertilizer once a month dutrig the growing season.

Developer of the Explorer potato was PanAmerican Seed Company and retail seed houses around the country are expected to carry the seed. One of the first to announce its intention of doing so is Herbst

Seeds, North Main Street, Brewster, N. Y. 10509.

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