Perfect Potatoes In Any Soil (Or Nearly None)

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And Joyful Gardening The Lazy Way

Those whose gardens have been over-run by enthusiastic potato escapees may wonder why on earth anybody needs to know how to grow potatoes. They might rather inquire how NOT to grow potatoes. However, the blessed spud grows best in open, loamy soils and rather poorly in sandy ones. As for clay, they hate it and clay-borne potato diseases are legion. That’s why many clay country gardeners grow potatoes in bins or barrels rather than in the troublesome ground.

ruthstout2Years ago, Ruth Stout (sister to mystery writer Rex Stout) developed her famous no-dig, no-till gardening methods partly out of creative laziness and partly to get clean potatoes rather than scabby ones. Ruth filled her entire (though small) back garden with heaps of autumn leaves, grass clippings, and bales of straw and spoiled and/or salt marsh hay (often used for animal bedding in New England, at least it was when I was a girl). Gradually she created fabulous soil under deep mulch no weed could penetrate.

Pile It On

The redoubtable old gal lived well into her 90s and gardened the easy way right up to the end. She never tilled, sowed cover crops, weeded, watered or sprayed pesticides, and only fertilized with cottonseed or soybean meals. She never made compost either, preferring to do what was essentially sheet composting right in the garden beds. Happily for me, I found her books (now out of print) when in my 20s and have been a deep mulch devotee ever since. Stout often gave garden talks and when asked how to get started, she always suggested buying in bales of straw (not hay). When asked how much, she always replied, “Twice as much as you think.”

Happily, one of her garden pals was more scientifically oriented and in her books, she offered HIS assessment, which was that it takes about half a ton of loose hay or 25 50-pound bales to cover a 50 x 50 foot space. That savvy fellow also suggested buying in as much again to use through the growing season. I admit I never bought a ton of hay all in one go, but I did take Ruth’s admonishments to heart about maintaining at least an 8 inch depth of loose mulch in my edible beds.

Grow Potatoes In Straw, Not Clay

If you enjoy eating potatoes, you can use organically grown potatoes to make starts of kinds you like eating. To do that, leave potatoes that have sprouting eyes in a sunny spot for a few days. When the shoots start to elongate, cut the potatoes in big chunks (about the size of an egg), each with an eye or two. Put the chunks on a bakers’ cooling rack to harden off for a day or overnight (a sort of skin will form over the cut places). When the cuts are clean and dry, you can plant.

It’s also deeply rewarding to buy seed potatoes of interesting kinds not locally available to broaden your kitchen palette. If certified organic, seed potatoes won’t carry pesticide residues from your garden to your plate. Whether home started or store bought, don’t let them sit around; plant your potato starts as soon as possible to get the healthiest, strongest plants. Aim to have early varieties in the ground by mid April, adding mid- and late-season varieties in May and June.

A Sweet Bed Of Straw

If your soil is heavy like mine, you will get superior results by growing your potatoes in a bed of straw. To do this in the ground, dig the usual trench (four inches deep and a foot wide), scratch in some cottonseed meal or soy meal, then amend the soil well with mature compost. If containers are your preference or necessity, fill them with about six inches of well amended potting soil, adding seed meals here as well.

Place each potato start cut-side-down (eye-side up if using seed potatoes) and about a foot apart. Gently shove them about an inch into the soil, then let them grow. When the stems are about 6 inches tall, instead of mounding on soil in the usual way, surround them with fluffed-out straw, leaving just a few leaves showing. Since potatoes form along the stems, having long ones promotes larger crops. Keep adding straw as the plants grow up, so most of the plant remains under the mulch, and keep all potatoes well covered. (If potatoes are exposed to sun, they form green skins that are toxic.) Water as needed to keep the matrix moist but not soggy.

Potato Picking Time

You can begin harvesting new potatoes in late July, gently digging down into the straw for marble-sized younglings. For full sized potatoes, wait until August for early season types and harvest mid- and late types in September and early October when the top growth withers. To take the whole shebang, remove the straw (to the compost heap) and gather the potatoes as you go. It’s very satisfying to have whole perfect tubers, not battle scarred ones that got speared by your garden fork!

I especially love heritage fingerlings, which are delightful roasted and make such fabulous potato salad. Ozettes may be the yummiest of all, with a rich, slightly nutty flavor and firm yet creamy texture. They need a full summer to reach maturity, so I also plant some mid season Rose Finn Apple fingerlings, with pinky-beige skin and delicious golden flesh. Dump on plenty of straw if you try these dainty beauties, since the tubers form near the top of the stems.

Fabulous Fatties

One delightful early potato is Mountain Rose, a pretty and pleasingly plump spud with pink skin and rose tinted flesh. Bred to be especially nutritious, Mountain Rose is packed with antioxidants and makes a mean mash or soup. For later season mashing, roasting, soups and rosti, I love the plump and pretty  German Butterballs, heirlooms which combine golden good looks with a distinctive and truly buttery flavor and pleasing texture. They are late season croppers, very productive and healthy and terrific keepers as well. They are almost my favorite all-purpose, except for early girl Yukon Golds, which are now widely available but taste even better when home grown. These are my go-to potatoes for curry, stews, and hash browns as well as oven roasted “fries” that are sadly addictive.

Swiss Rosti (Potato Pancakes Supreme)

3 large Yukon Gold or russet potatoes (about 2 pounds)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons avocado oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Place potatoes in a pan with water to cover, bring to a boil and simmer until tender (25-30 minutes). Drain and cool on a rack until you can pick them up. Skin the potatoes, chill them for an hour or so, then coarsely grate them into a dish. Melt butter in oil in a wide, shallow pan over medium high heat, then add potatoes, tossing gently to coat and sprinkling with salt and pepper. Gently press them into the pan to form a cake and cook over medium high heat until crisp and golden on the bottom. Cover pan with a plate and flip potatoes, then slip them back into the pan and cook until crisp and golden (about 20 minutes). Serve hot, in wedges. Serves four.

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