A Potato Problem; and a Perennial Brassica

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 25, 2020
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I’ve grown potatoes successfully for many years, always making sure to rotate my plantings each year, and to avoid disease using new potato seed instead of the last of my stored potatoes. I try to get mostly egg-sized seed potatoes to plant whole, and cut any larger ones into separate pieces with at least 2-3 eyes. I dry the cut ones for a day, to let the cut surface dry out.

This year, however, whole sections of the rows never sprouted, particularly the favorite Yukon Golds, with failure also in parts of the Cal Whites and a few of the Red Lasodas. When unearthed, the affected seed potatoes were all rotted, with no sprouts, particularly the ones that had been cut. Was the problem in the seed itself or in the soil? Or did the cutting open them to fungi? The area had been in pole beans and winter squash last year, and corn the year before, so soil rotation should not have been a concern. Plus, I had grown potatoes there in prior years. Very disappointing, since potatoes are as an easy and usually reliable crop.

Although there would be plenty of time to replant, the supply of seed potatoes is long gone, given this year’s surge in gardening interest. When a garden setback occurs, the best thing is to fill the gap quickly. So I planted winter squash starts to cover the bare soil: Cinderella‘s Coach, Kabocha, and Sweetmeat. Hopefully the fact that winter squash and pumpkins had been planted in the same area last year will not be an issue. Plus, the plot had a winter cover crop of annual rye that had been tilled in. Gardens are always an experiment and often an exercise in overcoming adversity.

Note: if anyone else had problems with their seed potatoes this year, please let me know. As in past years, my seed came from the hardware store in town.

A Perennial Brassica

Many years ago I received a gift packet of seeds from a pair of pilgrims who had walked the Camino and then returned the next year to serve as hostel hosts on the Path. The seed was an extremely frost-resistant variety of Kale, with large flat leaves like collards, and commonly grown in gardens in Galicia, thriving in the rainy winter coastal climate similar to the Maritime Northwest. Most unusual for a brassica, it was a perennial, not dying back after going to seed the second season. Each year the plant gets larger and bushier, makes flowers for seed, and surrounds itself with multitudes of seedlings. Fittingly, the tall, thick stalks are fashioned by local craftsmen along the Camino into lightweight walking sticks for the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella. Holy Brassica.

Sadly, the couple who had originally brought me the seed have now both passed on. So, in their memory I maintained several of these everlasting Spanish kales, until finally the plants got too large and had to be removed to make space. But the original plants left behind a store of viable seed in the soil. Even after several years, I found numerous seedlings sprouting up where the parent plants had been. So, as a way of perpetuating the variety, I transplanted them this year into super-sized pots meant for small trees and installed them as mementos in my non-vegetable backyard, hoping they will survive the deer who graze there each evening. I look forward to seeing the large green leaves, as emblematic to me of the Camino as the mileposts there marked with the sign of the pilgrim’s scallop shell.

Note: the variety is officially known as Cabbage-Kale, and originated in the Isle of Jersey.


5 thoughts on “A Potato Problem; and a Perennial Brassica

  1. Evelyn

    Hi, Peter,
    So sorry to hear about the potato problem. I also put in Yukon Gold seed potatoes that I got from a hardware store here in town, and they’re doing just fine (knock on wood).
    Also, fascinating to hear about the perennial kale plant! I understand it’s also known as “walking stick kale” – there’s a great, brief video on it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdrxF602LkM This kale has to be seen to be believed!

    1. Peter Heffelfinger

      Glad to see the Walking Stick kale is being cultivated again, as shown in the video.
      Mine never got so straight and tall since I let them spread out as a bush. The leaves were a favorite winter feed for the goats and sheep that used to be next door to my garden. I like to remove the central leaf stem, roll the leaves tightly, and then slice the rolls cross-wise into thin shreds or chiffonade for adding to hot soup just before serving.

    2. Jan Hersey

      I’m a little late in responding to this post about the unusual kale as I hadn’t checked back for comments. Imagine my surprise when I clicked on Evelyn’s link and suddenly knew I was listening to the voice of one of my very favorite people, Michelle Johnson, narrating the piece! We were neighbors in NC, where she was an amazing reporter for WFDD, the local public radio station. She now works for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Missouri. She’s also produced videos under ShawneeStreetMedia (the street she lived on when we met). Thanks, Evelyn!

  2. Peter C Haase

    I got mine at Skagit Farmers in Burlington. Not Yukons – I think called Arctic Gold (Something about the usual supply of Yukons came from Idaho and were not allowing any cross border shipments so these came from Whatcom.) I also got reds and I do not remember the name but not my usual of Nordland or Lasoda, they all gone. Cut all, dried a day, and planted on April 15 – my “Always plant your potatoes day.” In rotated beds.

    Arctics did just fine right on schedule but not so the reds. I waited and watched and worried and refused to peek. Finally – about 2 weeks after the Arctic sprouts, there they came and came and came and all up good. Now that I think hard, that bin of reds may have mentioned “late.”
    I live where lots of potatoes grown commercially and planting is really late this year .. maybe soil was just a bit too wet/cold/both in yours.

    I always stake what ever I can salvage from ones I didn’t plant and stuff them here and there in a big compost pile and they are all up too. If September comes and your potatoe bin is too empty I maybe can help!

    Pete Haase

    1. Peter Heffelfinger

      Thanks for the potato feed back. I may have planted too early, but the plot was in the driest section of my garden, and I don’t recall the weather being too wet. The potatoes that did come through, about 60% of the total, seem to be ok so far. I did the same cut and let air dry procedure, which has always worked in prior years. I try to use as many egg-sized seed potatoes as I can pick out from the bins, to avoid cutting. It may have been a bacterial problem, according to the retired nurseryman who serves as my garden consultant.
      To fill in the gaps I put in hills of winter squash plants, not quite the source of carbohydrates as potatoes, but they will hopefully keep that area of the garden productive.
      Peter H.

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