Of all the jobs in the gardening year, digging potatoes is one of my favorite. It’s like an Easter egg hunt, except that it happens in summer and fall instead of spring. As soon as I spot blossoms on the plants, I know I can steal a few tubers from the edge of the row, for delicious potato salads, or new, baby potatoes steamed in their jackets with parsley and butter.
Even before they meet up with that butter, my fresh-dug potatoes look golden as my fingers grabble for them in the dark soil. It’s like finding buried treasure.
As the summer goes by, I’m working my way through the plot, turning up more of them, bigger ones, though they still have that luminous look. When fall comes, I dig and store enough to get us through till new potato time next year.
At the season’s end, potato vines die down naturally, but the tubers continue to live and breathe under the ground. As long as they don’t freeze, they can stay there for months will no ill effects. But in a climate like ours, where the ground freezes, they must be dug up and protected.
It’s important not to dig them prematurely. Not only will they keep best underground, but they will also need to harden off there for a bit before you remove them. Their skins will dry slightly, and toughen up enough to resist injury better.
A thick layer of protective straw is helpful, to ward off frost and to prevent any potatoes from working their way to the surface and greening up. This is the tubers’ response to light, and indicates the presence of a toxic substance called solanin. Green parts must always be removed before eating.
If the soil in your potato patch is loose, fluffy and rich in organic matter, you can have the pure tactile pleasure of digging them by hand. Otherwise you’ll have to sneak in around them with a digging fork, gently prying the soil up to loosen them without stabbing them with the tines.
Handle them carefully, laying (not tossing) them into your bin or bucket. They will store much better if they are not nicked or bruised, which makes them more vulnerable to pathogens. Eat —don’t store — any stabbed ones.
The best place to store potatoes is one as much like their underground home as possible: very dark, with a temperature of about 40 degrees and humidity around 95 percent. A root cellar is the traditional spot, but a regular cellar, cold attic, unheated room or shed might all work in varying degrees.
In the old days, in Europe and America, a potato clamp was the common solution. The word derives from the Dutch klamp, or pile. On a day after rain had dampened the soil, farmers would lay down a bed of fresh straw (sometimes sinking it slightly in a shallow pit), then gently pile the potatoes on top. More straw then covered them, followed by a layer of earth as much as a foot thick, obtained by digging a drainage trench around the edge of the pile.
Several chimney holes, stuffed with upright bundles of straw, were left in the top to release excess moisture and heat, and the whole thing thatched with more straw, like a sort of flattened hut. Potatoes were removed from one end, all winter, as needed.
A clamp is still a good system, worth trying, although it helps to have a vigilant cat. In the old days, if even one rat got in, the clamp was completely dismantled and rebuilt. For this exercise, everyone at the farm turned out with shovels, hoes and other weaponry, ready to nail any emerging rodent.
Gardeners use other clever devices, such as buried barrels or boxes. You can even use a refrigerator. I keep a small energy-efficient one in our furnace room, for this purpose. Even though we have a root cellar, the fridge makes a good final stage, come spring, when root crops are losing their turgor and sending out those tangles of long, ghostly shoots.
Most experts caution against refrigeration for potatoes because it can alter their flavor and texture, and even give them a dark color during cooking. I have not encountered these problems, except for an un-potato-like sweetness that diminishes if I leave the tubers at room temperature for a few days.
They keep fine all the way up until potato blossom time, with a flavor that seems perfectly acceptable — until I’ve unearthed and tasted those little golden new ones.