Like so many vegetables home-grown organically, potatoes have so much more flavor than their supermarket counterparts that I consider them two different vegetables. I don’t grow them for market anymore because I can’t get a price that matches their flavor, but I wouldn’t be caught dead without home-grown tubers to offer friends over for dinner. (I cook them first, mind you. I don’t just say, “Here’s a potato.”) And what lovely blossoms they add to the garden.
BUYING: I grow from certified seed potatoes, offered in many mail-order catalogs and feed stores such as Agway, Tractor Supply, and the local Co-op. Store selections aren’t large, but you save a lot on shipping. Some catalogs sell by the potato, others by the eye, and prices vary wildly, so comparison shop in this case. I’ve always heard not to grow from supermarket potatoes because they’re treated with anti-sprouting compounds (although mine sprout just fine in the cupboard drawer), but I still buy certified seed potatoes because I can trust the origin. It feels right.
GROWING: Unlike me, potatoes love it cool and damp. They also prefer a somewhat acidic soil, so I save on lime. (Be careful here, because acidic soil can also lead to potato scab, which is downright ugly.). I cut seed potatoes into pieces with 2-3 eyes each, and let them “cure” for a day in a dry spot (that is to say, form a skin over the cuts – sort of like a scab, but don’t use that word around potatoes). I plant them 3-4 inches deep about the same time I’m planting peas; a few weeks before last frost.
I plant our sections a foot apart in rows about 3 feet apart. Rodale says you can plant them at 6 inches, but I think they like the extra space. I lay a drip irrigation line along each row, and let the plants grow to at least 6 inches tall before “hilling up.” This used to mean hoeing soil up over the plants so they could put out new tubers above the soil line. Mechanical “hillers” still do this, but what that means is that the bare soil heats, cools, wet, dries, and potatoes hate those changes. It stresses them, and that sends out a message to Colorado potato beetles.
HILLING UP: Years ago I began hilling up with organic matter, and never had a problem with potato beetles again. And what harvests! Life was good. Some people hill up with straw, but straw is expensive now so I use leaves. I think it holds in moisture better, unless you use straw “flakes,” which aren’t as easy to worm your fingers through to collect early potatoes. But that’s just me. For yourself, do what works and is fun.
Leaves can pancake into a matted mess that shuts out air, so be careful. I use wet leaves or leaf mold, but fork it on judiciously; and when using dry leaves, make layers of leaves, soil, leaves, soil, and so on. That works the best.
I hill the plants up 2-3 times until the plants stop blossoming, which means it’s time to harvest.
HARVEST: So-called “new” potatoes will be ready for “grabbling” out for dinner when the plants begin to bloom. Mature potatoes will be ready when the bloom stops. Clean the tubers and store them in a cool spot in the basement or root cellar (remember root cellars? They are wonderful!)
RECIPE: Now here’s payoff. Bride had a way of cooking what she called “smashy” potatoes – exquisite beyond words– but she died and didn’t leave our daughter or I with the recipe. And then, thumbing through the organic farming book I wrote a few years ago, I came across this in the back of the book, where I’d forgotten all about it — a recipe Bride had added to the volume. And here it is:
`”I like to use Russets for mashed potatoes as they have a high enough moisture content for mashing. New potatoes are also nice, and when their skins look good I leave them on.
Take 4 good-sized potatoes, or the equivalent in new, potatoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. In a 3-qt. pot, cover with water and boil until fork tender. Drain and return to heat. Add 6 tbsp. butter and 1 ½ cups milk or half-and half. Bring to a good boil for about a minute, then remove from heat, add salt and pepper to taste, and whip until nice and fluffy.
Garlic is a great addition. Add 4-6 cloves to your potatoes, and boil and mash them right along with them.”