Happy Garlic Ready for the Snow

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"A working man would consume 10 pounds of potatoes each day"


- Introduction to Organic Gardening Workshop!
- Prepare and plant for early corn (hope for no more freezing weather)
- Plant out early girl and moskvich early tomatoes
- First zucchini and cucumber planting

It's spud planting time on the farm! I was fortunate enough to have an excellent group of hard working and fun students from the San Diego Waldorf High School up here last week to help prepare the soil for and plant these tasty tubers. We planted the potatoes at the same time as we put in our summer crop of onions, right next door. In order to assure abundant tuber formation from the plants this summer, we weeded, dug the soil deep and wide (you'll understand why soon), and amended with a lot of well-finished compost. (We also added a dusting of Steve Soloman's recipe for "Complete Organic Fertilizer".) Next we dug an 8 inch trench down the middle of our four 50 X 4 foot beds, plopped in whole potatoes (8 - 12 inches apart), and buried them. Potatoes are truly fascinating both biologically and culturally as this excerpt from one of my favorite books, The Book of Garden Secrets, points out:

Growing potatoes in your garden can be very rewarding, as the yield from even a small area can be surprisingly high. And besides, nothing you buy tastes as good as the tiny, creamy new potatoes dug straight from your own garden. Once under way, potatoes require little attention except watering because their foliage is so vigorous...
Potatoes have an especially colorful history. They are native to the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia and are still grown there in greater variety than anywhere else in the world. Andean potatoes come with blue, brown, purple, or red skins. Different types tolerate a wide range of climactic conditions, and some can even produce a crop at an elevation of 14,000 feet.
Before the potato famine, many Irish people lived on a diet of boiled potatoes and milk; a working man would consume 10 pounds of potatoes each day. This might sound like a pretty boring diet, but surprisingly 7 pounds of potatoes plus 1 pint of milk will meet all your nutritional needs for a day...

Despite the fact that most people eat potatoes as a source of starch, potatoes are high in protein...In terms of amount of protein produced per acre, potatoes rank second only to soybeans though the quality of this protein is higher than that of soybeans.

If you were looking to grow a few crops in a small space to provide you with maximum sustenance, this relative of the tomato would be an important ally. However, relying on it alone or one variety alone could prove fatal, as it did for the Irish in the mid -1800s. The lessons we take from the potato famine teach the importance of diversity in our food system. Sadly, in recent decades this diversity has been undercut by the economic demands of industrial food production, the consolidation of power within this industry, and the patenting and engineering of crop genetics.

I like to think that planting a diversity of spuds and other food crops is a small, peaceful and essential act of subversion. That it testifies to the fact that we have what we need here to live without the industrial food system. When we start to grow food for ourselves, in harmony with our ecology, we reduce our dependence on an industrial food system that does not produce food in harmony with our ecology. The global food system and the food we buy from it is one of the leading (if not the leading) contributors to greenhouse gases worldwide; the fossil fuel based fertilizers it uses are the leading cause of water pollution and river mouth dead zones around the world; its threat to bio-diversity in and out of the food system cannot be overstated; and we are losing our top-soil (the important stuff we need to grow all food) at alarming rates. Good farming and gardening practices, on the other hand, sequester carbon, build soil, increase regional bio-diversity, and keep our watersheds and ecosystems alive and healthy.

The implications of these divergent choices should be clear.
If you are interested in reclaiming and protecting a little bit of your ecology get out there and plant some spuds!

Here at Camp Stevens we like to play a game around the dinner table where we ask kids what plant part they are eating. When potatoes are a part of the meal the answer can be hard for them to find even if they know the basic plant parts. "Root" is the most common answer we get but tubers are not actually roots.

Though they do form underground, tubers are technically modified underground stems, potato "eyes" are actually the traces of what would have been leaves on the above ground stem. When we plant the potato, roots and more stems will form from the spud. To maximize yield we want the soil to be loose and deep so that the underground stems can spread far and wide, producing lots of tubers. The photosynthesizing leaves will send carbohydrates and proteins down the stem and into the spud. A potato tuber acts like a storage chamber for energy. This adaptation has proven useful to the potato and humans alike as we can dig the potatoes, plant some to propagate new plants and eat some for energy.

Culturing potatoes for maximum tuber production is a bizarre and fascinating practice, during the growing season we we will do whats called "hilling" the plants. Once some shoots have come up and the stems are about 1 foot tall, we will bury all but a few inches of the leaves and stems, creating a hill. We might hill the potatoes one more time before the plant goes into dormancy for the winter, its above ground foliage dies and sends the last of its nutrients into the tubers below ground. At this point we can dig the plants out of our hills and enjoy watching mountains of potatoes tumbling out of the loose soil, the stems we buried have now formed an abundance of tubers in our hills. Its like striking a gold mine!

If we each do our part the world will be our garden,


  1. Fascinating facts about potatoes and how they come to be. Plus I am sure that teaching high school students on food cultivation this way can be very beneficial to them in a time when they are not being taught (at school and probably at home)the fundamentals of sustaining ourselves with food that is not processed by machine but grown by our labor and good planning. Thank you for sharing this information. Brenda

  2. Wonderful, Ryan. Look forward to more posts on what you're growing/planting. It's inspiring me to get back into gardening on my own and in my community. I had fun digging out little finger potatoes in your fall gardening workshop a couple of years back. Yay, spuds!


  3. Well done Ryan. I learned a lot. I had no idea about "hilling" and what that does to help produce a crop. Thank you for what you do in the gardens and online.