Ann and I visited the garden this morning, but it was raining so we didn’t stay long. I checked the eggplant, and it doesn’t seem ready to pick yet. It seems large enough, but the flesh is still quite firm. Thea and I agreed that it isn’t ready yet.
Today, I’d like to give you a short lesson on potatoes. We were wondering if our purple potatoes are ready because Ann saw some new potatoes at the Madison Farmers’ Market.
Due to the fact that I have never in my life grown potatoes, I thought they deserved some research. I didn’t even know potatoes grew in Illinois!
Anyway, the potato is very important to humankind! It ranks up there with wheat and rice as one of the most important crops to humans. Potatoes keep people alive, and prepared correctly (with lots of butter), they are absolutely delicious. We’ve all heard of the Irish potato famine, which illustrates how important the potato is, peoples lives absolutely depended on good crops!
Potatoes are not roots, though many people believe they are. They are special underground plant-storage areas called tubers. Plants store nutrients in their underground vaults (aka tubers), and the tuber can keep the plant alive during cold or dry periods. They also provide energy for regrowth in the next season by asexual reproduction.
Radishes, horseradish, yams, and sweet potatoes are all tubers. The best soil temperature for tuber development is 60° to 70°F. Tubers often fail when soil temperature gets hot (80°F). Potatoes can even resist light frosting early in the season. This is why they are often the first to be planted.
You can plant as early as March if the weather is good, but avoid planting in damp, cold, or frozen soils. If you decide to plant in April, you may have equally good harvests, just a bit later. At Wild Roots, we planted in May, so I’m surprised to see that our potatoes are doing SO well! That’s good news.
As most people know, potato plants are not started from traditional seeds. They are started from potato pieces. These pieces may be small whole potatoes or cut pieces. Plant shortly after cutting, but be sure that there is at least one eye per piece.
Plant the potato pieces about a foot apart and mound with earth. If you keep the rows pretty close together (as we did) it is better, because the shade of the leaves keeps the soil temperature low (or at least below 80°F).
Interesting Fact: Some people grow potatoes a different way! Instead of burying their potato ‘seeds,’ they plant at the soil surface. There is no mounding at all. Instead, they cover the ‘seeds’ with 6 inches of straw. This allows the potato sprouts to come up through the straw, while keeping the soil cool. This also keeps weeding to a minimum. If any weeds do indeed find their way through the straw, you simply pull them out, no harm done! Another benefit is the reduction in water loss, as the straw contains moisture at the soil surface. This method also develops more ideally shaped, colored, and sized tubers. These are called Straw Potatoes.
Back to traditional planting! Be sure to plant in an area where your tubers can get plenty of nutrients and moisture. This means COMPOST! Keep that soil fertile with the application of organic material. Clay soils do not drain well, so they should be tilled deeply if you plan to plant potatoes there. According to the University of Illinois Garden Extension, “a cover crop such as clover, buckwheat or winter rye grown in the potato bed the year before potatoes are planted improves soil structure, organic-matter content and subsequent potato production.” That makes me feel pretty good, seeing as we did that!
In general, harvest potatoes after the plant has died, in early September. Be careful when digging up your harvest because the tubers are fragile. You may even need to use a shovel to coax them from the ground. If, like us, you are curious about new potatoes, you can dig them up in mid-July (now), before the vines die. Be sure when you dig out new potatoes that your crop is at least 2 inches long. More importantly though, check that your potato is firm, free of soft spots, and disease-free!
Potatoes are some of the most popular “vegetables” in the US. They are absolutely packed with energy and relatively inexpensive. Many people eat and love baked potatoes (me! if you can’t tell). Just don’t refrigerate your tubers, as the cold air converts the starch to sugar, which gives them a strange off flavor.
Though many Americans enjoy potatoes on a regular basis, especially those with growing kids, the low-carb people avoid potatoes like the plague! This hurts the potatoes feelings. Sad.
Anyway, potatoes were once considered an absolute staple. They are a great source of starch and sugar, which many people want to avoid. That said, potatoes also store lots of vitamins and minerals. Though lacking Vitamin A, potatoes have just about everything (protein, carbs, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, Vitamin C, niacin, folate, and even fiber)! They are even low in calories (unless you eat them with butter, sour cream, mayo, or bacon). Even if you are on a low-carb/low cal diet, allow a potato a chance every once in a while (Thanksgiving)!
Prepare your potatoes any way you wish, peeled or unpeeled, boiled, fried, steamed, grilled or baked (a favorite).
Try using some fresh herbs from your garden to season a favorite potato: chives, dill, oregano, rosemary (my favorite), thyme, and anything else you’ve got.
For special occasions, Rosemary Red Potatoes are a favorite at my house. Use fresh rosemary if you can get it!
This particular recipe is from FoodNetwork.com, slightly modified by me, but try your own. Experiment! You’ll love whatever you try.
- 1 1/2 pounds small new red potatoes (about 15), scrubbed and dried
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 to 6 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 tablespoon fresh or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Cut potatoes into bite size pieces, usually halving will do. In a large bowl mix the oil, garlic, and rosemary; add the potatoes and toss well. Transfer the potatoes to a shallow baking pan and roast until potatoes are tender when tested with the tip of a knife, about 40 minutes, but check often! Serve hot.
As always, Happy Gardening!
Best, Adrienne W.