The Power of Potatoes: A Modern Homestead Essential

In multiple episodes of the Modern Homestead TV show, I referenced the book and movie “The Martian” by Andy Weir. In this gripping story, the hero, botanist Mark Watney, gets stranded on Mars and is forced to survive by growing potatoes. This fascinating tale has sparked debate within the scientific community about whether growing potatoes on Mars is truly feasible. Andy Weir incorporated real science into his book, and while most of it holds up against academic scrutiny, one notable challenge is the presence of perchlorates in Martian soil.

Understanding Perchlorates

Perchlorates are chemical compounds containing chlorine and oxygen, commonly found in Martian soil. These compounds are toxic to humans, interfering with thyroid function by disrupting iodine uptake. However, as Andy Weir pointed out, perchlorates can be rinsed out of the soil. By washing and soaking the soil in water, the perchlorates can be leached away, rendering the soil safer for plant growth.

While Elon Musk envisions a future where we might grow crops on Mars, let’s focus on cultivating potatoes right here on good old planet Earth. Potatoes are not only nutritious and delicious but also incredibly versatile and easy to grow. Personally, Janna and I are huge fans of Japanese sweet potatoes. Here’s a deep dive into the power of potatoes, their health benefits, and a step-by-step guide to growing your own.

The Health Benefits of Potatoes

  1. Rich in Nutrients: Potatoes are packed with essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, potassium, and B6.
  2. High in Fiber: They contain significant amounts of fiber, which is essential for digestive health.
  3. Antioxidant Properties: Potatoes are rich in antioxidants that help fight free radicals in the body.
  4. Support Heart Health: The fiber, potassium, and vitamin C in potatoes contribute to heart health.
  5. Boost Brain Function: Potatoes contain choline, an important nutrient for brain health.
  6. Enhance Athletic Performance: The carbohydrates in potatoes provide energy, making them great for athletes.
  7. Promote Satiety: Potatoes are filling, which can help with weight management by reducing overall calorie intake.

Growing Potatoes: Step-by-Step Guide

Potatoes are relatively easy to grow and can provide a steady food supply for months if stored properly. Here’s how you can grow your own:

1. Choose Your Seed Potatoes

Select healthy, disease-free seed potatoes. You can use any variety, but personally, Janna and I love Japanese sweet potatoes.

2. Prepare the Soil

Potatoes thrive in well-drained, loose soil with a pH of 5.0 to 6.5. Testing your soil’s pH can be done using a simple pH testing kit, available at most garden centers. Here’s how:

  1. Collect a Soil Sample: Take samples from multiple areas of your garden to get an accurate reading.
  2. Mix and Prepare: Combine the samples in a clean container.
  3. Test the pH: Follow the instructions on your pH testing kit. Typically, you’ll mix soil with water and a pH solution, then compare the color change to a chart.

If your soil pH is too high (alkaline), you can lower it by adding organic matter like peat moss or sulfur. If it’s too low (acidic), adding lime can help raise the pH.

3. Cut and Cure

Cut the seed potatoes into pieces, ensuring each piece has at least one or two eyes (sprouts). Allow the pieces to cure for a few days in a cool, dry place to form a callus over the cuts, which helps prevent rotting.

4. Planting

Plant the seed potatoes about 3-4 inches deep and 12 inches apart, with the eyes facing up. Rows should be spaced about 3 feet apart. If you’re planting in containers, ensure they are deep enough to accommodate the growth of the tubers.

5. Watering

Water the potatoes consistently, keeping the soil moist but not waterlogged. Aim for about 1-2 inches of water per week. Reduce watering as the plants mature to prevent rot.

6. Hilling

When the plants reach about 6-8 inches in height, mound soil around the base of the plants. This process, known as hilling, supports the plants and encourages tuber formation. Continue hilling as the plants grow, aiming to cover the lower leaves and providing more room for potatoes to develop.

7. Harvesting

Determining Readiness: Potatoes are typically ready to harvest when the plants start to flower, and the foliage begins to yellow and die back. For new potatoes, harvest shortly after flowering. For mature potatoes, wait until the foliage has completely died back.

Harvest Process:

  1. Loosen the Soil: Use a garden fork or spade to gently loosen the soil around the plants.
  2. Lift the Plants: Carefully lift the plants from the ground, taking care not to damage the tubers.
  3. Collect the Potatoes: Brush off excess soil and let the potatoes air dry for a few hours.

8. Storing

After harvesting, let the potatoes cure in a cool, dark place for about two weeks. This helps toughen their skin for storage. Store the cured potatoes in a cool, dark, and well-ventilated area, ideally at temperatures between 45-55°F (7-13°C). Avoid storing them near onions, as the gases they emit can cause both to spoil more quickly.


Potatoes are a powerhouse in the garden and kitchen. They offer numerous health benefits and are a reliable food source. While you might not find yourself marooned on Mars growing potatoes in your own excrement, cultivating them here on Earth ensures food security and provides delicious, nutritious options for your meals. Embrace the power of potatoes and enjoy the satisfaction of growing your own.

For those interested in sustainable living, Modern Homestead offers innovative solutions that strike a balance between sustainable living and comfortable home environments. From green building materials like Suber Shield and Silver Ion Health Paint to modular homes designed with food security systems and water generators powered by solar energy, we’re leading the charge in homestead innovation. So, while the tiny home might strike a chord for some, remember that your options for sustainable and comfortable living are vast and varied. Happy planting!