Hot For Potatoes

THE REAL DIRT

September 06, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes, four,

If I dig a little deeper I may find a couple more.

Five potatoes, six potatoes, seven potatoes, eight,

Any way you spell it, a fresh potato(e) tastes great.

--Not Dan Quayle

Grab a shovel and get out the sour cream, it's time to harvest the spuds.

Digging the garden by hand is no fun, but for potatoes I'll make an exception. Each shovelful of dirt reveals more potatoes, fat brown lumps destined for a 400-degree oven. Baked, home-grown taters highlight any meal, unlike their humdrum store-bought kin. Their skins are rich, crisp and laced with none of the chemicals found in most supermarket varieties. (Compared to the names of these polysyllabic preservatives, the word "potato" is easy to spell.)

After years of growing spuds, I'm still unsure which is more rewarding: the harvest or the feast. Both are memorable events whose time is nigh.

Gathering potatoes is a search for buried treasure, a hunt for the luscious booty of my dreams. What lies beneath the dying vines? Will this year's crop be large or small? And will I find another potato shaped like a duck? My shovel is poised in anticipation.

Potentially, there is no greater gardening reward -- or disappointment -- than the harvest of root crops. Ordinary veggies, such as tomatoes and beans, bask in sunlight under watchful eyes. But root crops, such as potatoes and carrots, lead dark and mysterious lives over which gardeners have little control.

Only at harvest do we discover the carrots are forked and the potatoes are scabby, and we're helpless to change that.

Yet only at harvest may we unearth bushels of produce beyond '' our wildest dreams.

You never can tell when you'll hit pay dirt.

I've dug potatoes with great expectations and landed a crop obite-sized spuds, no bigger than those that the Incas first grew in Peru 6,000 years ago. I've also approached the big day with little hope, and finished with a record haul.

This country grows 15 million tons of potatoes a year. I'll settlfor 2 bushels from the 20 plants I started last spring.

Potatoes are easy to grow in loose, well-drained garden loam, although they are sometimes raised in compost, rotted leaves or hay. Gardeners have also grown potatoes in large tubs filled with soil, and even trash cans.

In early spring, I plant a row of seed potatoes 1 foot deep. The potatoes, purchased at a garden center, are each no bigger than a golf ball. If I'm lucky, each tater tot will produce a half-dozen large potatoes, an increase of 600 percent. Would that my garden were a bank.

At any rate, in spring I cover the holes with dirt, water them well and wait. The foliage appears in May, blossoms in July and

succumbs in late August -- my cue to harvest the tubers.

(Potatoes may also be left in the ground until late fall. However, gardeners should mark the rows before the foliage dies so they know where to dig at a later date. I once spent a chilly week in October tunneling through the garden in an effort to locate a lost row of red Pontiac potatoes. At our house, that episode is known as "The Hunt for Red October.")

Digging potatoes is a real kick. You drive a spade or pitchfork into bare ground and lift out a pile of tubers, which come in all sizes. The offbeat shapes never reach the supermarket. More's the pity. I've grown three potatoes shaped like ducks, two that favored Roseanne Barr and one that resembled Bart Simpson, hair and all.

Quite often I'll miss several tubers, which spend the winter in the garden and produce foliage of their own the following spring. Since I rotate my potato crop each year (to avoid disease), these leftover plants usually burst through the soil in the middle of a newly dug vegetable bed, rudely upsetting a row of peas or beets.

This is most discouraging. Sometimes I think the spuds are angry for being snubbed at harvest. So they pop up in the most inconvenient places.

If I didn't know better, I'd think potatoes had eyes.

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