The Kitchen Gardener / Vegetable gardening

Dig me some spuds, you’re the potato man

We visited good friends Jan and Mark Lefebvre (and Jack and Emma) last Sunday at their place near Becker. I would call it a rural estate, a Minnesota plantation, if you will. I profiled Mark and the prairie he is restoring at their home in the Sept/Oct 2011 Northern Gardener magazine. READ THE PROFILE

A mix of Red Pontiac and Russet Burbank potatoes, freshly dug from the farm.

A mix of Red Pontiac and Russet Burbank potatoes, freshly dug from the farm.

Mark grew up as a farmer and though he no longer cultivates acres and acres of land for a living, he maintains a thriving vegetable garden. At our visit last weekend, Mark offered up his freshly dug potatoes (farmers and gardeners are generous sorts) and I had forgotten the magic of digging these little gems out of the soil. It’s like Midwestern truffle hunting.

digging tater

Mark and fellow gardening bud Tim in mid-digging, unearthing the gold.

Mark grows the Russet Burbank potato, a large, brown-skinned, white-fleshed spud that is reportedly extremely high in antioxidants. When you think of an Idahoan potato, this is the one, as it is the most commonly grown variety in Idaho. He also offered up Red Pontiac, also known as Dakota Chief, a red-skinned early spud that is so red, they are like little rubies coming out of the earth.

If you’ve never had a homegrown potato, trust me on this, the flavor is like nothing you’ve never experienced. If you don’t grow your own, I recommend stopping at the farmer’s market or better yet, hooking up with a gardening pal like I do, and sweet-talk them out of a few of their spuds.

In my Sustainable Gardener column in the Northern Gardener March/April issue, I talked about how the great St. Paul gardener Mary Maguire Lerman grows her spuds in a tub. Below I have touched a few of the bases of potato growing and have included an excerpt from my article:

potatoes in a tub

Growing potatoes in a tub!

Spuds in a tub

In my opinion, a homegrown potato is as good as a homegrown tomato … times ten. Homegrown potatoes have a creamy texture and starchy, earthy flavor that has to be experienced to be believed. Potatoes are also one of the most nutritious foods a gardener can grow and folklore tells us that it is the only food you can grow that you are able to survive solely on.

Growing potatoes in a container allows you to plant where the sun shines and is all-around easier than in the ground, particularly at harvest time when all you need to do is tip the container over and sift through the soil for the spuds. No digging is needed. If you’ve ever pierced a nice potato while digging, you will appreciate this.

When I was growing up, gardeners grew potatoes in assembled containers of stacked, discarded tires (and supported their tomato plants to good effect with them, as well), but concern for leaking chemicals has put this practice to limited use these days. Some gardeners grow potatoes in black trash bags, though you need to watch how hot they get. Porous growing bags are available these days to help make the process easier. St. Paul gardener Mary Maguire Lerman grows potatoes in 25 gallon plastic tubs, recycled from a former life of housing container-grown trees from the nursery.

Potatoes are heavy feeders, requiring a high-nutrient growing medium (also easier to achieve in a container) and Mary grows hers in all compost from the Ramsey county compost site, supplemented with both a slow release and immediate release fertilizer before planting. She fills the container one-third full, adds the potatoes, and more compost. You want to have four to five inches of soil or compost on top of your seed potatoes or cut pieces. Mary’s tub of ‘Yukon Gold’ garnered about five pounds. Fancier ‘French Fingerling’ produced a little less.

Potatoes need full sun, at least six hours and consistent moisture, but not too wet. Test the soil by sticking your finger in a couple of inches. If you hit dry ground, it’s time to water. Monitoring moisture is the one thing harder about growing potatoes in a tub. Add your potato container to your rounds of watering other containers.

You can either purchase seed potatoes from a local garden center or reliable online source or cut pieces from a sprouting potato of your own, making sure to have at least one sprout on each piece. Allow the cut pieces to dry for a day before planting. Choose organically grown potatoes, as they will not have been sprayed to keep them from sprouting. Harvest times vary by variety, but you can check for (and eat) little potatoes throughout the season. Generally, if you plan to store your potatoes, let them reach full maturity before harvesting.

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