An Ode on the Potato (No Dan Quayle, No e on the end)
If you read this blog, and admittedly not many people do, you know that I like growing my own food. We grown the usuals: tomatoes, peppers, basil, beans and usually some type of squash. But a few years ago we decided to try potatoes, and it only took one year for us to be hooked.
Herewith, the reasons:
Potatoes Are Fun To Grow
Really, they are.
Lazy Bed Method
To grow potatoes using the lazy bed method you loosen the soil in a bed or section of the garden you’re dedicating to potatoes. Then you take your seed potatoes and place them, cut side down (we’ll get to those gritty details in a bit) on top of the soil; that’s right, with the lazy bed method you don’t have to dig trenches and bury them. You just put them on top of your loosened soil and then cover them with 12 – 18 inches of straw.
And that’s it. Now you just wait a couple of months for the potato plants to grow and then die, remove the straw, and harvest your potatoes which are sitting right on top of the soil for you.
You can see why it’s called the lazy bed method.
Traditional Potato Growing Method
While we sometimes use the lazy bed method, it requires the effort of finding straw, which around here is easier in the fall than in the spring, so usually we do the traditional method, which is not lazy at all.
That’s right, with the traditional method you do dig a trench, 6″ deep is a good start, and you want the soil loosened all around, because that’s where your potatoes are going to grow. Then you put your seed potatoes in the trench, again cut side down, and cover them.
That’s the beginning.
Then, as the plants emerge and grow, you have to “hill” your potatoes, which is what it sounds like: you pile up a mound of dirt around the plants, and you do this three times as the plants get bigger. These hills are where some of your potatoes are growing, so the mounding creates a nice loose pile of dirt allowing your potatoes to grow nice and big.
Let the plants finish growing and die back, and when the plants are dead, you get to dig your potatoes.
Digging potatoes is both a pain (for those of us of a certain age, a literal pain in the back) and fun; it’s kind of like a treasure hunt, or as Cecile likes to call it for us, an Easter Egg hunt for Jews.
Potatoes are Magical
To some extent, I find any food I grow from seed to be magical: you start with this tiny seed, but it in soil, give it some water, and a few weeks later you get food. It’s pretty fabulous.
But to me potatoes seem different, because what we call a seed potato is really just a small potato. In other words, you plant one small potato or potato piece and you end up with four to six potatoes each.
Tell me that isn’t some kind of magic trick.
This year our seed potatoes were potatoes we had bought to eat, but didn’t get through the whole 1/2 bushel, so I took the leftovers and turned them into seed potatoes. So not only did I turn a few potatoes into a lot more potatoes, I did it with potatoes we had paid for months before.
How To Make a Seed Potato
Any seed store will have seed potatoes in the early spring or late winter. In Peoria, we have this fabulous seed store, Kelly Seed, and it’s not just a great old traditional seed and hardware store, it’s located downtown, which is near us. What you’re looking for in your seed potatoes is the eyes; that’s right, with a seed potato you want eyes. You want 2-3 eyes per potato or piece you plant, so small potatoes can be planted whole, while larger ones you want to cut up so you have those 2-3 eyes per piece.
Per the recommendation in my gardening book that discusses potatoes, we then put them in a bag with some sulfur and shake them up and let them sit a day or two. This apparently lets the cut ends dry out so they’re less likely to rot, and the sulfur helps lower the pH of the soil, which is good for potatoes.
The plant them using one of the two methods above, they both work for us.
Almost Endless Variety
While you might be forgiven for thinking there is only the Russet potato, the Russet is in some ways the most boring of potatoes. I’m not going to go off on (much of) a rant here, but the Russet is popular in this country because of McDonald’s; they needed a big, starchy, reliable potato that could be bred to grow the same everywhere.
In Praise of Yukon Gold
But potatoes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes: blue, red, yellow, big, small and in between. Our favorite is Yukon Gold, which tend to be medium sized, gold colored inside and thin skinned. Not as starchy as a Russet, they have a fabulous, buttery flavor, so they make great mashed potatoes as you don’t have to add as much milk, butter or whatever to make them creamy and delicious.
We’ve also grown blue potatoes, and the variety we grew were small and a bit starchier than Yukon’s, but still good. And last year, because our son loves baked potatoes, we did try some Russets, which worked more or less but grew into some funky shapes, and while we could have I don’t think we actually baked any of them. Oh well, maybe another time.
Showing Off My Potatoes … And That’s Not A Euphemism
We usually plant two beds of potatoes, and this year they were all Yukon Golds because, as discussed above, that’s what we had leftover from the winter. These pictures are from our second bed, and contain the biggest Yukon Golds I’ve ever seen. We’ve already eaten some from our first bed (yes, you actually can harvest them before the plants are completely dead), so I can’t show you our whole harvest, but it usually lasts into the early winter. Very satisfying.