Saturday, August 10, 2013

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, More

2013 was the first year I really made an effort to grow potatoes, and it paid off...or I was lucky. Now that I've harvested 2 of 3 varieties (I grew Ozettes by choice, as well as some Redskins and Yukon Golds because I didn't eat them in time), the experience is ripe enough to jot down some lessons. I've already posted about taters over at Mocavore, but here's where the gardening info will show.

Instead of buying seed potatoes this year, I just grew surplus food. The Ozettes came from Rising River Farm at the Olympia Farmers Market; I bought them in late fall and stored them in a shoebox in the garage. The others were probably from the supermarket, and I planted them because they were getting soft and sprouty at the right time. Lesson: As long as you keep an eye out for blight, you don't need to buy something labeled "seed potato."

In Olympia as in much of the country, St. Patrick's Day is a good time to plant potatoes, and I did put in the bulk of the crop around them. I tried some in February, tucked up against the sunrise side of the house, but it did not result in a head start on harvest. They're still in the ground, which I think is pretty poor to begin with and was negelected in terms of both fertilizer (none) and water (under the eaves, so not much rain, and I didn't really water). Lesson: Starting early may not hurt, but it doesn't seem to help, either.

The soil here is a sandy loam, which makes it easy to work, it drains well enough that the tubers won't rot, and there are not a bunch of rocks to get in the way and deform the potatoes. On the other hand, it's not very rich in nutrients, so I augmented it a bit. When I dug the bed and prepped it in January, I added bone and blood meal (didn't record the amounts, but less than 2 pounds on a 25-foot by 3-foot bed, as well as wood ash. How much this had to do with the rampant growth that followed I cannot say, this being my first crop on this ground (which was lawn for decades before). Lesson: Sandy soil may be great as a growing medium, but it probably needs some food; adding fertilizer a month or two before planting seems to have helped.

So yeah, growth took off  like crazy, but the plants didn't get too leggy, except for the Yukons, which were planted in a much shadier spot, and which at this point have vines nearly 6 feet long, sprawling all over the place. I hilled everything a couple of times, but contrary to mythology I've heard time and again, but at harvest time it appeared that a second hilling did not create a second round of tuber formation. Even when the plants were growing, and I still harbored the belief that another round of hilling would produce another round of potatoes, I held off on a third attempt, deciding to let the plants focus on fattening up the existing tubers. Lesson: You do need to give your tubers some protection and room to grow, but continuing to hill them up does not seem to give you a bigger crop, and only makes the potatoes harder to get at.

By July, the main potato row was yellowing a bit, and the rapid growth had stopped. Based on pretty much nothing more than a hunch, I figured that potatoes are a little like taro in this respect, with the rate of vegetative growth following something like a bell curve--a slow start, a vigorous middle age, and then decline. Working from little more than superstition, I like to let the decline take its course, as if the strength of the stems and leaves is draining back down and collecting in the tubers. At the end of July, with the tops partially drained, but not yet dessicated skeletons, I started harvest. Having controlled by urge to graffle, I got the whole crop at once. From a 25-foot row, roughly 2/3 in Ozettes and the rest in Redskins, I got a half bushel of the former and maybe 2 pecks of the latter. Looked at another way, each potato I planted turned into several pounds of potatoes that I can eat. Lesson: One row is only a long-term supply if you are on a low-carb diet, but it's a pretty good return on the minimal investment. Also, one of the things that makes gardening fun is that it give me an excuse to use what are otherwise archaic units of measurements--I can hear my grandparents saying those words.

Somewhere along the line, I've heard that you should let potatoes dry out for a little while without washing off the dirt (it being so sandy, not much stuck on anyway), and since this approach appeals both to my love of loam and loathing of extra work, that's what I did. In fact, a couple of weeks later, the Ozettes are sitting in my archaeology screens, which consist of a 4-inch deep frame with 1/4 or 1/8-inch mesh. They're plenty dried off now, and I suppose it's about time to put them in the dark, or maybe hang them up in one of those coffee shipping bags I've been saving. Lesson: Being an archaeologist has its advantages when it comes to harvest time.

The earliest Ozettes and most of the Yukon Golds are still in the ground, and I'm inclined to leave them there for as long as I can. Sandy soil is good storage, and until winter rains saturate the ground, they'll be fine. A holdout Russet from the previous tenant's garden did this, and put out it's own surprise crop this year, maybe a half peck from one plant. Lesson: No need to harvest everything at once; it's more work, and just creates storage issues. In fact, maybe with the remaining ones, I'll just graffle all but a few, and see if they produce and even lower-labor crop next year.

That exeriment will take a while to play out, but looking back at this year, I'm pretty happy. At $2/pound for good varieties of organic potatoes at the Farmers Market, it's not like I've saved a huge amount of money, but I did get enough for a bunch of meals. Being able to put them in in March and pull them a month or so after the Solstice also means that I can grow a Fall crop in their place, and in fact there are already radishes, beets, carrots and kale coming up where the potatoes came out. Because they start fairly early, and hilling happens later on, potatoes work well with the approach of having beds that expand as the season progresses (as in the Tidal Beds post). Lesson: The tater has a place in my garden.