This is a Bob's Little Acre about potatoes that I wrote while, as is manifestly evident, still sore from a visit to England in 2005. It's funny, I'd been an anglophile all my life. I love the way the English talk and the things they say, how they call a police lineup an "identity parade." It sounds so festive! But hands-on, I got my feelings hurt by the way they require reservations at even informal restaurants and above all by their silly dress codes. In my hairy-sweatpants world, dressing up means blue jeans!
Anyway, I used to write a potato piece every spring around St. Patrick's Day. Now I'm too busy keeping Dade safe for democracy to write many Bobs. But I try to take weekends off, and last Sunday we planted our spuds here at the Acre with vast enjoyment between quaffs of beer and choruses of Oh Danny Boy. We still raise spuds using the Ruth Stout deep-mulch method described in this article. I thought I'd republish it after a chance encounter with fellow gardener Nona Martini this week led to a discussion of the method. You still have time to use it, Gentle Reader!
Thanks to Nona for the inspiration, and to my neighbors Susie and Rodney Laney for the spoiled hay!
There’s something about my Irish blood that makes me ache, on St. Patrick’s Day, to malign the English, a cold and vicious people who crushed the Irish for 700 years, whose unjust and antiquated class system persists into the new millennium, and who even today eat desserts with names like “spotted dick.”
Spotted dick is a boiled pudding made with raisins and suet. I ordered it, out of sick curiosity, at a restaurant in England, and must admit it’s not as toxic as it sounds. On the other hand, the English are rather worse. Try entering an English eatery wearing blue jeans, accepted American garb for all occasions including burial, and you will gain new appreciation for the terms “cold” and “vicious.”
So this St. Patrick’s Day, in celebrating my Irish blood and American birth, I may raise a glass of green beer to the happy fact that both peoples eventually wrested their independence from this nation of sartorially snobbish suet eaters. A country silly enough to require evening dress for the consumption of a food that sounds like a venereal disease is not one that may feasibly entertain ambitions of empire.
Another thing St. Patrick’s Day makes me want to do is plant potatoes, a crop that is historically significant to our Irish ancestors and enormously popular among modern Americans – statistically, we each eat 126 pounds yearly. Even given that some of this poundage is consumed in a crisp form out of foil packets, that’s a lot of spuds.
People often tell me, “I’d garden except I don’t have the time.” I have noticed that this usually translates to: “I’d rather spend my evenings eating crisp things from a foil packet in front of the television.” To these people I reply: Grow spuds. The potato is your botanical soulmate and you can raise a fine crop without leaving the sofa more than twice.
Some seed packets instruct us, with a straight face, “Cultivate ground to a depth of 12 inches. Finely pulverize soil. Adjust pH.” It is natural that such instructions should send couch potatoes scuttling back to the safety of their furniture.
But to grow spuds with the Ruth Stout method I have described in this space, it is only necessary to place potatoes on unprepared ground – grass, weeds, whatever – and dump a foot of hay on them. The thick mulch kills weeds, the potato plants push right up through, and bingo, you are growing a staple crop while breaking wind lethargically into the cushions..
This is not rocket science. If you plant potatoes whole, they will grow. If you cut them into quarters, they will still grow. I have grown baking-sizes spuds from peelings, by accident. And if you start too early and the plants are killed by frost, the seed potatoes will send up new ones.
A beautiful sight at Bob's Little Acre! Potatoes mulched in under a thick layer of hay, and somebody else behind the lawn mower.
As the hay compacts, you may find it expedient to waddle out and throw another armload on. Exposure to sunlight produces solanine, a toxin, and causes potatoes to turn an ugly green. But if your butt is so velcroed to the upholstery you can’t get up, most of your spuds will be fine anyway. This is a crop that thrives on benign neglect.
Corn, if we are to believe the literature, must be picked within minutes of attaining maturity, and then you have something like 30 seconds to cook it before the sugar begins turning to starch. I don’t grow it anymore because I can’t stand the stress.
The potato, by contrast, doesn’t much care when you harvest it. Like the couch potato, it just lies around getting bigger. Any time after the plants flower, you can go out during a commercial and collect tiny, delicious “new” potatoes. But if Gilligan’s in a pickle and you can’t tear yourself away, wait a few weeks and the potatoes will be medium-sized; wait a few more and they’ll be bakers.
The only hard-and-fast rule is to harvest potatoes while you still know where they are. Whether because of bugs – just shake your head sadly, they won’t really hurt the tubers – or simple age, the vines eventually wither, and if you don’t dig before they disappear entirely you may not be able to locate the potatoes when you do finally heave into action.
However, if you’re such a sorry sack-o that you still haven’t dug when the fall lineup starts in September, you’re still okay. Your unharvested potatoes will send up shoots next spring and you’ll have a crack at a new crop.
After harvest, no frantic activity is required to preserve potatoes. They are content to lounge unrefrigerated around the kitchen for months. Mash the last of your June crop at Thanksgiving, or yell for your mom to while you watch football.
Not that it is necessary to expend that much energy. New potatoes are better boiled unpeeled, and to bake an older one you just pierce it with a fork, stick it in the oven, and forget it while you channel surf.
I rest my case. If, after all this, you can think of a reason not to grow spuds, you can probably also think of a reason why civilized nations should eat boiled suet.
Otherwise, please join me in celebrating St. Patrick’s by planting potatoes.
There is no dress code.