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Did you watch, or better yet, read The Martian by Andy Weir? If you didn’t, the premise is an astronaut is stranded on Mars and survives for over a year. He happens to be a botanist and engineer, both attributes help him in his survival on a foreign planet. In the book, the astronaut has a few vegetables to choose from to grow for his survival and he quickly selects the potato.
Nowadays the potato gets a bad rap. This is mostly attributed to the fast food industry frying them in oil. While delicious, this does hurt their nutritional value and add several unhealthy components to an otherwise nutritious food. When you look at the potato by itself, it offers good nutrients, vitamins, and minerals — all of which are invaluable in a survival situation or just good overall health.
The potato is not a low-calorie food, which in a survival situation is a good thing. We all know caloric intake is essential during the strenuous events of a natural or manmade disaster and our starchy friend the potato aids in keeping your energy levels up. Spuds do lack sodium and fat, both of which can be added during the cooking process, so be sure you have a few salt packets in your bug-out bag.
Potatoes offer more potassium than a banana, which is something many people don’t realize. Potassium is a vital electrolyte that helps the body regulate water balance and healthy blood pressure. Both of these are important in emergency situations when dehydration is likely.
Carbs are your friend during difficult times and again, the potato is lush with them. Eating foods high in carbohydrates when you know you're going to be exerting yourself is a great way to have energy on tap when you need it most.
The potato isn’t going to offer the same protein level as a steak, but it does have a bit. So, if you get a chance to eat a squirrel while bugging out, be sure to get some supplemental protein when you can.
We all know that vitamin C is important to staying healthy and fighting off colds, so luckily a serving of taters has almost half of your recommended daily value. The potato also has noble amounts of niacin, thiamin, and vitamin B6 — all of which are beneficial for the heart.
Growing potatoes is relatively easy. The soil used for potatoes should be loamy and contain little rocks and clay to allow maximum expansion. I generally use a mixture of topsoil, organic compost, and peat moss. Potato plants should be started from certified disease-free seed potatoes. These are available at most garden stores and come in an abundance of varieties. I usually opt for Yukon golds, as they’re easy to grow and have higher a yield for their size; however, I also grow purple potatoes and russets in case one variety experiences any sort of problems during the season. Choose the varieties that are familiar to you and correspond to your cooking methods.
Once the seed potatoes are purchased, cut them into cubes that have at least two eyes — the eye is where the plant will sprout from. Place these cubes into shallow rows of dirt and cover with about 1 inch of soil, with the cut side down. Give them a good watering to saturate the area. As the plants grow you'll need to continue to put soil on top of them to encourage upward growth and block out sunlight from the roots. Allow the leaves to be exposed to a few inches on top until the container is completely full. Once full of soil, allow the plant to continue to grow, making sure to water adequately. It’s important that you water enough to reach the bottom of the container and don't allow it to dry out. Uneven watering will cause your potatoes to become misshapen and lumpy.
Potatoes can be grown practically anywhere and in almost any container. This year I have grown potatoes in two different places. One is the traditional raised bed (approximately 4-by-4-by-1 feet) and the other a plastic storage container (approximately 24-by-16-by-16 inches). Both containers start the same using the growing methods described previously.
The storage container is actually two containers stacked together. The inside container has large sections cut from the sides with drain holes drilled into the bottom. The outer container also has holes drilled in the bottom for proper drainage of excess water, so the plant does not drown during large amounts of rainfall. As the potatoes grow, dirt is piled on top until the container is full.
Once full, the tubers continue to grow below the soil for the rest of the season. The container growing method yielded over 6 pounds of potatoes or about 18 servings. The traditional method, in a raised bed, produced roughly 16 pounds or about 48 servings.
A variety of containers can be used for growing potatoes, including old tires, burlap sacks, or something as simple as a garbage can — you are limited by your imagination. One of the benefits to the container growing method is that you now have mobility. If you find yourself needing to bug out and you have time, you can take your portable garden with you. One may also consider incorporating this into your bug-out plan and have extra garden materials staged at your bug-out location to continue growth. I would suggest staging the containers close to your parking spot if possible because a container full of dirt can be fairly heavy to move on your own.
