Sunday, October 2, 2011

Digging Spuds

Potatoes may be dug soon after they flower (mid-July here in the Northeast) for "new potatoes."  New potatoes are small, with thin skins.  The potatoes are tender and delicious with a minimum of cooking time.  "Parsley Potatoes" is a classic way to enjoy them.
Jack pulls up a potato plant in August to show a young fella
where potatoes come from!

For storage potatoes, however, we leave the potatoes in the ground till fall, allowing their skins to become a bit stronger, to keep good things in and bad things out, as they say...

You may dig potatoes for storage as soon as the plants die back.  The ideal tool for this is a potato hook, as seen in this photo.  My suggestion is to shop the tag sales for an inexpensive older tool, which will probably be more well-made than any that you would find for sale new.  Plus, you will be keeping your money local.
Here you see the straw much being pulled back to reveal the soft soil beneath.  And you usually find some small beneficial animals like this spotted salamander living under the protection of the mulch as well.

Spotted Salamander

Salamanders and earthworms improve the soil tilth (texture and permeability) by digging through the soil, and in the case of the earthworm, digesting it. Organic gardening practices allow these animals, and the soil micro-organisms that we can't see, to survive.  Chemical fertilizers and heavy machinery create dead, compacted soil that cannot easily absorb water.  (Recent flooding of the American Midwest can be blamed in part on short-sighted, profit minded, agricultural practices.)

Use the potato hook to gently lift the potatoes from where they rest, just below soil level.  Some damage from the hook is unavoidable, and any potatoes with holes poked in them should be eaten soon, for they will not keep.  Better yet, dig the potatoes with your hands.  Then you can feel around for the potatoes and pull them out without any damage at all.
Be sure to choose a dry, sunny day for potato harvesting.  The potatoes will come out of the ground with a bit of earth clinging to them, and you want to remove as much of this as possible before storage.  By leaving the potatoes to lie in the sun for a short time, this earth witll dry out, and can be easily rubbed off as you collect the spuds.  But you do want to get the potatoes out of the sun, and out of the light for that matter, as soon as possible.  This is because light causes poisonous alkaloids to form, showing up as a green tinge on and just under the skin.
Ideal storage conditions are cool, dark and humid.  A cold cellar is ideal, but the basement may work as well.  You don't want to store your potatoes in the garage or in a shed where they might freeze.  Store only damage free potatoes and do not wash before storing; just wipe off any excess soil, as mentioned above. 
These potatoes have been separated out because they have suffered some damage and aren't good candidates for storage.  Some have fork pokes, but most have been nibbled on by voles.  Voles look like moles, but they eat vegetables, whereas moles eat meat. (V=vegetables, M= meat, get it?)  These potatoes wil be eaten right away as soup.  Just cut off the damaged portions and salvage what you can.  Approximately 20% of our potato crop was attacked by voles.  Just one of many examples I could give of why I have no patience with people who complain about the prices at farmer's markets!

But just so I don't end this posting on a rant about voles, I will share a photo of our friend the earthworm.  One of the many benefits you gain from a nice layer of straw is great crop of large, happy earthworms!


Tabatha said...

Hi, nice blog on potatos. Just wondering how long the potatos stay once you store them? Could you store for long term in a dark place with potatos you bought at the farmers market? Also how would I bring a potato to seed if bought from let's say a farmers market?

Jane said...

Thanks, Tabatha.

Given optimum conditions, your potatoes should last until spring. Some varieties, such as "Butte" and "Yukon Gold," keep better than others.

As for keeping potatoes for seed: the potatoes you buy may carry disease micro-organisms that would compromise your whole crop next year. Best to buy "seed potatoes" in the spring. They cost a bit more, but what you are paying for is a rigorous certification process that guarantees the potatoes to be disease free.