"What I say is that, if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow."
A. A. Milne
When it comes to spuds, there is so much more than red and white, Russet and Yukon, Ireland and Idaho. Potatoes date back to 5th century Peru and Chile, yet they were not widely grown in the United States until the early 1700's. Even in the 1850's, it was more common to find potatoes in livestock troughs than on the dinner table. From such lowly beginnings, the tater has risen to something akin to stardom in our food chain. The phrase "meat-and-potatoes" refers to more than a dietary predilection; it has come to mean fundamental, essential, even crucial. Not too shabby for a root.
Most people would be astonished to learn that there are literally thousands of varieties of potatoes worldwide. So many colors, shapes, and flavors to choose from! Where does a gardener begin?
To start, potatoes are grouped into four very basic categories: early, mid-season, late (or long-season), and fingerlings. Early spuds mature in 60-80 days, mid-season take 80-100 days, and late potatoes need 100-130 days. Fingerlings are a specific shape of spud, looking like, well, fingers.
Potato skin and flesh come in a vast array of color combinations - white, red, yellow, blue, and even purple. Imagine the novelty of patriotic potato salad, or blue mashed potatoes. The different flesh qualities of tubers make some varieties appropriate for specific uses; some are better for baking, mashing, frying, or boiling. Flavors are also unique, ranging from buttery to chestnut.
For the Wisconsin gardener, it may be best to stick with early and mid-season types, and some fingerlings. As a rule, one pound of seed potatoes will plant ten row feet of garden space. Plant small potatoes whole, and cut larger ones into pieces. Be sure to have at least one eye per piece. Soil should be deep, loose, and well-drained (tubers rot easily in wet soil). Hilling soil around the plants as they grow is a way to increase yields.
Finding heirloom seed potatoes can be tricky, so here are a few websites that offer them.