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Eugene Weekly : Gardening : 3.15.07

Luscious Spuds

Nourishing staple is easy to grow

BY RACHEL FOSTER

Many gardeners don't bother to grow potatoes. Others find them irresistible, and no wonder. It's immensely satisfying to put a fork in the soil and unearth all that beautiful, healthy food. To anyone who aims for self-sufficiency, potatoes are a must. Falling somewhere between rice and wheat in protein content, they make a nourishing staple while being easier to grow and process than grains. They are also better adapted to poor soils and give bigger yields per acre. Native to Peru, the potato spread around the world after Europeans arrived in the Americas. It fuelled population growth in Europe and saved a conquered and land-poor Irish peasantry from extinction in the late 1600s, just decades after its introduction.

Driven onto marginal land, the Irish poor devised the "lazybed," a raised strip of manure or seaweed covered by soil scraped up from either side. By this method half an acre of land of almost any description could provide for an average family. The population grew by 600 percent in 80 years – leading to disaster whenever the potato crop failed, which was often, since peasants didn't have the luxury of following the good cultural practice of a three-year rotation. Nor could they buy certified seed every two or three years to protect their crop from virus diseases.

Potato "seed" isn't seed at all but tubers, either hen's egg sized ones with several dormant buds (or eyes) or cut portions of larger potatoes, each with two or three eyes. What potatoes like best is a light, fertile, loose-textured soil amended with compost. They reward deep cultivation with a bigger crop, even though you'll plant your seed only a few inches deep. In my dad's garden that meant a deep, well-manured trench beneath each row. After shoots appear and as they grow, you pull up more soil from between the rows to partly cover them — about a quarter of the new growth each time. New tubers form in the soil above your seed potatoes, so mounding soil around the shoots makes room for more potatoes to form. It also prevents the top ones turning green and inedible.

If your soil drains poorly, you can grow spuds in raised beds or rows, much as the Irish did. Corvallis gardener and potato enthusiast Carol Cina says, "We grow all our potatoes. I use raised beds because we have clay soil." She works up her beds during winter and plants her first potatoes some time in March or April. If you plant very early, frost may damage the shoots, she says. You can protect them with a straw mulch or floating row cover, but more shoots will emerge if the first ones are damaged. Cina adds, "Organic farmers around here say you should strew some K-Mag" (a soluble source of potassium, magnesium and sulfur) for this and other solanum crops. Rick Valley (Lost Valley Nature Center) suggests dipping seed potatoes in wood ash, especially if you have cut them. He also says potatoes grow very well with a mulch of comfrey.

If digging isn't your thing or you are short of ground, you can grow a few of your favorite spuds anyway. Gardener (and arborist) Nathaniel Sperry reports "The lazy, politically incorrect way to grow spuds is to re-use a big plastic tree pot, fill the bottom foot with wood chips and layer in some straw, leaves, compost, soil and tubers. Keep it well watered and when you're ready to harvest kick the pot over and pluck the harvest- no mess, no broken back, no damaged potatoes — beyond whatever carcinogens have migrated from the plastic, if any." According to David Hoffman, the "classic un-PC way" is stacking automobile tires and adding mulch as the potato foliage grows. "It is un-PC because of possible heavy metals in the tires and possible mosquito breeding if you are not careful." You have been warned.

I asked Cina, who grows about six varieties selected for flavor and keeping qualities, to name a few favorites. Carola, she said, has great flavor, keeps well and "grows like crazy." It has golden skin and flesh. Desiree, a delicious pink-skinned potato, stores "really, really well." And Red Gold. "We have to eat these quickly because it does not store so well, but it tastes really good – it's our favorite potato."

Cina usually saves her own seed potatoes from year to year. When necessary, she buys certified seed potatoes from Ronniger Potato Farm LLC. Their catalog has an extensive list and good tips on culture and storage. More locally, you can get a limited range of organic certified seed (and cultural tips) from Territorial Seed Company.