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The Lowly Spud

My life wouldn’t be the same without the humble spud.  I love potatoes.  Roasted, baked, mashed or ‘new’ potatoes done in foil on the bar-be-que with a little butter, fresh herbs, garlic clove, a dash of red wine and a few shallots are to die for.

Potatoes are low in fat (it’s what we add to them that makes them a diet nightmare); they are packed with vitamins and minerals and make you feel full so you are less tempted to nibble on sugary desserts.

Growing spuds has to be one of the easiest things to do and so rewarding.  You can grow them in a bucket even (a great project for kids).  Spuds like loose, sandy soil, slightly on the acidic side with good drainage and aeration and lots of sun.  Although I use manure in the rest of the garden I stay away from adding it to my potato bed because it tends to encourage scab as does lime.   In the fall I add leaf mould to my raised beds and just this last week I threw in a little bit of Sea Soil, some peat moss, glacial rock dust (for phosphate) and a whole lot of coconut coir, turning it all in to make a nice, loose soil.

When you get your seed potatoes from the garden centre keep them in a dry, slightly warm yet dark place so that the ‘eyes’ can sprout (I use a paper bag).  This is called ‘chitting’.  When the sprouts are about half an inch long (or at least showing some life) cut the potato with a clean, sharp knife into a few pieces, each piece having at least a couple of good sprouts.   The smaller spuds you can plant whole.  I plant each piece about three inches deep and about twelve inches apart in a trench about a foot deep.

Once the potato plant grows about six inches you can start hilling them, piling more soil into the trench around the plant, leaving a couple of inches showing.  Do this again as the plant grows until it reaches the top of the trench.  This stops the sun reaching the spuds that will grow just under the surface of the soil.   You can also use straw to mulch your spud bed instead of doing the trench method.  Plant the pieces just under the soil and then cover with a thick layer of straw.  This keeps the soil warm and also keeps the sunlight away from the growing tubers.

Water is essential to your yield of spuds especially during the dry summer months as they grow near the surface and tend to dry out quickly.  In late spring I add a handful of good, organic vegetable fertilizer.

When the plant flowers and the blossoms die off then that’s the first sign that you can start to harvest.  I begin digging early because I can’t wait to have that first taste.  Carefully lift the plant out and then either dig around with your hands or use a pitchfork to find the potatoes.  Digging them up is like hunting for Easter eggs, especially the fun purple varieties.  You never know how many you’ll find or what size and you always wonder if there’s another one that you missed.

Once harvested potatoes should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place.  When exposed to sunlight (either poking up through the ground or on the kitchen counter) the potato goes through a chemical change that results in turning the skin green (the potatoes, not yours).  This green skin is toxic and should be peeled or cut away or just discard the spud if you’re particularly cautious.   I usually leave my spuds in the ground until I’m ready to use them as they keep really well there.  I’ve been known to fork through the soil in the middle of winter for that last crop.

Beware the wireworm, though.  It’s a golden yellow, tough skinned, wiry worm that loves to burrow through a spud.  If you see them when you’re turning your soil just pluck them out.  They’re not easy to squish but have no defense against the sharp edge of a trowel.

I use nematodes in my vegetable beds to help control wireworms and other soil dwelling, vegetable gorging bugs.  I also sacrifice a few store bought spuds and carrots and bury them into the soil a few weeks before planting, lifting them out every few days to see if I’ve caught any wireworms which then get tossed into a bucket of soapy water.  Also, rotating crops is important as it stops any particular pest from getting too comfortable and establishing a community.  So, don’t plant the same thing from the same family in the same spot year after year (that’s another article to come).

Easy to grow, ever so tasty.  Remember… herbs, garlic, shallots, a dab of butter, a little water to help steam them all wrapped up in foil and placed on the bar-be-queue.  Yum.

Shirley Eppler

March 2009