St. Patrick's Day Special: A Treatise on Taters (A Retro Bob's Little Acre)

March 17, 2019


This “tater treatise”  was the first Bob’s Little Acre that was ever published, if not the first ever written. (That was “The Great Lies of Gardening.”)  The then-editor of the Dade County Sentinel, Chris Conley, wanted a few columns in reserve before he printed any, and by the time he got around to it, it was St. Patrick’s Day and he started with this one. So it was my inaugural piece, in March 2005. I take time out from my potato planting today to republish it here (and to tell anybody in the community who's got spoiled hay: message or call me! I need hay! Will pick up or pay for delivery!) Anyway, please note progress: Dade County does now have somewhere to drink beer on St. Patrick's Day (except for this year, when it falls on a Sunday. Hell, maybe in another 14 years....)


On Saint Patrick’s Day, Irish pubs across the nation serve green beer, without which lubrication no human could achieve the high parts of Danny Boy, the performance of which may yet be classified as an Olympic sport; and without whose mellowing influence nobody would want to.


No Irish pubs may be found here in the Rising Fawn metro area. Here the closest thing to a pub is the dirt road in front of my house, where discarded bottles and cans give evidence of our area’s secret drinkers,  whether of Irish extraction or otherwise.


So what , in our publess neck of the woods, do we do to honor St. Pat? Personally, I plant potatoes. March 17 is a reasonable date for root crops in our area, and I find it a fitting memorial to our Irish ancestors. After their importation from America, potatoes became such an important food for the Irish poor that they began to replace bread as the staff of the life. 


Not everybody saw this as a good thing. Aristocrats sniffed at the sight of peasants rooting in the earth for food like pigs, and even pro-labor economists, who you’d think would be in favor of feeding the hungry, had no higher opinion of the spud. Growing potatoes meant that the Irish got, almost, enough to eat, which meant that they were able to marry and have children earlier, which meant that there were more workers glutting the labor market, which meant a lowering of the average wage.


Chilling? One feels impelled to say something about the boons of family planning, but then one remembers one is writing about gardening.


In any case, potatoes betrayed the Irish cruelly in 1845, when a fungal blight wiped out the nation’s crop and caused thousands to die by starvation and thousands more to come to America to avoid it, profoundly shaping the ethnic and cultural makeup of our country. So potatoes, at least indirectly, are the reason that so many of us feel impelled to wear a bit o’ green on March 17, and that I know all the words to Danny Boy, though I never sing it until the end of a long social evening, when guests linger unattractively.  Danny Boy can clear a room faster than a SWAT team.


I read about the history of the potato, and you can too, in Michael Pollan’s TheBotany of Desire, a fascinating book if you love gardening.


Now, how to plant potatoes:  This is an easy way that I learned from Ruth Stout, creator of a famous deep-mulch method of gardening. Ruth’s mantra was: All you need is hay, and though some have argued with that, I can recommend hay as the hands-down simplest, most dazzlingly successful way to grow potatoes.


First of all, preparing the ground: You don’t. You lay your seed potatoes on grass, on weeds, on dirt, on whatever you’ve got, though perhaps removing anything larger than a Volkswagen from the garden area.


Then:  You dump hay on them. You can use spoiled hay–hay which has lost its food value for animals, and which therefore you can get for cheap or free. The idea is to mulch thick and heavy, covering the potatoes with at least a foot.


Then: That’s all. The potato plants come up right through the heavy layer of hay, which meanwhile kills grass and weeds underneath it, adds nutrients to the soil, keeps everything moist and attracts earthworms.  ou don’t have to water, you don’t have to fertilize, you don’t have to hoe.


The one caveat is that you do have to keep adding hay to the plants as they grow. The tubers grow close to the surface and if you don’t keep them sufficiently covered, they develop a nasty green color.


A note on seed potatoes:  Some people insist you plant them whole, others recommend halving or quartering. Personally, though, through my regrettably slip-shod approach to composting, I’ve learned it is possible  to grow baking-size potatoes from peelings, by accident. So ignore the experts, but perhaps one good eye per segment is a good rule.


Tubers begin to form after the plants have flowered and they may be eaten at any stage thereafter, as tiny “new” potatoes early in the season, mighty bakers later on, or at any point in between. With the deep-mulch method, you can pull back the hay and sneak a peek at the size of your spuds before deciding to harvest.


And as for harvesting itself, gathering potatoes from under hay is easier than digging them out of dirt, though it’s still not a squeaky-clean process.  The bottom hay is constantly composting as you add new hay on top, so that the potatoes grow in a substance you might call dirty hay or hayey dirt – beautiful stuff, in fact, so that after the potatoes are finished, you will probably be unable to stop yourself from planting something else in the plot, late peas or zinnias.


More about the deep-mulch method later! I have overrun my space here and must be off, before somebody starts singing Danny Boy.

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