The Potato Museum

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Growing: Planting, Digging, Potato Beetles, Late Blight and the Irish Potato Famine

Planting Potatoes

  • Peruvian Couple Planting Potatoes: ceramic model
  • Seed Potato Planting Device, Netherlands, mid 20th century
  • Belgian Family Planting Potatoes, 1917 watercolor
  • "How to Drop a Potato" late 19th century
  • Belgian Father and Daughter Planting Potatoes, bronze medal, 1919
  • Swedish Couple Planting Potatoes, postage stamp
  • "Potato planting" by J.F. Millet, French artist, 19th century
  • Potato planting system, USA, 19th century
  • Advertisement for potato planting tool, USA, 19th ct.
  • "First Potato Planting on the Homestead", John Neufeld, sculptor
  • "Potato Planting" (1884), Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890
  • Photo showing a woman sitting on an early 20th century potato planting machine.
  • Diagram shows how mechanical potato planters work, early 20th ct.
  • Comic post card, 1930's USA
  • "What well planted potatoes should look like"....19th century, USA
  • Modern 6 row potato planting machine
  • Preparing a Sloping Potato Field Prior to Planting

About Potato Planting

Potato Planting

"It was a hot spring day. The seven planters were sweating already. As the old tinker said, it was far too hot a day for working; they ought to have been fast asleep under some trees where it was shady and cool. A white heat-haze hung on the hills. The sun was like a huge marigolds in the blue sky right above their heads. Away on the far side of the field one of the tractors was droning. The potatoes fell with little thuds into the hot, dry earth where spiders scurried among the grains of the potato manure like cooking salt. The planters move slowly down the field, repeating their mechanical movements below the fiery sun that stung their necks. The old Tinker filled their sack aprons with the big potatoes as quickly as he could." ---from The Potato Planters and the Old Joiner's Funeral by Ian Hamilton Finlay

Planting is an act of faith in the future, one of the more pleasing ones we know. It is a ritual of careful preparation, precise steps taken at the right time, whether the planting is done by hand or machine.

We recall the fancy footwork of a Dutchman we met in the north of Holland where the main potato crop is grown for industrial use. We asked him to demonstrate for us a wraparound seed bag, for want of a better word, worn over the shoulders and around the back at the waist. He wasn't sure he could remember how. The farmer walked down the row, making a hole for the spud with one foot, dropping in the potato, and tamping dirt down over the earth over the potato with the other foot as he moved rhythmically across the field. He took the potatoes with alternating hands. Delighted that his feet and hands had remembered what his mind had almost forgotten, he told us he had not used the planting bag in about 40 years.

Farmers have come up with hundreds of ingenious devices to aid in planting, baskets attached to tubes, cones and funnels. Foot operated planters from the Acme company. Spades called spuds and dibbles which vary from region to region and country to country. And, of course, machines.

At a handsome Water Mill, Long Island New York USA data form we visited one cloudy day years ago, it was one man, machine and faithful hound. The dog trotted along close behind a four row mechanical planter moving up and down the rows as his master monitored the seed potato cylinders at the rear. "Oh yes," said the former, "he's part of the team. And when he gets tired he rides in the cab."

Potato Planting and the Stars

Science And Folklore Converge In Andean Weather Forecasts Based On The Stars By Kurt Sternlof

"Toward the end of every June, indigenous farmers in the high Andes of Bolivia and Peru look to the stars for a hint of what the weather holds six months down the road. If the 11-star constellation known as the Pleiades appears bright and clear in the pre-dawn sky, they anticipate early, abundant rains and a bountiful potato crop. If the stars appear dim, however, they expect a smaller harvest and delay planting in order to reduce the adverse impact of late and meager precipitation.

In a paper published in the Jan. 6 issue of Nature, a team of scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory examine this centuries-old practice to reveal the science behind the folklore. Not only does the technique work reasonably well, it turns out that the farmers have in effect been forecasting El Nino for at least 400 years, a capability modern science achieved less than 20 years ago."  

