Visiting Provence, France, many years ago, I was overwhelmed by the potatoes in the farmers markets. I saw so many beautiful varieties of potatoes, including bright red ones, soft pink ones, dark blue, lavender, yellow and all shades of brown. As well as colors, potatoes come in many shapes, including petite tubular potatoes known as fingerlings. Today you can find many of these different varieties in most grocery stores.
But once you taste a freshly dug potato from your garden, you will not ever want to buy commercial potatoes again. Okay, maybe when you run out of your own. When I grow potatoes, my husband and I can’t stop eating them every night, often as the only thing on our plates. Lightly boiled or steamed until tender is the way to go. Roughly cut with pasture-raised butter, a few chopped chives or dill and a little salt makes a potato meal fit for a king.
Potatoes can be planted around St. Patrick’s Day here in Maryland. Purchase seed potatoes to avoid any diseases. If the potatoes are small, plant them whole. If large, cut them into small egg-sized pieces with two eyes on each piece. Lay them whole or cut in a box in indirect light until they start to sprout. Once they have a few inches of sprouts, you can plant them in a bed full of rich compost.
Make a trench four to six inches deep. Cover the potatoes with about two inches of soil. A couple of weeks later, when the sprouts have grown above the soil, cover them again to fill in the trench. As they grow above the trench, mulch heavily with straw. The potatoes form along the stem of the plant.
They like a slightly acidic soil, so don’t add any lime unless absolutely needed. Keep the soil well covered as any potatoes that grow near the surface and are exposed to sunlight will turn green and form a glycoalkaloid called solanine, which is poisonous. Cut any green skin off a potato.
The biggest potato pest is the Colorado potato beetle and its larvae. The larvae is a fat, orange-and-black-spotted, grub-like insect that devours the leaves. The adults are yellow-and-black-striped beetles. Take a plastic container of soapy water and knock them into it every day until their numbers subside. Also look for the eggs, which are clusters of orange underneath the leaves. Squish them with your fingers.
You can sneak potatoes after they flower by reaching under the plant and pulling a few out. This is known as grabbing. You can also leave potatoes in the ground until all the top growth dies back just before the first frost, then dig all of them up. Store them in a cool, dark place though not in the refrigerator.
Learn to grow a vegetable garden step by step in my eight-session class, Vegetable Gardening 101, in AACC’s continuing education program, April 2 to July 23, 6:30-7:30pm, Beaver Creek Cottage Gardens, Severn, $92, rsvp: 410-777-2325.