You can learn a lot about life just by planting a garden. It doesn’t matter whether you grow flowers or vegetables, the lessons are the same. For one thing, you learn that everything you do is not always going to be successful no matter how hard you work at it or how well you research it.
I learned that lesson the hard way, the first year I planted potatoes.
I read magazines, books and pamphlets about planting, growing and harvesting potatoes. I wrote down everything — potatoes don’t like heavy soil, trench them but don’t bury them. Try using pine needles instead of dirt as the growing medium. Plant them eye side up. Potatoes don’t like heat so plant in the fall to harvest early in the spring. Plant them in the spring, as soon as you can work the soil, but early enough so you can harvest when it’s still cool.
Once the research was done, I ventured out to talk to some people I thought would know.
I drove to the local feed store and talked to the man behind the counter. He’s lived in the country all his life and spends 6 days a week selling tools, ointments, salves and seeds to the people who make up our small town. He said, “It’s all in the seed potato you pick. Gotta’ make sure you get one that has been grown just to be planted again.”
I walked across the road and trudged up the long, steep driveway to my neighbor’s house. He’s a farmer and he harvests acres of potatoes every year. “It’s in the soil,” he said, “If you’ve got the right mix of nutrients, you can’t miss. Till in some cow manure in the fall and your potatoes will grow themselves.”
I talked to my Mom. She’d had a garden for as long as I can remember. The last year she was alive, her garden was 5 times the size of mine. (The fact that she was 82 at the time and couldn’t wait for spring thaw so she can get out there and grow again is another lesson for another time.)
Mom said, “Plant them at the top of the garden, on the slope. Cover them with mulch until they flower. Then leave them alone till the tops fall over.”
I added this advice to all the other tips I had written in my gardening journal. Then, because old habits die hard, I organized it like I was going to deliver a presentation then wrote my executive summary for the best approach to growing potatoes:
- Till cow manure into the soil at least one season before you want to plant.
- Buy seed potatoes grown just for planting.
- Time the planting so you can harvest before it gets too hot.
- Plant where the soil is well-drained – potatoes don’t like wet feet.
- Trench potatoes, don’t bury them.
- Use pine needles or mulch to cover them, not soil.
- Plant them eye side up so they see the sun and grow up.
- Wait for the tops to fall and then harvest.
This seemed pretty easy. Only 8 steps and a few seed potatoes and I would have 50 pounds of homegrown potatoes. I had the plan now all I had to do was execute it. Cow manure had been spread and tilled in last fall. That meant I could plant in March and harvest in June. There was only one thing missing — pine needles.
My husband joined me in a clandestine raid on a large stand of pine trees at a nearby church. We bagged eight 20 gallon sacks of needles to toss under and over the potato seeds and made a successful getaway. I was ready and so was my garden.
The big day came. It was time to pick the seed. My friendly hardware man was
there to help me. We picked Pontiac Red Bliss and Yukon Gold. I drove home with my treasures and jumped out of the car and headed for the back yard, ready to plant.
Two trenches cut across the top of my garden. I made them about 14 inches deep, mounding the dirt from each trench in the space between the rows. A bed of pine needles, 3 inches deep, was waiting for my potato seeds.
Taking out my husband’s 25 foot tape measure, I pulled the tab and laid it alongside the first trench. Every 6 inches, one potato seed was carefully placed in the trench, eye up. When I finished with the Red Bliss, I moved to the second trench to measure, mark and place the Yukon Gold potato seeds.
When the last seed went into the trench, I stood up to admire my work. Perfect, all the eyes up, all in a row. All that was left was to cover both rows with a bit of dirt and a blob of pine needles and wait for the seeds to sprout.
When Potatoes Go Awry
If you’ve ever tasted home-grown potatoes, fresh out of the garden, you know that there aren’t many other taste sensations that come close to that of a freshly steamed baby potato drowning in real butter.
Potatoes are so flavorful and seem so easy to grow. And they really are easy to grow. But, there are one or two things you have to know to prevent the disaster I experienced in my first foray into raising spuds.
Yes, all of my seed potatoes sprouted. Yes, the greenery shot up and I kept covering it, rejoicing in how easy it was going to be to get organically grown potatoes for so little effort. Then the leaves started getting lacy and going brown and dropping to the ground. An old friend was in the house!
Next week…bugs that bug potatoes or how my hatred for the Colorado Potato Beetles just keeps growing and growing.