Potato Digging

  • "Digging Potatoes" engraving by Clare Leighton, 1935.
  • Aroostook (Maine, USA) Potato Harvest by N.C. Wyeth
  • Horse Drawn Potato Harvest Sled, Colorado, 1930s
  • Mechanical Potato Digger, Netherlands, 1970's

Potato Digging in October


Our potato crop waits to be dug. As I fork up a root and scrape a potato with my fingernail the skin slips off. All around us work shouts to be done. We have no time now for quiet enjoyment of our garden, for the first frosts and the autumn rains will soon be upon us, checking our digging and planting.

We enjoy digging our potatoes. It is the big treasure hunt of the year, evenmore exciting than searching for the fruit in the tangle of straw round the strawberry plants. The excitement lies in the anticipation we feel each time we stick the fork into the ground. How many potatoes will there be beneath this plant? This anticipation never tires, even after rows of digging. Here is all the mystery of an unknown, invisible harvest. We can see the extent of our peas and beans, and we know that each green-leafed parsnip top will have a corresponding root below, but who can tell how many potatoes huddle beneath the plant that we see above the ground? As my fork brings up the cool, moist potatoes, I lay them out in the sun to dry. They look beautiful as they lie on the earth in creamy rows. The limp, fading haulms curve away from them by their side in regular lines. Minute, undeveloped potatoes cling to the tendril roots of the plants, smooth of skin and fresh of colour in contrast with the decay of the aged seed potato.

By Clare Leighton in Four Hedges: A Gardener's Chronicle 

Potato Beetle

  • Charles Riley published the first book about the potato beetle in 1876. This is London edition published a year later.
  • German potato bug poster, 1950's.
  • Cartoon showing a grateful German king honoring the potato beetle with the iron cross for having destroyed enemy (French) potato crops during the first world war.
  • German booklet, late 1930's instructing the public especially school children how to battle the potato beetle.
  • Cartoon battle between attaching beetles and fleeing potatoes. This illustration was published in the booklet above to instruct children about the pest.
  • German schoolchildren being taught about the potato beetle. Note the poster on the wall.
  • German children walking the potato fields searching for beetles. Note the boy second from left wearing the brown shirt of HitlerYouth.
  • Potato beetles were handpicked off the foliage and killed in collecting bottles.
  • The potato beetle is a decorative depicted on postage stamps.

A Social and Natural History of the Colorado Potato Beetle




"Man is bigger than the potato bug and he will master it."--Horace Greeley


Advertising trade card from Salem, Massachusetts, circa 1890's, featuring the potato beetle.


What Horace, who is mastering whom here? The potato bug remains among us, subdued but hardly mastered. From the bug's point of view, what a success story! Shadowy beginnings in the American plains (though increasingly researchers are discovering the bug may have originated in Mexico and Central America) featured rapid triumphant mass migrations eastward from the 1800s to the present day. A half-inch long yellow and black striped traveler is now touring the outer reaches of Siberia.

Thomas Say

Colorado potato beetle or potato bug was first described under the scientific name of Doryphora decemlineata, in the year 1824 by Thomas Say, who was a naturalist exploring the Rocky Mountains.

Unlike its colleague in devastation, the desert locust, the Colorado beetle or Leptinotarsa decemlineata Say changes its habitat. As noted by a 1975 document put out by the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, the beetle is "constantly moving into fresh areas, crossing international borders, and therefore to some extent catching the authorities off guard." The bug also adapts, as all good insects do. Its ability to survive what the chemical industry throws at it, over time, is remarkable.

From the beginning the beetle has elicited respect, even affection, from its chroniclers. The earliest book we know about is C.V. Riley's Potato Pests written in 1876.



The original food plan of the beetle was subsequently found to be the sand bur, a species of wild potato peculiar to the region.

By 1859, Riley reports, the beetle had switched its gustatory allegiance to the cultivated potato and pioneers of the breed had migrated to a point "100 miles west of Omaha, Nebraska." Riley also notes that the first press coverage received by the bugs was a letter printed in the Prairie Farmer for August 29, 1861. A Mr. J. Egerton of Grairty, Iowa wrote: "They made their appearance upon the vines as they were up, devouring them as fast as they grew."

