Potatoes, Buried Treasure

Arr matey! ‘Tis potato season and time to seek buried treasure! Potatoes really are a kind of buried treasure. For one thing, the dried stalk you see above ground only gives you a clue as to the location of the potatoes underneath—not a precise location. The potatoes might be all to one side or another of that stalk, or they might be centered beneath it. I use a garden fork to dig potatoes to reduce the risk of making one unusable. I usually start digging about a foot or a foot and a half from the stalk and move inward.

Unlike many people, we mulch our potatoes instead of creating hills for them. I’ve discussed the benefits of mulching in the Mulching Your Garden post. Using a little heavier mulch makes it possible to plant the potatoes and then basically forget them for the entire growing season. To harvest the potatoes, you simply move the mulch away in the fall and dig the thin layer of dirt from around each of the potatoes. Using the mulching technique seems to produce larger potatoes (or at least, larger quantities of potatoes) with less work and no watering. However, potatoes don’t create set amounts of output. There is an uncertainty factor that gives the potato the feel of buried treasure. One plant may produce a few large potatoes and another copious amounts of smaller (salad) potatoes.

Potatoes and tomatoes are both part of the nightshade family. This family contains a number of highly toxic plants. In fact, some varieties of potato are so odd that you’d hardly recognize them and a few varieties are eaten with clay because they’re not digestible otherwise. The varieties sold in the US are rather bland when compared with the unique diversity found in the Andes (amongst other places). The largest potato we’ve ever had weighed an impressive 1½ pounds, which is far below the 25 pound monster dug in Lebanon in 2008.

You can see the resemblance of potatoes and tomatoes in the leaves. In addition, potatoes will produce a tomato-like fruit. It really does look like a green cherry tomato, but the fruit is quite toxic and you should never eat it. The flowering spud looks pretty though and you should carefully look for the blossoms. They last, at most, two or three days. In other words, blink and you’ll miss the flowering completely.

Domestic potatoes are attacked in a number of ways. This year we lost a few to burrowing insects. The most devastating pests were millipedes who ate directly through the potato and left a rotting mess behind. Because of the drought this year, mice were a particular problem. They normally don’t bother the potatoes much, but this year they were looking for food and water—the potatoes provided both. Quackgrass was also a bit of a problem. We lost some potatoes when the quackgrass roots grew right through the tubers. Finally, some of the potatoes had scabs. The scab ruins the skin and makes it impossible to store the potato for any length of time (otherwise, the potato is perfectly edible as long as you cook it).

Our 20′ × 20′ patch produced two bushels of potatoes this year (about 120 pounds). That’s down from the 3½ bushels we received four years ago in the same patch (we rotate our potatoes between three areas). Between the effects of the drought, the extreme heat this summer, and abundance of pathogens, I think we still did quite well. We managed to get a few really nice sized potatoes with a maximum size of 1 pound this year. Buried treasure indeed!

Do you grow potatoes? If so, how did your potatoes do this year? Do you ever encounter any special problems with them? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Weeds, Weeds, and More Weeds!

I must have struck a chord with a few people on Monday (see Real World Global Warming). My inbox has received more than a few notes about weeds. Apparently, Wisconsin isn’t the only place that has been hit hard with them. I’ve received e-mail from a number of locations in the Midwest and a couple of places in areas like Texas. They do seem to be a problem this year. I think that weeds from prehistoric times have taken a sudden urge to sprout.

As I mentioned in my post, we’ve taken a new approach to weeding this year. The weeds are so bad that we’re weeding and immediately mulching. Otherwise, within a couple days time, it seems as if the weeds are coming right back. So far, the mulching technique seems to be working. The areas that we’ve managed to eradicate weeds from are staying weed free with the mulch in place. I can only hope the mulch lasts through the summer.

I’ve noticed a difference in the weeds this year too. We’re having more problems with quack grass than normal. Quack grass is especially troublesome because normal pulling does little to remove it. In fact, if you use normal pulling techniques (or worse yet, cultivate with a rototiller), you only help spread the quack grass. The major problem with quack grass is that it can grow through anything. We actually had it grow right through our potatoes and you’ll often see the stuff growing up through even tiny cracks in concrete and asphalt.

I’ve seen any number of sites recommend using roundup on quack grass. Don’t do it! You’ll only succeed in damaging your soil and other plants. In order to get rid of this pest without damaging other plants in the garden, you must loosen the soil completely and remove the long runner rhizomes.  The grass invades from the grassy areas surrounding the garden, so you should work from the inner part of your garden, outward. I’ve removed rhizomes four and five feet (yes, that’s feet) in length. When done carefully, you can remove enough of the quack grass to keep it controlled. I have never managed to eradicate quack grass from our garden, but I do control it well enough that it’s not much of a problem after the initial weeding. Even one rhizome nodule left in place is enough for the plant to start all over again.

I use a combination cultivator/mattock to remove our quack grass, especially considering the hard baked clay soil this year. This isn’t a genteel weeding device. Use the cultivator part to carefully break up the soil by going straight down on the edge of the quack grass that points away from the edge of the garden. Raise the tool up slowly and carefully. You’ll normally find the quack grass rhizomes on top of the cultivator tines. Keep working to remove as much of the rhizome as possible in one piece to ensure you get it all. Use the mattock end as needed to break up the soil or to sever the rhizomes when you get to the edge of the grass.

Is quack grass bad? Not really! It’s a good plant for controlling erosion. You can’t ask for a better grass to hold a hillside in place. It’s also the best grass I’ve found for the areas where we run our chicken tractors. The chickens can’t seem to kill the stuff off. They will kill absolutely everything else off at some point, but the quack grass keeps coming back. The quack grass also provides good nutrition for our chickens and rabbits. So, it’s not a bad plant—it’s just not wanted in the garden.

We’ve also been seeing more pigweed and lambsquarters this year. Both are easily pulled, however, even in the dried out soil we’re currently dealing with. I wasn’t surprised to learn that both of these plants have different names in other areas of the world, so I provided links to them. Finally, our dandelions are growing profusely everywhere. All of these plants are theoretically edible (especially the dandelions) if you can find a clean source of them. I’m contemplating making the dandelions pay the ultimate price for invading our garden—consumption in a salad. The leaves also taste quite nice boiled with a bit of lemon and olive oil. However, for now, we’re just weeding furiously to get the garden in shape and aren’t taking a lot of time to separate the plants. The chickens and rabbits, however, are in seventh heaven.

What sorts of weeds are you having to control this year? Do you think we’ll eventually get some rain? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.