Category Archives: Potatoes

Potatoes, Making Beds, and Snails and Slugs

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted April 5, 2021

Potato Planting

With the unsettled weather of late, my low-lying, lakeside garden plot is still a bit too wet to plant potatoes. The winter ground cover of annual rye has been tilled twice during the sunny days in between the bouts of rain. Once the soil is somewhat drier, and the last of the rye has decomposed, the tubers can go in. To avoid having to cut large potato sets into smaller pieces, I try to select egg-sized starts. I think of laying the small ovals into the deep furrow, and carefully covering them up with soil, as a post-Easter hiding-the-eggs ritual.

Later on, the harvest of all the full-sized spuds is a delayed treasure hunt. The hope is to dig up good-sized potatoes with as little disease as possible, either black scab on the outer skin or soft brown rot inside.

Planting Potatoes (Video Guide) - BBC Gardeners' World ...

Given our relatively mild, wet winters, potato diseases tend to linger on in the soil. To prevent buildup of disease, it’s especially important to plant disease-free seed, to rotate plantings each year, and to promptly remove any potentially diseased seedlings that may sprout from unharvested tubers, missed by the potato fork in the fall. Potatoes are the one carbohydrate reliably grown in the home garden, so guard the crop each year against the spread of disease.

 

Remaking the Beds

One of the few dry spots in the spring garden are the raised beds of the over-wintered leeks. Once the last of the alliums are harvested, the soil on the high mounds dries out quickly and can be worked up easily with a fork. The soft, white leek roots will dissolve easily back into the soil, maintaining the airy tilth of the ground. Since I grow various brassicas year-round, I have to make sure there are beds opening up that were not previously planted with any member of the cabbage family. Thus, my leek beds become the first place for starts of early cabbage and broccoli. At the opposite end of the cycle, the last of the over-wintered cabbages are just being used up. The cut stalks left in the ground are pushing out small side sprouts that are perfect for stir-fries, late additions to soups, or eaten fresh.

Brassicas are easily grown in each season, but they do require protection from insects in the spring. The cabbage root maggot fly appears early in the year and it will decimate seedlings. The only protection is to cover the plants completely with floating row material such as Agribon, carefully sealing all the edges on the ground with boards, metal fence posts, or soil. The plants must be kept isolated from the small fly, which lays its eggs near the stalk of any young brassica. The maggots then migrate through the soil to feed on the soft roots, causing seemingly healthy six-inch starts to suddenly keel over.

Factsheet - Brassica club root (283)

As the brassicas grow under the protective tent, the white material can be supported by metal or plastic hoops and secured in the wind by clamps. You can water plants through the row cover, but you will need to lift the cover to remove weeds, which thrive under the slightly warmer temperatures under the small hoop house. Once the brassica plant is full-sized, and the stalk is thick, the plant is relatively safe and the cover can be taken off.

But, the next insect soon appears, the white cabbage butterfly, dancing over the leaves, looking for a mate. As long as the throng of butterflies is not too thick, I don’t mind a small number of green caterpillars that will show up later on. If it’s a problem, keep the maturing plants under the row cover until it is time to harvest.

Actually, it’s quite a thrill to finally remove the row cover and reveal mature, healthy broccolis or cabbages underneath. Almost like magic.

 

Snails and Slugs

Snails and slugs are an important part of the natural composting cycle in nature. Think of them as digesters of the plant or organic material that accumulates on the ground. In the garden, however, if you have too many, they can become a problem. They’re especially attracted to young vegetable starts, so it’s important to start removing the initial spring buildup of these creatures. I find the easiest method is to lay boards by the side of the garden beds, or near any particularly wet spot. After their nighttime forays, the snails and slugs will hide out under the boards during the day. Flip the boards over, remove or squish the critters and replace the flat traps for the next accumulation. Also, keep an eye out for any nest of small, pea-sized, translucent slug eggs in your garden soil, most likely in an undisturbed spot, hidden just under the surface. Squish again, to prevent a new wave. With the advent of dry summer weather, the population of slugs and snails diminishes.

Pin by Sandy Camp on Yard | Snail, Photo, Ipm

But it’s wise to keep the numbers in check all season long.