An 1865 observer estimated the bugs progress eastward at 50 mph. In the summer of 1871 the Detroit River was reported "literally swarming with the beetles." And they were crossing Lake Erie in droves on anything that floated. The New York Times described swarms of beetles covering railroad tracks. Wheels slipped on the bug-strewn tracks as if oil.

In the 1870s the presence of the beetle was so much a part of the Eastern scene that for a brief time ladies black and yellow-striped evening capes were the fashion. And a joke of the period had potato beetles studying mailing lists of seed companies to find out who had ordered seed potatoes.

Even music claimed the potato bug. The Italian mandolin, a five stringed instrument with a striped round back or sounding board was known in some circles as the "tater bug mandolin," or "Taterbug" for short.

Tatar bug troubadours traveled the back roads of the South, singing and strumming on their mandolins for a night's lodging or a good meal. A 1969 tune by Mike Millius and Don Thomas immortalized the "Tater bug mandolin man," who was evidently as dangerous to women as the beetle was to the spud crop. As one line in the song goes, "Now they're sparin' no expense just to protect our land, but they've yet to invent the defense against the Tater bug mandolin man."

Meanwhile the actual insects were bedding down for the winter. Everywhere. "On dry or wet or sandy soils, one clay or rich and alluvium, on plane, hillside or mountain, in the open, and even in the forest," according to a 1906 treatise.

The adult beetles, then as now, winter over in the ground. With the arrival of spring the bugs emerge and walk or fly " (short flights only) to the nearest potato field and begin to eat. And then to mate soon thereafter. The eggs are laid on the underside of the potato plant's leaves. Larvae hatch from the eggs and begin their intake of food until they mature, fall to the ground and bury themselves in the soil. Ultimately, an adult beetle emerges in the ground in the cycle is complete.

Spanish pamphlet on the life cycle of the beetle, 1937.

A small paragraph in the second issue of the Potato Magazine, July, 1918 marveled at the potato bugs fecundity. "The potato beetle is more than a match for the white Leghorn hen when it comes to egg laying. One female can produce 1800s in 1900 eggs. The progeny of two or three broods would form a veritable army of bugs. Moral: spray early and often."

And spray we did, with Paris Green, a copper compound, with Bordeaux mixture, a lead-filled poison, with DDT, a killer chemical discovered by the Swiss in the 1940s almost by accident. They'd been looking for a better moth-proofing compound "(DDT was first successfully tested on potato beetle infested Swiss potato fields."

DTT held sway for many years but the potato beetle developed resistance to it, as it had done to its predecessors. Then follow the synthetic pesticides. Now research indicates that the resilient bugs may well contain an enzyme system which can detoxify certain chemicals. Meanwhile, the toxins were leaching into groundwater systems.

To those who tried to stay one hop ahead of our striped friends were thinking natural predators.

Before there were sprays, there were birds, who ate the bugs right off the plant. The rose breasted grosbeak, the cuckoo, the bobwhite, assorted thrushes, the scarlet tanager, the cardinal and the English sparrow. Of course these birds could not always be counted on to stay on the job regularly, so many farmers let the hens loose in the potato fields. The free range chickens paid their way with more than just eggs.

Watch fob, early 20th century featuring a potato 

beetle crawling on a potato

Birds and farmyard fowl could not keep up with the pest on large farms. Children and other dexterous workers picked the bugs off by hand or beat them off the leaves with sticks often dropping the beetles into tins of kerosene. German friends of ours report that as children during World War II they were let out of school to pick bugs. In 1950 a Spanish leaflet urged children to spend their holidays in the patriotic task of debugging potatoes. An American poem the period tells the child's view of all this:

"There must be some special reason for weeds
And potato bugs and such,
Maybe God made them so that boys,
Wouldn't mind going back to school too much."

