In the Garden:
Let potatoes sprout before planting to give them a head start.
Red, White, and Blue, Plus Yellow and Purple, Too
Apple pie may be considered All-American, but what would life be like without French fries, potato chips, potato salad, baked potatoes, roasted potatoes, potatoes au gratin, potato soup ... well, you get the picture. Potatoes may have taken a hit in recent years over concern about carbohydrates and their ranking on the glycemic index, but we Americans still consume 134 pounds of potatoes per person each year.
The bad news is that much of this consumption has added fat and sodium in the processing, thus robbing the innocent potato of much of its merit. Because merit, it has. A 5-ounce potato has about 110 calories, is an excellent source of potassium and fiber when eaten with the skin, supplies about 45 percent of the daily supply of vitamin C, and is full of other vitamins and minerals. Plus, by itself it contains no fat, no sodium, and no cholesterol.
About half of the commercial production is the russet type, or the classic baking potato. Home gardeners have traditionally grown whatever variety does best in their locale. Sometime in the last decade, farmers, chefs, and food aficionados discovered that there were some 200 other varieties available. The buttery, yellow-fleshed 'Yukon Gold' is the best known of these, and it is indeed a pleasant potato.
Different Flavors and Colors
But let me tell you about 'German Butterball', with its amazingly fluffy texture and flavor beyond your imagination. Or how about 'Purple Majesty', purple inside and out; or 'Mountain Rose', red inside and out; or new varieties from Colorado that are high in antioxidants? There's 'Adora', a low-carb potato with about 20 percent fewer calories than a standard russet. 'Butte' has both extra vitamin C and protein. There are also potatoes with blue flesh as well as waxy ones that make the best potato salad. These are just a few of the differences among varieties.
Most likely you won't find any of these at your local garden center, but they are available from mail-order companies that specialize either in potatoes or heirloom varieties. But try companies such as:
Wood Prairie (http://www.woodprairie.com);
Moose Tubers at Fedco Seeds (http://www.fedcoseeds.com/moose.htm);
Seed Savers Exchange (http://www.seedsavers.org).
Of these, Ronniger's and Wood Prairie still have seed potatoes available for planting this year. These four companies offer from a dozen varieties to over 40.
It's Not Too Late to Plant
Yes, you can still plant potatoes this year. In fact, planting around this time is one of my Independence Day rituals. Sure, there are those gardeners who plant potatoes well before the last spring frost, hungry for those little red new potatoes. For those potatoes, I look to the ones that didn't get dug last fall and come up as volunteers. For my main crop, though, this time of year means that the worst of the potato beetle scourge is past. And when the potatoes are dug in the fall, it's the perfect time to squirrel them away for use during the winter.
Up until last year I dutifully dug a 6- to 8-inch-deep trench, planted the potatoes, and filled the trench with soil over the next month or so. Needless to say, my back was not always pleased. Then a friend, who grew up in a family of 10 children and had lots of "up close and personal" experience with a very large potato garden, taught me an alternative planting method. With her method, you till the soil at least 8 inches deep with a rototiller. Then you dig a hole with a trowel and thrust the potato as deep as possible. I planted potatoes by both methods last year and could not see any appreciable difference in yield.
Here are some other tips that have brought me success over the years. I never cut my potatoes into pieces, rather I just plant the whole potato. "Chitting" potatoes before planting increases production; this is a process of spreading the potatoes out in a single layer and putting them in moderate light indoors until the green sprouts are 1/2 to 1 inch long. Mulching with at least 4 inches of straw maintains soil moisture, keep weeds down, and seems to limit potato beetle damage.
Ronniger's catalog provides excellent information on growing potatoes. Also helpful is the Vegetable Fact Sheet on Potatoes from Washington State University at: http://kitsap.wsu.edu/hort/info/potatoes.htm, which includes information on growing in cages or tubs. For a British take on growing potatoes, go to: http://www.the-organic-gardener.com/growing-potatoes.html.
Of course, there is also my favorite book on potatoes, The Potato Garden: A Grower's Guide (Harmony Books, 1993), which was a James Beard Award finalist. Sad to say, it is out of print, but available from used book sources online for a song.
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