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Potatoes







Humans domesticated potatoes in the cool, arid high plateaus of the Andes where annual rainfall averages 8 to 12 inches. The species finds our dry summer quite comfortable. Potatoes produce more calories per unit of land than any other temperate crop. Irrigated potatoes yield more calories and two to three times as much watery bulk and indigestible fiber as those grown without irrigation, but the same variety dry gardened can contain about 30 percent more protein, far more mineral nutrients, and taste better. _Sowing date:_ I make two sowings. The first is a good-luck ritual done religiously on March 17th--St. Patrick's Day. Rain or shine, in untilled mud or finely worked and deeply fluffed earth, I still plant 10 or 12 seed potatoes of an early variety. This provides for summer. The main sowing waits until frost is unlikely and I can dig the potato rows at least 12 inches deep with a spading fork, working in fertilizer as deeply as possible and ending up with a finely pulverized 24-inch-wide bed. At Elkton, this is usually mid-to late April. There is no rush to plant. Potato vines are not frost hardy. If frosted they'll regrow, but being burned back to the ground lowers the final yield. _Spacing:_ I presprout my seeds by spreading them out in daylight at room temperature for a few weeks, and then plant one whole, sprouting, medium-size potato every 18 inches down the center of the row. Barely cover the seed potato. At maturity there should be 2[f]1/2 to 3 feet of soil unoccupied with the roots of any other crop on each side of the row. As the vines emerge, gradually scrape soil up over them with a hoe. Let the vines grow about 4 inches, then pull up about 2 inches of cover. Let another 4 inches grow, then hill up another 2 inches. Continue doing this until the vines begin blooming. At that point there should be a mound of loose, fluffy soil about 12 to 16 inches high gradually filling with tubers lushly covered with blooming vines. _Irrigation:_ Not necessary. In fact, if large water droplets compact the loose soil you scraped up, that may interfere with maximum tuber enlargement. However, after the vines are a foot long or so, foliar feeding every week or 10 days will increase the yield. _Varieties:_ The water-wise gardener's main potato problem is too-early maturity, and then premature sprouting in storage. Early varieties like Yukon Gold--even popular midseason ones like Yellow Finn--don't keep well unless they're planted late enough to brown off in late September. That's no problem if they're irrigated. But planted in late April, earlier varieties will shrivel by August. Potatoes only keep well when very cool, dark, and moist--conditions almost impossible to create on the homestead during summer. The best August compromise is to leave mature potatoes undug, but soil temperatures are in the 70s during August, and by early October, when potatoes should be lifted and put into storage, they'll already be sprouting. Sprouting in October is acceptable for the remainders of my St. Pat's Day sowing that I am keeping over for seed next spring. It is not ok for my main winter storage crop. Our climate requires very late, slow-maturing varieties that can be sown early but that don't brown off until September. Late types usually yield more, too. Most of the seed potato varieties found in garden centers are early or midseason types chosen by farmers for yield without regard to flavor or nutrition. One, Nooksack Cascadian, is a very late variety grown commercially around Bellingham, Washington. Nooksack is pretty good if you like white, all-purpose potatoes. There are much better homegarden varieties available in Ronniger's catalog, all arranged according to maturity. For the ultimate in earlies I suggest Red Gold. For main harvests I'd try Indian Pit, Carole, German Butterball, Siberian, or a few experimental row-feet of any other late variety taking your fancy.





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