Bugs, wasps and flies are the latest predators to be wooed by researchers. These tiny creatures have been discovered living in Mexico in close proximity with the potato beetle. They may be used with a new kind of chemical which messes up the potato bugs' reproductive works.

The Colorado potato beetle, remember, is no parochial pest. It adapts equally well throughout Europe and now is learning to make itself at home in Asia. Only the United Kingdom has kept the doors mostly shut.

The beetle was first spotted on the European continent in 1876 and a year later some intrepid Colorado potato beetles arrived at Liverpool on a boat from Texas. The first major infestation was in 1901, when substantial numbers were found in the Tilbury area. Authorities there burned a large area of potato crop with kerosene. "The ground was subsequently soaked with kerosene and dressed with gas line which was then plowed in." This all from, again, the World Meteorology Organization's well researched tome, "Meteorology and the Colorado potato beetle." When a lone beetle was found in the same area about 60 years later, "2,000 tons of earth received by hand and thousands of acres were sprayed."

Since 1953 few beetles have dared show their stripes in Britain, so wretchedly have they been welcomed. Walk into any post office in the UK and you used to see the wanted posters, with blazing headline reading, "a destructive foreign pest of potatoes." That's our beetle. "If you find it anywhere we want to know." And so on. You're supposed to escort the beetle to the nearest police station , by the way.

Back in 1937 when there was a "scare" in the UK due to the beetle, Punch magazine was moved to announce: "The destructive Colorado potato beetle may lurk in your vegetable garden. Owners of vegetable garden should keep a sharp lookout for beetles with an American accent." Yanks have been taking the heat on the beetle for years. During the Second World War the Nazis accused the allies of dropping potato beetles from airplanes onto Axis potato fields. In 1950 the same charges surfaced from the East Germans, backed up by the Soviet government. The charges, laughable though they seem, underscore the value of the potato and the still formidable task of holding the ever adaptable Colorado potato beetle at bay.

"Take care of your little potatoes, boys, all your tiny spuds,
for the Colorado beetle's come to collar the jolly lot."
---Anonymous, 19th-century

"The potato bugs eat all of the early potatoes, and then they sit on the fence waiting for the second crop to come in."
From London Wit, circa 1901.


Did you know? That the French called German soldiers in World War I "doryphore" (potato beetle) because they wore striped helmets. During World War II the nickname persisted because the Germans made off with the civilian potato crop.


A Natural History of the Potato Beetle


The Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata, also known as the Colorado beetle, ten-striped spearman, the ten-lined potato beetle) is an important pest of potato crops. It is approximately 10 mm (0.4 inches) long, with a bright yellow/orange body and bold brown stripes across the length of its elytra, and it can easily be confused with its close cousin the false potato beetle. The beetle was described in 1824 by Thomas Say from specimens collected in the Rocky Mountains on buffalo-bur, Solanum rostratum.

The origin of the beetle is somewhat unclear, but it seems to be that Colorado and Mexico are a part of its native distribution in the south-western part of North-America.

Life cycle
The female beetle can lay up to 800 eggs at a time, and up to three times per year. The eggs are usually deposited on the leaves of potato plants and other related plants in the genus Solanum. After 4-15 days, they hatch into reddish-brown larvae with humped backs and two rows of dark brown spots on either side, which feed on the leaves. Larvae drop to the soil and burrow to a depth of several inches, where they emerge in the spring as adults after two weeks of pupation. They then return to their host plant to mate and feed.

As a crop pest
The Colorado beetle is a serious crop pest of potatoes. Insecticides are often used unsuccessfully against Leptinotarsa because of the beetle's resistance to toxins and ability to rapidly develop immunity to them. In the United Kingdom, where the Colorado beetle is a rare visitor on imported farm produce, it is a notifiable pest: any found must be reported to DEFRA.

World-wide migration

The potato beetle is an example of one of the most successful animal migrations is history. In less than 100 years it has spanned the globe.



