I Dig Potatoes

We plant a big garden of potatoes every year.  I consider them essential to the homesteading lifestyle.  They’re fairly easy to grow, nutritious and delicious.  They’re easy to store, requiring no freezing, canning or drying.  They are a staple food that have helped farmers and homesteaders survive winter for centuries.

When I was growing up we called all potatoes other than sweet potatoes “Irish potatoes.” But with our accent, which drops “r’s” whenever possible, it sounds like we’re saying “Ash potatoes.”  I was an adult before I figured out that “ash potatoes” were actually “Irish potatoes.”  It’s kind of funny that potatoes, a new world vegetable, would come to be known as “Irish.”  But I’ll save reflections on that for another day.

It is traditional to plant Irish potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day, or on Good Friday, depending upon your tradition.  They’re planted by digging a trench and dropping in pieces of seed potatoes, which are just potatoes saved from the previous year, about one foot apart.   We cover the seed potato with half the dirt from the trench, then when the plant is about a foot tall we pull the dirt from the other side of the trench.  As the plant grows it’s best to pull more soil to it, creating a mound.

Deer don’t eat potato plants (at least not yet), so it’s not necessary to fence them.  The major threat to potatoes (other than blight) comes from the dreaded Colorado Potato Beetle, better known around here as “potato bugs.”  Pesticides eliminate them easily, but at the expense of dousing your crop in poison.  We control them by picking them off by hand. We try to walk each row at least once a day, carefully looking for eggs, larvae and adults. They will completely and quickly destroy a crop if not controlled.  But we’ve found that with a few weeks of diligence we can eliminate them, without the use of any poisons.

In exceptionally wet years, such as this one, a lot of the potatoes will rot in the ground.  But even in a bad year, like this one, we still harvest an abundance of potatoes.

This year, in addition to our normal plantings of red, white and yellow potatoes (Yukon Gold is our favorite and principal potato), we planted five varieties of fingerlings.  They’ve been a hit with our CSA and at the farmer’s market.  They’ve been a hit with me too.

This week I began harvesting our La Ratte fingerlings, the last of this years potatoes.  Other than those we take for new potatoes, I harvest all of our main potato crop at one time, usually around the first of July. We then spread them on tarps in our basement and use box fans to dry them out and cure them for storage.  Once they’re cured we put them in vegetable crates and store them in a dark cool place.  Stored this way they’ll last till Spring. Historically potatoes have been the major winter food source for farm families for this reason.  But with our fingerlings we knew we weren’t going to store them for winter, so we left them in the ground until just before we needed them, as freshly dug potatoes taste best.

Getting up the La Ratte fingerlings.

Getting up the La Ratte fingerlings.

For thousands of years, early spring was known as the “starving time.”  I’ve often thought of that cruel irony.   Even though the world would be beginning to burst out with life, it would be too soon for any food crops to be ready and by then the things saved for winter would have been eaten or would have spoiled.  And of course the farmers would have to save some of their stored food for seed.  Even while facing starvation, they would go out to their fields with perfectly edible seed potatoes, wheat and corn, and plant them in the ground, to assure their families would have food for another year.  I can only imagine how it must have felt to take the family’s last remaining food and bury it in the ground, in hopes of a harvest later that year.

The Psalmist describes it this way:

Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.

Of course I’m not weeping when I plant our potatoes, worrying about starving.  We’re fortunate enough to have plenty of food, even during the “starving time.”

But this week, as I gather up the last of our Irish potatoes, to begin the cycle again, I do reap with joy.