When the grass starts to grow, it’s time to plant potatoes, or so the old saying goes. But how many gardeners are rushing out to plant a vegetable so humble, homely, lumpy and brown?
Historically, the potato is an important survival food that has seen humankind through times of war and famine. But nothing to get fired up about, except when made into Russian vodka, German schnapps or Irish poteen. When the grass starts to grow, most people get out the lawnmower.
Potatoes were first cultivated in the Andes by pre-Columbian tribes, who dried them for winter sustenance. The conquistadors took note of them, but were far more interested in treasure hordes of Inca gold. To me, the potatoes were the true gold. I’ve sampled Andean potatoes and loved the antique yellow-fleshed ones, dense and richly flavored. But even modern potatoes are heaven — an invitation to indulge in butter, duck fat or cream.
Now, of course, it’s a vegetable known far and wide. There is a word for potato in nearly every language, from the French pomme de terre, (literally, earth apple), to the German kartoffel (ground-truffle) to the Yiddish boulbes (from the Greek word for tuber). The English name comes from batata, the West Indian word for sweet potato, which is not even a distant cousin but a type of morning glory.
Potatoes are honored as a storage crop, yet only gardeners know the taste of them freshly dug. As soon as pretty purple or white flowers appear on the vines, you can gently poke your fingers into the soil around the plants — a practice known as “grabbling” — to extract a few young spuds. Your own baby new potatoes are so sweet and delicious it’s hard to believe they’re are the same item as the one sold in bins. Even the “new” potatoes for sale in stores tend to be well-traveled at best.
Gardeners in the know also rejoice in the greater range of potatoes now available — little European fingerlings such as Russian Banana or La Ratte, and the exotic All Blue, as well as the tried and true Maine Katahdins and Idaho Russets. Yukon Gold is another crowd pleaser.
But aren’t potatoes one of those large-scale, “farmy” crops? Not necessarily. Just plant a 10 or 15 foot row during the first week of May and you’ll be amazed at how many will lurk there at season’s end.
First you’ll need some seed potatoes. Not actual seeds, but certified disease-resistant tubers you buy for planting. Maine’s own Wood Prairie (www.woodprairie.com) is my favorite seed potato source. To get a head start, pre-sprout your seed in a tray set in a warm, bright spot. This is called “chitting.”
Plant them a foot apart and about 3 inches deep in a slightly acid and very loose, fluffy soil. They’ll grow better in loose soil, and you’ll be able to harvest them with your fingers rather than risk stabbing them with a digging fork. You can lighten the soil with peat moss, manure and compost, but to avoid disease problems, make sure any organic matter you add is well decomposed.
All parts of the plant are toxic except the tubers, and these are too if they are exposed to light and allowed to turn green. To prevent this, they are often mounded with soil as they grow. I find it’s simpler just to mulch them heavily with straw, first when planting and again while the plants are growing.
This also keeps the soil cool and moist, which is the best way to ward off our own native-born potato pest, the Colorado beetle. (Its global spread can be traced by its various names, such as the French doryphore and the German kartoffelkafer.) If some do appear, pick off the black and yellow striped adults, the bloated pink larvae, and the orange egg masses underneath the leaves.
At our farm we harvest our storage crop after the vines have died down and just before the first hard frost. They keep best in a root cellar, but a dark, cool, frost-free building will do. You might even try making an old-fashioned potato “clamp”: Just dig a foot-deep trench and bury them under soil covered with a layer of straw.
In case you still harbor any doubts, here’s a story that shows what an easy crop potatoes can be. One fall I was turning my compost heap and potatoes kept turning up. They’d been growing all summer from potato scraps I’d tossed on the heap as kitchen garbage.
Never had turning the pile been more fun. I wound up with a whole extra bushel in a year when the kartoffelkafers had made more of a dent than usual in the home crop.
Why not try filling a few whisky barrels with nice loose soil and planting a few potatoes in each? Even if your “farm” is just a terrace, you could end up with a crop so fine you’ll think your goose just laid a bucket of golden eggs.