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Fresh Baby Potatoes

One of gardening’s incomparable pleasures

There is nothing like sneaking into the garden in mid to late July after the potato plants have finished flowering and stealing a few thin-skinned potatoes. If you hill your potatoes with compost in place of garden soil, you can harvest potatoes without disturbing the plant. At the final harvest, you get the added benefit of potatoes that are almost dirt-free.
    Freshly dug potatoes have a flavor all their own. Mashed, they are nice and fluffy; French-fried, they are always golden and absorb very little cooking oil; baked, they are outstandingly delicious. They bring all these advantages because they are nearly 100 percent starch. As their thin skin needs no peeling, they are packed with vitamins that concentrated immediately under the skin. If you like hash brown potatoes with onions, your garden can provide both because the long-day onions you plant this spring will be bulbing at about the same time you start taking potatoes from the plants.
    Hilling potatoes with immature yard-debris compost in place of garden soil has many advantages. First, it forces you to generate an abundance of compost because it takes a lot to hill potatoes. By the time the potato plants are two feet tall, you will have had to hill them at least three times. For a row 80 feet long, that’s at least five wheelbarrows full. Purchasing that much compost would cost you a pretty penny. Furthermore, the compost you purchase is finished and heavy to handle. Immature compost from the composting bin that you filled last fall has a large amount of partially decomposed leaves mixed with more fully decomposed materials, making it less dense and easy to transport and apply.
    Second, by hilling the potato plants with compost, you can easily push your hands in until you feel an edible potato. As long as you gently remove the potato from the rhizome, you do not retard the growth of the plant.
    Third, as immature compost does not absorb much water, even the smallest rain will penetrate down into the soil where most of the roots that feed the plants are located.
    Fourth, potato beetles do not appear to be as problematic on potatoes hilled with unfinished compost. Entomologists tell me that adult potato beetles are not good navigators. They have no problem taking off, but when it comes to landing, they often miss their target. Instead of flying back to the plant they missed, they walk on the soil. They appear not to like walking on rough surfaces such as unfinished compost. Thus, when hilling with unfinished compost, keep the leaves of the plants from touching the ground.
    There are many years I have not had to spray for beetles. A daily walk through the planting to remove the beetles by hand, dropping them into a container, is all that has been necessary.
    Fifth, by hilling with compost you have added to the organic matter of your garden soil. By rotating my potato planting every year, I manage to apply a uniform layer of compost over the entire garden every five years.
    All that and delicious young potatoes, too.


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