The Great Potato Experiment

We will confine our bag use to potatoes.

We will confine our bag use to potatoes.

One of my other nicknames for Wonder Spouse — assigned with great affection — is Mr. Potato Head. My spouse would eat potatoes once a day and twice on Sundays if he could. It’s not that he dislikes other vegetables — he loves most of them. But he waxes poetic on the versatility of what some deem a humble spud. The secret is not to eat the mass-produced varieties sold in ten-pound bags at your local chain grocery store.

My Mr. Potato Head has become quite a connoisseur of this often unappreciated tuber. Varieties abound, if you know where to look. Yes, as with tomatoes and peppers, you can find entire catalogs devoted to selling potato varieties like Colorado Rose, Conestoga, Dakota Pearl, German Butterball,  Purple Peruvian, and Yukon Gold to name a very few. Some varieties are best for mashing, others for frying, still others make ideal baked potatoes. Fingerling potatoes are gnarly little tubers that resemble arthritic fingers and come in colors ranging from pink to pale yellow. Fingerlings are beloved by gourmet chefs and taste buttery without the addition of actual butter.

If you grow your own, you can have red, white, and blue potatoes for your July 4 potato salad. Mr. Potato Head has produced this patriotic dish more than once. And if you’ve never eaten a truly fresh potato, you have no idea what you’re missing. When you cut into a fresh potato, it’s like slicing an apple — crisp resistant flesh yields moistly to the knife.

As soon as we realized that our five acres of Piedmont possessed sandy loam soils (a rarity), we knew we would be growing root vegetables, and they’ve done well here during our over 20 years of vegetable gardening. Carrots grow long, straight, and sweet. Beets plump up roundly. And potatoes multiply and flourish. At least, they did until the voles decided we were growing the potatoes for them.

The down side of fencing out the deer, it turns out, is that neighborhood cats and other predators can’t get inside to catch burrowing rodents. The rodents, alas, have figured this out, and now clearly consider our vegetable garden to be their own personal Eden.  Still, I manage to get excellent yields from all veggies except the potatoes. A few years back, we lost more than half our crop to the voles. Every other potato we pulled was thoroughly chewed.

Because we are fortunate to live in a region populated by numerous small organic farms who sell their wares at local farmers’ markets, Mr. Potato Head has been able to find most of the varieties we once grew, freshly dug and as tasty as what we grew ourselves. However, some speciality varieties are not productive enough for the small farmers to grow them, so Mr. Potato Head has been pondering ways he can grow those himself.

Some folks grow potatoes in tires, but we nixed this for two reasons. First, tires are not organic. Heaven knows what chemical leak into surrounding soils from tires exposed to hot sun and regular watering. They also are connected to the ground, meaning industrious voles would still find their way to Potato Heaven. Barrels and other solid enclosures seemed likely to present drainage issues, and the expense of those options was prohibitive.

Then Mr. Potato Head spotted the item in the top photo in one of the many gardening catalogs that fill our mailbox. These bags appear to be made out of a nontoxic landscape fabric that permits air and water circulation, but is too strong to be penetrated by voles. We were intrigued, but the cost seemed high, so we passed on this option. But last fall, Mr. Potato Head spotted these bags on sale in the catalog. So we bought three bags. I think we settled on the red ones because of research showing that red-colored mulch improves productivity of tomato plants. Mr. Potato Head is betting that since potatoes and tomatoes are in the same plant family, red bags should boost productivity. Time will tell.

Limiting himself to only three varieties was his greatest challenge. We once grew seven or eight kinds every year. After much pondering, Wonder Spouse settled on Bisons, Purple Vikings, and Kipfel Fingerlings. I believe he has trouble finding at least one of these varieties in the local farmers’ markets, so he was eager to have them once more.

We will fill the bags with a mix of our soil, a bit of compost, and a lot of broken-down leaves. As is always true of potato planting, you plant the tuber pieces in a deep hole and cover them with an inch or so of soil. As the plants sprout and grow, you add more soil, so that the stems will produce multiple levels of tubers.

We’ll find a spot in the garden for our red bags of potential spudly goodness. I’ll provide updates as they progress through the season. If this works, Wonder Spouse may try his hand at constructing his own bags from landscape fabric we have collecting dust in our garage. If all goes well, perhaps future gardens will contain bags full of all of his favorite varieties. I’ve always said, if you’re going to go the trouble of growing your own food, you should absolutely grow the food you like, and at my house, that most certainly includes breakfast hash browns and July 4th patriotic potato salad.

Next post, I’ll update you on the other varieties I’m growing this year. I’ve mostly stuck with old reliable favorites, but as always, a few new varieties looked too tempting to ignore. Have you ordered your seeds yet? If not, get busy. Here in the southeastern Piedmont, spring garden preparations should begin in just a few weeks.

Spring green options always tempt me to excess production, but they're good for me, right?

Spring green options always tempt me to excess production, but they’re good for me, right?

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