On growing potatoes

Originally published in the Northern Agrarian.

When I write about gardening I sometimes, without meaning to, give the impression that I wake every morning to survey a vast domain of neatly tilled beds and a refrigerator bursting with home-grown produce. In fact we have very little space. We own an acre and a quarter, but nearly all of it is wooded; very little gets enough sun to support a garden — and most of that is in the backyard, which has the twin disadvantage of being underlaid by a septic field and being overrun by basset hounds. The former means we can’t dig, while the later means that anything we do plant will be dug up.

When we first bought the house we built raised beds and gardened in the sunny backyard. Our dogs then didn’t dig; their only interest in the garden was the occasional low-hanging cherry tomato or a baby watermelon too easily mistaken for a tennis ball. But they’ve passed on, and our new dogs think a raised bed is a sandbox. Any fence that doesn’t prevent easy weeding is no match for their barrel chests and stubborn wills. The backyard once produced great quantities of cucumbers, peppers, beans, and sugar snap peas, but seedlings no longer stand a chance. Last winter I dug up and sheet-composted some new ground at the bottom of the driveway, about eight feet by twenty, enough for greens and potatoes. But I hated to waste all those carefully constructed raised beds.

Potatoes were the only crop I could think of that might be basset proof. Before our daughter Ivy was born we used to grow them in bins: three short metal fenceposts supporting a ring of chickenwire, lined with newspaper and burlap. As the plants grew we piled more dirt into the bins, and when they died back we took down the wire and combed through to find the potatoes. Simple enough, and a good use of a small space.

So in early March I built four bins, two in each of a pair of four-by-eight raised beds, and Ivy helped me plant some Pontiacs and Kennebecs from the garden store down the highway. Sure enough, after I built the bins this spring and planted the potatoes, our dog Sadie found her way into one of them — and couldn’t find her way back out. An hour or two in chickenwire prison was enough, and after that she left them alone. Last week we harvested the first two of four bins, and Ivy declared them the best potatoes she ever ate in her whole life.

Few gardeners grow potatoes, perhaps thinking they’re too mundane to be interesting. But although my wife has experimented with raspberries and (quite successfully) with shiitake mushrooms, it’s the potatoes that are the real vanity crop. There is an obvious benefit to growing your own tomatoes – even at a farmer’s market you don’t get the real pick of the crop; if you want fruit at its absolute peak of ripeness, you must grow it yourself. Snap beans, too, are best if you pick them in small batches as they’re ready and you want them, instead of once a week on Friday for market. Ditto cucumbers and zucchini. And it’s relatively easy to grow all you can eat of those crops for a few months in a fairly small patch of dirt.

Potatoes are harder to justify. in a small space we can grow only a fraction of what we’d eat over the course of a season. From our first two bins we harvested eight pounds of red-skinned potatoes; we could have had more, but the plants wilted young — a disadvantage of buying garden-store variety potatoes not certified against disease, but mail-order seed potatoes are just too expensive in small quantities. Eight pounds wasn’t too bad for a 4-by-8-foot bed and a half-serious attempt, but it won’t last more than a couple of weeks, especially the way Ivy has begun eating potatoes.

The difference in flavor is subtle, but interesting if you pay close attention. Potatoes freshly dug — and I mean freshly dug, eaten within a few hours or few days after they left the ground — have a richness and complexity of flavor that they seem to lose after even a few weeks in a bag or a barrel. They become a vegetable, a meaningful food, even the centerpiece of a meal instead of just the starch you toss on the plate next to an oversized hunk of meat. And you could experiment with varieties beyond the standard red, white, and yellow — cranberry, blue, carola, all the rainbow varieties my farmer friends grow for direct sale — although we didn’t; we grew whatever the garden center happened to have in stock.

Potatoes are educational for kids, of course, and fun even for grownups. They defy the standard plant-a-seed-and-watch-it-grow procedure everyone learned in elementary school, and that the food is hidden under mounds of earth is nearly magical to a kid.

But the real reason I enjoy growing potatoes is precisely that they are so mundane. They’re basic food, carbs, the staff of life for a billion people. If I combine fresh-dug potatoes with eggs from my ducks, a tomato or summer squash and some herbs, I’ve got a full meal. Potatoes may not impress the way a fresh Cherokee Purple tomato impresses, but if I can learn to grow them in my back yard, then feeding myself is only a matter of scale.

—Or so I like to think. As I said, it’s a vanity. I have a lot to learn about growing potatoes. But backyard gardening is as much about the inspiration as the yield, after all. Even if I’m only playing at self-sufficiency, play can teach us a lot about who we are or would like to be.
And that one entirely home-grown meal a year tastes mighty good. Maybe even the best I ever ate in my whole life.