I have great fondness for potatoes, not just as a staple in the kitchen, but for their resilience in our kitchen garden. Last year I purchased several five-pound bags of seed potatoes from Hare Creek Nursery just up the road on Highway 20. For those of you wondering why the heck I bother to grow potatoes, I get it: yes, potatoes are exceptionally cheap at Safeway.
For most gardeners, potatoes are pretty low on the priority list: they take up more space in the garden, and they don’t play well with tomatoes, raspberries, pumpkins, sunflowers, and cucumbers, and they’re well . . . boring. While hardly riveting, they happen to be one of the cheapest, most calorie-dense staples available. One large potato is 278 calories, 7 grams of protein, plus 48% of your recommended daily dose of vitamin C. Per square foot devoted to them in the garden, potatoes go quite a lot further in feeding me and my loved ones than would something prettier and more pastoral, like the aforementioned tomatoes. Gardening is more to me than just cutting down on my grocery bill. I sow to feed my desire to have a relationship with my food, from start to finish.
Last year, I sowed my chitted tubers on pretty terrible soil; I attempted to double-dig the ground, just to give them a chance, but five feet into it I gave up. “Unyielding” is a nice term for what we’ve got going on in the backyard. I placed the potatoes on top of the dirt, and then just covered them with soiled straw from my duck coop. They were planted on nine-inch centers with offset spacing on a five-foot by 20-foot bed. Here on the coast, just a ways inland, these sections of soil are called pygmy. Basically that means it is very acidic and rather nasty to try to grow anything in without bringing in outside soil and/or compost. The USDA’s web soil survey tells me that I am rated “Not Prime Farmland” and when I looked up my soil’s Capability Class, it told me what I already knew: “Class III (3) soils have severe limitations that reduce the choice of plants or require special conservation practices, or both.”
Well, if they make it, they make it. As spring ran into summer, I watered occasionally. My “real” garden (the one with drip irrigation and lots of imported soil and compost), of course, thrived. As the potato plants grew I covered them with more soiled straw from the duck coop, mounding it up and watering when I remembered to.
Then the deer hit. Wha? I thought potatoes were in the nightshade family, or something. Why the heck are they eating my potatoes?! I erected some rather shoddy chicken wire in an attempt to protect the rest of my growing spuds. Needless to say, the deer won the battle and mowed the rest of the greenery down to nothing. Beaten, I gave up. I knew they had a slim chance when I started, let alone after getting ravaged by deer. I stopped watering and abandoned the bed completely. I went back to the “real” garden and fawned over my carrots, leeks, lettuce, and beets. Eh, who need potatoes anyways? Time went by, the bounty of the summer garden trickled down to a few woody carrots, and I shifted my gardening gears into fall cleanup.
Hmm, just out of curiosity, I wonder what it looks like under that ugly old pile of straw? I pulled back the layers of half-decomposed, half-sprouted straw . . . and couldn’t believe it. Potatoes! Those glorious little tubers didn’t just grow, they thrived in the orange and grey dirt. I was pulling beautiful, plump potatoes out of rocks of sandstone–serious rocks, and still there were more, even extending past the edges of the bed. Despite their mistreatment, my potatoes had wedged themselves down into that terrible, unyielding, nutrient-poor soil by the bucketful. I had no idea they were so resilient.
I kind of sort of love them now.
If you haven’t tried growing potatoes, I hope this encourages you to give them a shot. Sure, you can give them luxury soil amended with compost and hilled to perfection, but it seems they do just fine under a barrage of mistreatment. Just sayin’.
On to how I’ll garden this year. If you haven’t heard, there’s a nasty drought going on here in California. Water conservation is just about daily on the evening news, so logically (I hope), we should make some changes to our gardening with the drought in mind. This year I purchased 30 pounds of seed potatoes, which yielded 208 to plant (after chitting).
The varieties I purchased:
So how, might you ask, do I plan to grow these given that we are in the worst drought since who knows when? Well, I’m gambling on 15-inch spacing. Increasing the distance between each potato plant should, in theory, reduce competition for water and nutrients; however, it also takes up a lot more space.
My five-foot wide garden bed had to extend 54 feet for a grand total of 270 square feet of potatoes. I’m using the same mulching method I did last year, so the sprouted spuds are resting right on top of the ground with a good layer of old straw snugging them into their massive bed. The recent spring downpours did the watering for me, but I’m sure they will end soon. According to Carol Deppe in The Resilient Gardener, she uses 16-inch spacing in rows for her potatoes and does not irrigate. Of course, her Oregon soil in Willamette Valley is quite different from the pygmy I’m working with, but I can adjust as I learn.
I’ll let you know how it all turns out, so stay tuned. Continue on to read Part Two of this blog series.
Are there any changes you’ve made to your garden to move away from irrigation? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line and we’ll chat!