The Lost Art of Potato Breeding
Rebsie Fairholm
Skylight Press, 2013
illustrated, 163pp

The one time I tried to grow potatoes, I failed so miserably I thought we’d have to emigrate back to Ireland. (An old joke of mine, forgive me if you’ve heard it.)

In her marvelous book, The Lost Art of Potato Breeding, Rebsie Fairholm makes not only growing them, but “inventing” them extremely appealing. She reminds us that “potatoes are the fourth biggest crop in the world — the largest non-cereal crop. In the Andes, where potatoes originally came from, there are 4,235 known varieties of cultivated potato, and the diversity is mind-blowing,” she writes. “Andean potatoes come in bright scarlets, crimsons, deep blues and jet blacks, lavender, carmine pink, golden yellow, orange. Often these colors are combined together in streaks, flashes, patches, swirls, zones and stripes.”

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What a party! And the flowers are gorgeous. I could live on potatoes, even if I can’t grow them, though they are said to do well (by far better gardeners than I) in the Rocky Mountains and the foothills. And ’tis the season. They’re showing up at all the farmers markets now.

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Potatoes are nutritious, high in protein and Vitamin C, with good amounts of potassium to boot. The Lost Art of Potato Breeding spells out everything you’d want to know about the potato from its noble history to its genetic make up, complete with illustrations that make this a thorough how-to.

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The book gives us technical specifics, so that, as Fairholm notes, like our ancestors, we amateur gardeners can produce potatoes that are tasty, colorful, and far superior to commercial spuds (of which there seem only to be about three varieties in the United States).

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Erudite and charmingly written chapters include “Potato breeding: why bother?” “How potatoes work”; “Hand-pollination: the practical bits”; Rarities and Curios.” Fairholm is bold in her convictions and artistry, as well as bravely experimental. No shrinking tuber, she.

She’s more than merely a potato grower, if that can be said to be mere. She is a full-on practitioner of what Peter Lamborn Wilson called “avant gardening.” Check out her terrific blog — “Daughter of the Soil,” http://www.daughterofthesoil.com/.

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I’m almost persuaded to try again. But until I work up the courage, I may have to hand multiple copies of this book to farmers in hopes I’ll find Fairholm’s beauties at next year’s markets.

“The focus of modern plant breeding is on biotechnology, high-input agriculture, variety rights, patents and the needs of large-scale commercial growers,” Fairholm wisely writes, “very little work is being done to develop crops for home gardens or for organic cultivation, or for the public domain. What’s needed is for more gardeners to join in the effort to reclaim our genepool heritage, to conserve existing varieties and create new ones, and to save and share seeds.”

Yes, indeed.

Skylight Press — http://www.skylightpress.co.uk/

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