Snails will also gather on the large stalks of over-wintering cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts, hidden by the thick layer of leaves and protected by their hard shells. My understanding is that the local population, which arrived here as an invasive species a few decades ago, are Asian land snails, not the edible variety consumed in Europe. Nor are they the small, but tasty Turk’s Head snails served along with sushi in Japan. A flock of free-range ducks would gladly eat the snails in your garden, but that involves another level of animal husbandry.

Note: I use Sluggo pellets in small amounts only when necessary to protect small starts during very wet weather. Any paste or liquid snail bait can be fatal to birds, who pick up the chemical on their feet.

Potato Storage

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted September 28, 2020

 

I often think of potatoes as pioneer food, since the tubers would last for months while being transported long distances and then could be planted in the first available spot at a new homestead. No special soil or cultivation needed, at least for the initial crop, and no extra fertilizer required the first year since the potato itself was a self-contained nutrient supply for the young seedling. I imagine the early settlers in the Pacific Northwest sticking a few precious potatoes in the open ground between the newly fallen old-growth trees. Potatoes were the easily grown carbohydrate that was not only a complete food nutritionally, but could be also be stored easily all winter. No wonder potatoes, first domesticated in the New World, rapidly spread to the other continents.

These days, before digging up the potatoes, I let the vines completely die down and then sit undisturbed for two weeks in order for the soft potato skins to harden up. In past years I washed down the freshly dug tubers with a hose and then let them air dry in the sun for no more than half a day, being careful to avoid any green skin spots developing from over-exposure to light. [Note: the green skin layer on a potato should be removed and not eaten, since it develops a harmful substance.] My thought was that washing would help prevent any soil-borne diseases from being carried into the storage containers. It has worked fine to date, but it was a full day of work to prepare the spuds for storage.

Recently a Master Gardener column stated that it was safe to store potatoes unwashed, I assume to limit any exposure to water or to avoid the spread of disease. So, this year I merely rubbed any dry soil off, and got rid of any rotten or obviously diseased tubers. I always have a few with brown rot in a hollowed-out core, but it hasn’t been a major blight for me to date. (I have heard this year, however, from another local gardener with that disease in his red potatoes.) A small amount of scab on the surface seems to be ok since it doesn’t penetrate the skin enough to cause spoilage later on. Any potatoes damaged from digging I put aside for immediate use since freshly broken skin areas would soon decay.

All in all, potatoes are susceptible to a variety of diseases, but it is possible to have a good crop as long as you practice good garden hygiene, rotate your growing site, and make sure to plant in our native acid soil (no lime application the winter before or just prior to planting). And use certified, disease-free seed potatoes. I rely on varieties that do well locally, such as Yukon Gold, California Whites, a standard Russet, and whichever Red is available each year. I’ve found that East Coast varieties such as Kennebec don’t seem to do well out here, perhaps due to different soil and milder weather. I’ve grown the purple potatoes originally from Peru, which did very well, but they’re a visual challenge on the plate.

For storage containers I use cardboard boxes filled just halfway with potatoes, with a layer of newspaper inserted against the side-walls to block the light from any handle or ventilation openings. I also add several layers of newsprint on top of the potatoes before folding over the top flaps of the box. The aim is to seal out any possible exposure to light. I find that the half-filled box allows the tubers to breathe a bit, since they give off a lot of moisture in storage. The newspaper acts as a sponge to soak up any extra humidity that might cause rot.

Fresh-dug potatoes are essentially seed plants over-wintering in the dark, waiting for spring. Actually, they don’t wait very long before the ‘eyes’ start sprouting, usually by mid-winter. I check the boxes regularly, rubbing off any new sprouts as they appear. If left to grow out, the sprouts will turn into active roots, and the entire box will soon turn into a nest of interlaced white roots. The potatoes themselves will have started to turn soft, since they are feeding the roots. If carefully de-sprouted at least once a month, I find that boxed potatoes will last most of the winter.

Note: To avoid confusion later on, limit each box to one variety and label it on the outside. Varieties of potatoes may have shorter or longer storage lives, not to mention differing densities that will affect cooking times.

