Something Special About Spuds

THE REAL DIRT

March 06, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

I dropped by the garden center yesterday on the pretext of visiting Compost the cat.

Compost is a big old tom, a major-league mouser who patrols the place with pride. Scratch his head and he melts in your lap, purring louder than a rototiller.

I enjoy seeing Compost, yet he's only an excuse to drop by the store. I have an ulterior motive.

I'm really here to check out the spuds.

Potatoes are among my favorite vegetables; I can't wait to plant them in spring. Most garden centers sell seed potatoes, so I stake out the place early, in hopes of getting first dibs upon the crop's arrival -- from the northwest, I guess.

Store employees think this is odd; hence, the subterfuge. But my ruse fools no one. The clerk, a middle-aged woman named Evelyn whose tinted hair glitters like vermiculite, sees me and alerts the staff:

"Mr. Potato Head is here."

Alas, the spuds are not. The only taters there are a few greasy fries, the remains of Evelyn's lunch. And Compost is eating them.

I leave, but not before stroking the cat, who emits a 5-horsepower purr.

I'll return tomorrow.

Each year, around St. Patrick's Day, something in my Irish genes stirs me to put on my old jeans and plant potatoes. According to garden folklore, St. Patrick's Day is also Opening Day of potato season. I don't know why. St. Patrick never planted spuds. He was too busy driving the snakes out of Ireland.

Nor can I fathom why more people don't raise potatoes. They are easy to grow, superior in taste to supermarket types and a pleasure to harvest in fall. Digging the plump brown tubers is like finding buried treasure in the back yard.

Trouble is, potatoes leave the garden without ripple cuts or salt. The only topping they come with is dirt. Clearly, in its Neanderthal state, the potato is a fast-food junkie's nightmare.

Taters aren't Irish at all. They hail from South America, where the Incas mastered their cultivation at high altitudes and stored them in vast caves as a hedge against famine.

That lesson was lost on the Irish, whose crop failures in the 1840s led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

Potatoes belong to the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and eggplants. They are not related to the sweet potato, a member of the morning-glory family and which is notably more difficult to grow than the common spud.

Plant potatoes in rich, loose soil as soon as the ground can be worked. Use only certified, disease-free seed potatoes, which are really last year's tubers with "eyes" that sprout when planted. (Supermarket potatoes are laced with chemicals that inhibit sprouting.)

Try several varieties. Kennebec, Norland and the yellow Fingerling types are all popular. Don't ask for Maine or Idaho potatoes; there are no such things. Five pounds will plant a 50-foot row.

Cut each potato into egg-sized sections, each with two eyes or more. Allow the pieces to "heal" for several days in a dry shed or basement. They'll look awful. But when planted underground, those eyes produce sprouts that become stems and leaves. And once the plant is up and growing, it starts making new potatoes underground, as much as 10 pounds per plant.

Plant potatoes eye-side up and 4 inches deep in acid soil in which tomatoes and eggplants were not recently grown. As the tops mature, cultivate lightly with a hoe, hilling up loose dirt around the plants to protect the young tubers forming just beneath the soil.

Harvest any time after the plants wither and die. Begin digging at least 1 foot from the base of the plant, to avoid piercing potatoes. There's nothing more frustrating than stabbing an otherwise perfect tuber with a spading fork. Eat the injured spuds first.

Some gardeners will rob hills of a few "new" potatoes in summer, after the plants have flowered. They deftly reach under the soil at the base of each plant and remove one or two golf-ball-sized tubers. New potatoes taste great, and the plant seldom knows they are missing.

About the main harvest: No doubt you'll miss a few potatoes hiding underground, but that's OK. The escapees should return next spring, yielding a bonus early crop.

My "forgotten" potatoes always seem to sprout among the new tenants of that garden row, wreaking havoc among the carrots or peas.

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