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Urban Gardener: Not Pot but Potatoes

Saturday, February 01, 2014


Winter is when gardeners of every stripe dream. Our walks through the garden are visionary. Winter is working the soil for us. Despite the cold and sometimes layers of snow the garden is a hotbed of activity. An aura emanates from the mulches and we muse “the butterfly bush has grown way too large.” The fruit trees are never so evident. Branches are distinct. Forms are easily described. Grape vines reveal their true length. Secrets kept so well during the growing seasons are common knowledge.

The sugary crunchy snow under foot has no force against the sun’s longer hesitation on the horizon. With every fiber in our being spirit digs into the past, pauses in the present and launches onward into the future. I star gaze at night and Venus is high in the east. Her lovely brilliance guides me around the garden and I muster ideas for the growing season.

Dreaming of Asparagus

Each year I maintain loyalty to certain evident truths. Color, scent and form are important. Fragrance rules supreme. Taste comes first. Successions are important. Old classics come to mind: early Black seeded Simpson, Cos, Boston Ruffled, Endive, radishes and Japanese turnips in fun blocks of stunning color. Kale, last year’s vegetable star. Then as days lengthen the sugar snap peas are mandatory to fertilize the grounds with nitrogen fixing bacterial synergistic roots to be cleared away for a thick planting of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other hot weather champions. This abundance in one region dictated by day length and temperature is an answered prayer. Snow may crunch under foot but the aura emerges even during starlight.

The urban gardener is always challenged to make the most of their often limited spaces. I decided early on to cultivate crops of any sort that have a high price value beyond their aesthetic. My nature is to pamper and spoil the asparagus bed. I relish asparagus and know a dozen simple ways to prepare it. Never pay high prices again if you manage to dedicate a bed to this reliable perennial vegetable. Their delicate fronds are soothing to the eye, the foliage is a lovely shade of green that is very sensitive to sunshine, requiring as much as possible. A dozen roots can fill your kitchen with weeks of harvest and for fun, can be grown in both green and purple stalks. I could never pay retail for my asparagus appetite.

Novelty for own sake is tintinualbum. A pompa of different colors dancing in procession amongst specimen plants soon loses its diversion. It is however a rigid heart that resists growing a plant just because it is this year’s favored color. For a long while I was too snooty to grow potatoes. My Celtic roots rebelled.

The Joy of (Blue) Potatoes

“Potatoes are for children” is a truism. This was one of the first garden plants entrusted to me, eyes cut out of the endless bags of potatoes my family consumed, peeled in the kitchen sink and taken directly out into the garden for planting. The Kennebecs always did well despite coming all the way from the Aroostook Valley in Maine. Why grow something so abundant and cheap on expensive urban land? Surely children can nurture plants with freedom in the city. Maybe this isn’t so common in a paved zone.

My technique addresses all of these concerns and is elegance itself. Novelty? Go ahead and order blue potatoes, “just like the Incas”. Actually the potato family is a large one, including tomatoes, and these Native American plants offer colored spuds in a huge range of shapes, sizes, colors, tastes, and growing seasons. Don’t stop with blue. Go for it!
Red potatoes, golden yellow, orange, and pearly white are all offered from seed companies or may be bought directly from the produce section of the market. The foliage is the same from variety to variety. Potatoes love rich soil. They must have good sunlight. They are vigorous and must be to defend themselves from a succession of predatory insects.

The constant mulch in my garden is ideal for growing potatoes. I planted blue potatoes in mid spring of ’13 with a minimum of tillage. Rather, I scratched a bit of the wintered mulch aside and lay the eyes and small “seed” potatoes right on the surface with a dusting of bone meal. Then I covered all with the old mulch. Keep an eye on the planting and as the mulch yields to spring and summer, renew the cover. Don’t fuss too much about this. If you’re introducing children to the joys of gardening here is a winning plant that is large enough to be seen and handled roughly as a seed yet doesn’t require dedicated care when the beach is surely more attractive.

Try to break up the potato plantings into parcels with the same soil, water and available sunshine but apart. I like to grow in prime numbers of plants. The Fabrinacci number series is ideal for visual appeal. The division of the potatoes, let’s say by color, baffles the occasional potato bug and discourages the infestation of an entire crop. Bio diversity strengthens plantings. With protective moats of other more distasteful plants those insects that infest any particular crop must journey through a hazardous territory full of their predators.

Anticipating the Harvest

I also plant among the potatoes. Zinnias will shoot skyward over old potato plants and a place once covered with sprawling potato plants is a sea of vivid pastel shades. There is such abundance within this gardening scheme and it lasts over time. Fresh new potatoes can be coaxed from the mulch, the roots delved deep into the soil feed the spud kept dark under the permanent cover. A glance at the spuds during the growing season will argue for more mulch or not, any greening of the potato tuber indicates too much sunshine and requests a blanket of summer mulch.

The potato harvest is a long one. No need to dig them all up at once. They can be left in the garden under mulch. I pull aside the now much older mulches and find champion robust spuds. As winter gales blow and sugary snow crunches underfoot we sense the life that endures within the garden. Breath deep and watch Venus make her tour of the eastern skies. Orion is brilliant. Ponder the future garden. The kids are probably a little bigger now and it’s fun to find good food to eat in the garden. Snow and frost prevail on the surface of the mulch. Beneath, the ground is alive with sluggish earthworms and sleepy salamanders. And yes, the potatoes, in glorious blue, ready for a Mulligan stew and ready to answer every query, novelty is the spice of life. Come on, gardeners, young and old, live a little. “Pass the potatoes, please."

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees. 


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Amesbury Sports Park

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