Potatoes are a popular garden crop. They're fun and easy to grow, and they'll yield well in surprisingly small spaces. By growing them yourself, you can assure that the skins, which are said to be the most nutritious part of potatoes, will be fit to eat and you get to enjoy tiny new potatoes -- a delicacy hard to come by through any other means.

Unlike sweet potatoes, which require heat, and which grow best under a black plastic mulch, potatoes prefer cool weather and a thick mulch of hay to keep the ground cool, moist and free of weeds.

They can be planted throughout the spring, starting as soon as the soil can be worked, and, with thick mulch, they can be planted all summer, so long as they'll have time to mature before the first fall frost.

Potatoes need an acid soil, with a pH of less than 6. This means that the potato patch should not be limed, and could be enriched with lots of compost and rotted manure, both of which tend to acidify the soil. They won't grow in the presence of fresh manure, though, so be sure that anything you add to the potato patch is aged, and well-rotted.

Select certified seed potatoes to start. These will be free of common diseases, and will yeild a better crop. They're available at possible, try to get disease-resistant varieties.

Kennebec and Katahdin are late potatoes, and resistant to late blight and some virus diseases. New Norland and Norgold Russet are heavy producers, and resistant to scab. Irish Cobbler and White Cobbler are old favorites, and suitable for culture in most states. There are also exotic types, available from seed companies. One is Ladyfinger, which produces long, thin, yellow-fleshed potatoes. Others have blue skins.

I've heard that in Peru, the home of the potato, there are so many varieties, sizes and colors that it's almost impossible to classify them. In the northern hemisphere, our choices are more limited, but still wide enough.

In case you've been wondering why these Peruvian tubers are often called Irish potatoes," it's because the Irish made them famous during the Potato Famine of 1845. The story has it that when the potato crossed the ocean, the Irish were taken with them.

They were so well suited to grow there that they became the main agricultural product. Before 1845, reports say that the average Irish country person ate 10 pounds of them a day. They were also grown for animal feed, and for Irish whiskey. Monoculture was so intense that when a blight hit, more than a million people died of starvation, and the potato took on a new nationality.

Potatoes are a member of the solanun family, which includes tomatoes and eggplants. They should be grown in a spot where none of these grew the previous year. By practicing crop rotation, and planting several varieties, you're more likely to avoid problems with blight and disease.

Small seen pototoes can be planted whole, but large ones should be cut into one- or two-inch pieces, with one eye to the piece, and left to sit in the sun for a day or so until the cut flesh calluses.

Growing potatoes under mulch is the easiest way. All you do is lay the tubers on turned ground, with 12 to 15 inches between them, and cover them with at least eight inches of hay. The sprouts will find the sun. When harvest time comes, all you do is pull back the mulch and pick up the potatoes.

This method causes problems, though, where mice are plentiful. I've heard of mice getting under the mulch and eating all the tubers. If you anticipate this, either get a cat or plant the potatoes in trenches and cover them with six inches of earth. You'll have to dig, but, even in areas rife with mice, you'll get a harvest.

There are insects that thrive on potatoes, notably the Colorado potato beetle. In small plots, control them by hand-picking and dumping them into a can of oil and water. For a heavy infestation, use rotenone or ryania. Both are plant-produced pesticides, but still poisons, so be careful.

Potatoes can be harvested anytime after they've finished flowering. Don't take them all as new potatoes, though, because the tubers make their most rapid growth at this point. For keeping, wait to dig until after the plants have died down. Let the tubers dry in the sun for a day or two, then store them someplace cool and dark.

Whether you say potaytoes or potahtoes , you'll enjoy growing them. It's very satisying to take the tubers from the ground, almost as exciting as finding buried treasure.