Potato Planting and Carol Deppe’s Writing

A ladybug on a potato leaf, looking for pests

We’ve just planted our second crop of potatoes for the year. At 3450 row ft (about a quarter of an acre), this planting is a bit bigger than our March planting. We aim to grow a whole year’s worth of potatoes for a hundred people. Planting in June has several advantages – for us the main one is that we can store this harvest in a root cellar over the winter, without using any electricity to control temperature. If we planted our whole year’s supply in March, we’d harvest in July and have to store them over the summer, and then all the way round till the next July. It’s also nice to split the work up into smaller chunks.

Up until this spring, we made furrows for our potatoes and covered and hilled them using a BCS 732 rototiller (or walk-behind tractor, as the retailers prefer to designate it). This is doable, but labor-intensive. This year we set up a toolbar on the tractor with sweeps to make furrows, and then discs to form hills. It’s been a learning process, with some teething troubles, but  I do think it’s the way of the future for us. (I just don’t have the stamina for all the rototilling any more!).

Compared to using the rototiller, the tractor needs a lot more space to manoeuver. We were lucky in having an area of cover crops next to the potatoes for this planting, so we could run over the edge onto “next door”. In the spring planting, we had a hydrant in the middle of the patch. that’s a minor problem with the rototiller, but a bigger problem with the tractor. Keeping the row spacing tight is harder with the tractor, and in the spring, we ended up with some wider spacings, which lead to more weeds than usual, and poorer hills. This week (our second time using the tractor), we managed much better row spacing. Next year, we’ll allow more space to turn the tractor, right from the planning stage.

Another “surprise feature” this time, was that it rained right after we’d planted (yes, before we’d covered the potatoes). The forecast had suggested a small chance of showers later in the day, but the 3/4″ drenching was a complete surprise! So we had to wait two days for the soil to dry out enough to take the tractor again. The soil was clumpy, but not impossible. Probably we could have covered and hilled sooner with the rototiller, as it weights less, and compacts the soil less. And the soil would have ended up with a finer texture. Overall I think the trade-offfs of using the tractor are worth it.

The potatoes came to no visible harm sitting in their furrow for two days. We had pre-sprouted them, so the sprouts grew a bit bigger and greener. Luckily we didn’t have extremely hot temperatures those days.

Recently I learned some new information about ideal soil temperatures for potato planting. This came from a workshop on Sustainable Potato Production by Rusty Nuffer at Southern SAWG in January 2012. In spring, wait for soil temperatures to reach 50F (10C) before planting. In summer, the ideal soil temperature is 60-75F (15-24C). Ours was 70F (21C). It’s possible to pre-irrigate to lower the soil temperature in summer. (And hopefully nature won’t mid-irrigate for you as it did for us this week!)

 Carol Deppe, author of the wonderful book The Resilient Gardener: Food Production And Self-Reliance In Uncertain Times, has written a very interesting article The 20 Potato a Day Diet versus the Nearly All Potato Winter about the nutritional and gastronomic wonders of potatoes.  It will inspire you to grow and eat more potatoes!

Garlic Harvest

We’ve just finished our garlic harvest. It matured a week earlier than usual and there was no arguing with it! Most of our garlic is an unknown hardneck type which we’ve been growing for years. We save our best bulbs for replanting. I watch the tips of the leaves, and when several are brown, but we still have several green-tipped younger leaves, then I do my second ripeness test. I pull up a few and cut them open across the middle. As soon as I see air spaces between the cloves and what’s left of the stem in the center, I know it really is time to harvest.

This year we started 5/31. it takes us many days at an hour or two a day, with a big crew, to get them all up and hanging in the barn. And as soon as the big hardneck planting was cleared, we disked the patch and sowed buckwheat and soy cover crop. This area will be planted in fall carrots at the end of July and it really pays to minimize the weed seed in carrot beds before planting. I was happy to get the cover crops sown just before the last rain.

And then we moved on to harvesting our softneck garlic, Polish White. Some of it had a mold problem while growing, but most of it is still good. We finished yesterday.

Our garlic beds early this spring

Some years it’s hard to get to harvesting the softneck before it’s past its best stage. We want it to store, but if the cloves have already started to separate, and they don’t have many protective layers of skin left, it’s a losing proposition. Now we’re tilling those beds, one was sown to carrots this morning. (We do like to eat a lot of carrots and a lot of garlic too!)