I keep the boxes on a cool concrete floor of an unheated laundry room, next to a freezer and a storage fridge for fermented kraut and pickles.

The appliance motors supply just enough indoor warmth to protect any stored produce from freezing, but not too much heat to cause spoilage.

If any of the potatoes do eventually become too sprouted and soft, process them en masse by removing the sprouts, paring off the softened skins and boiling them all up. I let them cool and then store in freezer bags as a last supply of potatoes for the tail end of winter. Not the highest quality fresh produce, but they are homegrown, organic, and good for soup or hash browns. Plus, I always feel committed to using up what I have raised myself. Any potatoes that are too far gone, however, end up in the worm bins.

In order to avoid disease, I don’t use any homegrown potatoes as seed the following year. I always buy fresh seed potatoes each spring, since they’re checked to be disease-free, having been grown in drier areas that are less prone to the many diseases that potatoes are prone to. Of course, if you’re attempting to maintain an heirloom variety, you’ll have to use the healthy-looking potatoes left in storage, sprouts and all. That is what the pioneers did, and certainly what the Incas still do in the Andes, where potatoes were first domesticated.

The End of Summer

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted September 21, 2020

The End of Summer

After the many days of forest fire smoke, with a lack of wind due to the inversion effect of the heavy haze, it was a relief this past weekend to finally see the sun and feel a small breeze. The extreme fire danger is still present, so one hopes we can get through the fall without any local blazes.

While the weather was on hold, the garden duties kept perking along. The last of the tomatoes needed to be processed or given away, the final cucumbers had to be pickled or made into appetizers, and the cabbage heads, both green and red, made their way into the sauerkraut jars. In June a third of my seed potatoes failed to sprout due to the wet weather, but, to my great relief, the rest of the seed ultimately produced a healthy harvest of Yukon Golds, La Soda Reds, and California Whites. To quickly cover the failed potato ground I planted a few hills of winter squash and pumpkins. By September that bare corner of the garden was filled with the bright oranges of Cinderella’s Coach squash and Sugar Pie pumpkins.

At the other end of the garden, a planting of standard pumpkins is offering similar pre-Halloween bounty, along with a great number of Vegetable Spaghetti squash. As the vines die back, all the members of the extended gourd family need to be moved to a dry, airy space to properly cure prior to storage indoors. It’s going to be a cucurbit winter.

Fall Greens

The early September plantings of Oriental greens, Miner’s lettuce, mustards, turnips and kohlrabi all came through the smoky stasis. As often happens, I seeded the bed a bit too thickly, so the first duty was to carefully thin the seedlings to give them proper spacing. For fall and winter vegetables it is important to leave extra room between the plants; they need to spread out a bit wider to gather the decreased light from the low-angled winter sun. At 45 degrees latitude north, our corner of the Pacific Northwest is halfway to the North Pole, and in winter is far removed from the more sunny south.

I also made a second planting of fall greens two weeks later, just in case there was any problem due to the continually grey days. If we get an extended stretch of warm autumn weather, both patches should do well. If cold weather threatens later on, I can set up small hoop houses of floating row cover to keep off the frost. I prefer row cover to plastic for winter protection, since it provides just enough added heat to protect hardy greens, allows the rain to water the beds, and also softens the harsh winds. Given our recent trend toward warmer but wetter winters, I’m betting that we won’t see any really hard freezes. But just in case, it pays to keep a supply of Agribon or Reemay row cover handy.

Fall Cover Crop

The fall equinox is also a good time to plant a fall cover crop. I prefer annual rye since it’s simple to plant. I find that most cover crop mixes include seeds of widely varying size, from large Alaskan peas to tiny crimson clover, with annual rye in the middle. It’s difficult to plant each seed at its proper depth, often resulting in spotty germination. I cover freshly seeded rye, lightly raked in, with floating row cover for a few weeks, as protection against hungry birds. If you wait to plant rye later in the fall, when the soil is much cooler, the row cover also provides just enough warmth to sprout the seed.

Row cover material is actually plain white interfacing, commonly used in lining down jackets and other clothes. Who knew it could also be used to protect gardens against the cold? A tool of the garment industry has crossed over into horticulture.

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.