Potatoes are relatively easy to grow in comparison to other garden plants, but they do have a few problems to be aware of. Pests, such as the potato beetle, may plague your plants. Physical removal of the beetle will help. Shake the plant early in the morning and kill all insects that fall off. For the container planting method, move the container away from the area once all insects have been removed. Diatomaceous earth can help keep insects away and kill the few that remain. Simply dust the plant, including the underside of leaves, and continue this process regularly.
Blight is another enemy of the potato and responsible for the Irish Potato Famine. It can be a serious problem for your plants. Blight is spread by the wind. Leaf tips will turn brown and wilt, spores form, and wind carries them to any nearby plants. Blight spores can also sink into the soil and infect your tubers, destroying them. The best way to prevent blight is to choose blight-resistant varieties to grow, also give adequate spacing to your plants in the event that one becomes infected.
Once your hard work has yielded a crop, storing your precious spuds is easy. Potatoes need a dark storage area with ventilation and some humidity. Tubers exposed to light will turn green and quickly become toxic. Never eat a green potato, it can cause severe nausea accompanied with diarrhea and vomiting, both of which are extremely hazardous in a survival situation and will lead to dehydration. Humidity is important, as the majority of the potato is water. Generally 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit (7 to 13 degrees C) is adequate; however, storage at temperatures above this with no light can affect the color of the potatoes, making them gray or brown depending on the variety. They will still be safe for consumption, but will lose some of their weight and nutritional value.
Root cellars are the obvious ideal conditions for storage, although not everyone has access to those or will if bugging out. If you have used a mobile container garden, your bounty can be stored under the soil, it will be cool, light free, and relatively moist. Potatoes can also be stored under a sink or in a cupboard, in a bowl, or a perforated bag. The bag will provide more humidity and keep the potatoes from experiencing weight loss. Harvested potatoes do not need to be rinsed off prior to storage and leaving the dirt on will not hurt the vegetable.
Potatoes have been a staple for human diets since the 16th century. The relative ease of growing and cultivation made the crop an excellent choice for early farming techniques. The nutritional value and benefits of potatoes make them a good choice to be a part of your survival plans. The nature of potatoes allows them to be prepared in a variety of ways with different resources. Typically this is a familiar food for the young and old and can be a welcomed comfort in harsh times.
Potatoes can be cooked in a variety of ways. Whether you're on the move, made it to your bug-out spot, or stayed put, you have several options for preparing potatoes for consumption. Here are some ideas for making your spuds palatable.
Fire baked potatoes: Wrap potato in aluminum foil and place in hot coals of a fire. Rotate the potatoes every 10 minutes; they should cook in 40 to 50 minutes. Be sure to poke a few holes in the potato with a knife or fork so they don't explode when cooking.
Survival chips: Thinly slice potatoes and pat dry to remove water. Heat an oil or fat and carefully place the potatoes in the pan. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until crispy, flipping the slices at least once for even cooking.
Grilled fries: Cut potato into even wedges and grill over medium-high heat. Be sure and season with salt or other spices.
Dehydrated crisps: If electricity is available, potatoes can be dehydrated. Dehydrated potatoes can be eaten as they are or used in soups. Slice the potatoes into approximately 3/8-inch pieces and blanch them, dry them thoroughly, then sprinkle with desired seasonings. Follow your dehydrator's settings for vegetables. Once they are completely dry, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
Boiled potato mush: Start by peeling the potatoes (the skins can be used as bait for critters). Place the peeled spuds in a pot of boiling salted water. Boiling potatoes makes them soft and easy to eat. Boiled potatoes can be kept in a plastic bag and eaten while moving and you can drink the starch water. To make them more flavorful, be sure to keep salt, pepper, and your other favorite spices in your survival kit.
Alexander Crown served as an Infantryman with the Scout/Sniper Platoon of the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Ft. Richardson, Alaska, where he specialized in radio communications and reconnaissance. Since separating, Alexander spends his time as an avid outdoorsman and hunter with an appreciation for self-sufficiency in the form of gardening. He also enjoys woodworking, firearms, and reloading. You can follow him on Instagram @acrown509.