Monday, 26 April 2010

Chronicles of a New Garden: potatoes

by Francesca


Over the last few years, something strange has happened to the potatoes sold in the stores in my area. Formerly, I could buy several different varieties of yellow, white and red potatoes, but gradually these have disappeared, and nowadays there's just one kind, generic “potatoes” that come in huge bags. Unfortunately, these have a soggy, mealy texture, and a taste that's just plain bad - eating them is like biting into a lump of stale flour.

So, imagine my delight when I first stuck a hoe in my new garden plot, and discovered that the soil was dark brown, very soft and loose, and felt remarkably warm to the touch, despite the unseasonably cool temperatures we've been having: perfect for growing potatoes! What a difference from my previous garden, where the soil was tan colored, so clayey that it clung to the hoe in clumps, and took a long time to warm up. That soil was too dense for root vegetables and tubers; after a few harvests of short, twisted, scrawny carrots, radishes and potatoes, I stopped planting them.

seed potato

~ seed potatoes are potatoes that have produced shoots. Plant whole if the potato is small, or cut into pieces, each containing a few eyes, and allow to callus over by leaving exposed for several days before planting ~

Potatoes are an easy and rewarding crop, and they do reasonably well in a wide range of soils. Also, their main enemy, at least in my climate, is the potato beetle, a large, striped, golden-colored pest which feeds on the foliage and lays bright orange eggs on the undersides of the leaves: easy to spot and get red of. However, this beetle is quite voracious and prolific, so remain vigilant and act immediately when you notice that the beetle has set up shop in your potato plants. The potato beetle will also attack eggplants, so avoid planting potatoes and eggplants close together.

My farmer neighbors taught me how to plant potatoes. They use the “trench-to-mound” method, which has always struck me as both clever and efficent.

potato trench method

Dig a trench about 6” deep, plant your seed potatoes there with their shoots up, spaced about 14” apart, and cover with some soil. Potatoes need regular watering during their early growth stages, and the trench helps to funnel the water to the young plants.

As they grow, take some of the soil you dug up when you made the trenches, and progressively mound it up around the plant, keeping the buried tubers well covered. Because potato plants have a relatively long growing cycle, between 16 to 20 weeks, I've sowed fast-growing crops like arugula and radishes along the sides of the trenches. I'll be harvesting them long before I need to use the soil they're growing in to make mounds around my potato plants, and in the meanwhile, these crops are keeping that soil from being left uncovered, exposed to weeds and the weather. Also, I've intercropped my potatoes with garlic.


~ potato plant intercropped with garlic, 20 days after planting ~

Reduce the watering when the potato plants begin flowering, and stop it altogether when they stop flowering: by that time, you'll have completely filled in the trenches with soil and created mounds around your plants. (You'll find excellent step-by-step instructions on how to grow and harvest potatoes here and here) And in a couple more weeks, your potatoes should be ready for lifting, and you'll see for the first time what you've produced.

roast potatoes
~ roast potatoes with lots of garlic, rosemary and sage is my family's favorite potato dish ~

The potato harvest, when you finally pull your underground crop out into the light, is quite a satisfying, even momentous, occasion!