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The Humble Gardener

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More taters, less labor

If you have ever grown your own potatoes, you know that it is very difficult to go back to eating store bought potatoes. You know, the ones that live in cold storage for months, ship from distant states, taste like cardboard (except the cardboard would be tastier), and seem to visibly sprout as you drive home from the grocery store. Okay, a close second to growing your own is visiting a farmer's market or subscribing to your local CSA (Spurgeon Veggies in East Galesburg provides both of these excellent options). But growing potatoes is not that difficult and also provides Christmas during the summer (more about that later).

If you read articles about planting potatoes, the directions say that you should deeply till the soil, make a trench, put the seed pieces in the trench, and then fill the trench with soil, adding additional soil throughout the growing season. Other directions require the tilling and then the creation of hills. The seed pieces are put in the hills and as the plants grow, more soil is added to the hill. As the plants emerge, hill the soil around the plants to ensure no potatoes are exposed to the sun. Repeat as needed through the growing season.

Both of these methods are, quite simply, a lot of work. As we age, my gardening partner, Chip, and I have sought easier ways to garden. One of the successes we've had in our pursuit of high yields with less labor is how we now grow potatoes.

We still till deeply each spring. This is because potatoes are tubers which grow beneath the ground. Think about planting anything in rock hard soil. It's not going to flourish. After tilling, we amend the soil with compost. We put about three to four inches on the garden and till it in. A friend asked why we don't just amend where we will plant the potato cuttings. Great question. Because potato plants make potatoes underground, the softer the soil, the better chance of getting bigger potatoes that have room for individual growth.

At this point we lock the dogs in the house as they have found the loosened soil and have spent a delightful time cavorting in it. We then rake the dog prints out of the soil and make shallow trenches. The seed pieces are planted, each with an eye (the little sprout that emerges even in store bought potatoes in your kitchen). If there is no eye visible, you won't get a plant. We then cover the trench with soil. We put straw or hay or wood chips between the rows, making sure whichever we use has been outside for the winter so we don't have seeds sprouting. This mulch takes the place of "hilling" more soil around the plants. It also retains moisture.

When the plants emerge, we make sure the mulch is close to the plants. (We have big dogs who think the garden is a racetrack so some scattering of mulch happens on a fairly regular basis.) Usually we do not have to add more wood chips or straw around the plant, but we do check and add some if needed. The one thing you do not want to have in your potato patch is potatoes above the mulch or, if you're using the more labor intensive planting methods, above the soil. Potatoes exposed to sunlight will develop a green skin. This is a toxin. You won't die if you eat it but you likely will get a belly ache. You can cut the green part out. Alternatively, you can keep the green toxin from developing by making sure the potatoes don't get exposed to sunlight. Hopefully you are visiting your garden on a daily basis so you can check that the mulch is still adequate.

Sandra DePalma-Odell
Master Gardener

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