Postage stamps featuring the potato beetle 



Potato Late Blight and the Irish Potato Famine

Late Blight, and The Great Hunger in Ireland

Phytophthora infestans is a water mould, that causes the serious disease of the potato, late blight or potato blight.

The early stages of blight are easily missed, and not all plants are affected at once. Symptoms include the appearance of dark blotches on leaf tips and plant stems. White mould will appear under the leaves in humid conditions and the whole plant may quickly collapse. Infected tubers develop grey or dark patches that are reddish brown beneath the skin, and quickly decay to a foul-smelling mush caused by the infestation of secondary soft bacterial rots. Seemingly healthy tubers may rot later when in store.

"Discovery of the Potato Blight" by Daniel MacDonald (1821-53)

The potato blight was a major cause of the Irish Potato Famine, also known as The Great Hunger, between 1845-1851. Over one million people died from starvation and related diseases. Another one and a half million emigrated to North America and Australia.

Potato Late Blight cycle

The spores of this water mould overwinter on infected tubers, particularly those that are left in the ground after the previous year's harvest, and are spread rapidly in warm wet conditions when blight can have devastating effects, destroying entire crops.

Spores develop on the leaves, spreading through the crop when temperatures are above 10 degrees C and humidity is over 75% for 2 days or more. Rain can wash spores into the soil where they infect young tubers, or else spores can be blown in from distances of up to miles by the wind.


Growth sequence of the potato with regimen of blight spray applications


Spraying potatoes for blight in Ecuador creates health risks for workers

Bordeaux mixture is a combination of copper sulphate and hydrated lime, invented in the vineyards of the Bordeaux region of France, and used mainly to control garden, vineyard, nursery and farm infestations of fungus. This fungicide has a history of over a century, and is still used, although the copper can leach out and pollute streams.


Spraying by plane.

Killing potato foliage with flame spreader

Red Dragon Potato Vine Flamersoffer producers a totally organic way to desiccate potato vines to stop the growth and set the skins of potatoes. Flamers burn clean, efficient propane, so there is no residue, run-off or contamination to worry about due to chemical or acid use.

This flaming process uses our patented liquid spray torches which are specially designed to spray liquid propane into the vines where combustion takes place. The canopy of vines and foliage help hold the heat helping to make more efficient use of the fuel. The intense heat thermally shocks the green vines and destroys cell tissues in the leaves, destroying the plant's ability to conduct photosynthesis.

Flaming is also a very effective weapon for blight control. Chemical treatments are expensive, and not an option for organic growers. Flaming to desiccate or scorching the ground right before harvest will help control blight spores.



Blight resistant potato varieties under consideration by USDA

Up until the 1970s, there was only one type of blight (A1) in the UK, and this was unable to produce resistant spores that could survive the winter. There are now two types (A1 and A2) which can mate and after that produce resistant spores, although the indications so far are that this rarely, if ever, happens in the UK. Mating can occur only between moulds of different mating-types and is required for the production of resistant spores.

Prevention and control of potato blight can be achieved by planting only good quality seeds obtained from certified suppliers. Do not save your own seed for replanting, and try to ensure that no 'volunteer' tubers are left in the soil after harvest. Potato varieties vary in their susceptibility to blight. Most early varieties are very prone; so that the crop matures before blight starts (usually in July) plant them early. Maincrop varieties which are very slow to develop blight include Cara, Stirling, Teena, Torridon, Remarka and Romano. Some so-called resistant varieties can resist some strains of the blight and not others, so their performance may vary depending on which are around.

Symptom of late blight on the potato leaf.Growing potatoes should be earthed up regularly in order to minimise the risks of spores being washed down into the soil reaching the tubers. If blight symptoms appear, remove all affected leaves immediately. Cut off and burn all foliage in bad cases to help prevent spread to the tubers. Don't harvest the crop for at least 3 weeks. By then, tubers will have thicker skins and blight spores on the surface will have died. A hot compost heap should destroy the spores on the leaves, but it is probably not worth the risk. Any infected tubers should definitely be burned.

Read full report here.



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Irish Potato Famine introduction