We’ve all heard of them – hothouse tomatoes and shrinking violets – these are the sorts of plants we would expect to demand special treatment. Before I started my own garden, my thoughts on the potato plant, if I bothered to think of it at all, would be to consider it the botanical version of a peasant, rugged and tough, with dirt under its fingernails. After all, early settlers put spuds in newly-cleared land as a first crop.
So, who would bother to pamper a potato? Me. Guilty. I confess. But let me explain…
My garden makes its home on a river delta, an island created over thousands of years as the Fraser River dropped sediment when it reached the ocean. People often speak of rich delta soil as if it is all one word: richriverdelta. And, yes, the soil is rich, and some crops, rhubarb for example, grow in it with an insane vigour.
Unfortunately, when speaking of this soil, I must use the nasty “C” word. Brace yourselves. Parents, protect your youngsters. Here it comes. Shudder…
The uninitiated out there are probably shrugging right now. Clay, they say, so what? Big deal. I’d laugh at their innocence, but I fear my laughter would turn hysterical.
Let me explain it another way. The soil is so heavy with clay that, when it drains and dries through the spring, it hardens to the consistency of concrete. If left too long before being turned, it can render a 200 cc tiller impotent, its tines skittering helplessly across the surface of the ground. In the summer, it hardens even more, and roots of weeds become locked in place as though they sit beyond the event horizon of a black hole. Vain attempts to extract both weed and root together force average gardeners to exercise the bluer pages of their vocabulary. Not me, of course. Tut, tut, I say.
As a rule, potatoes hate heavy soil. In the first year of my garden, I planted Norland Early Reds in a conventional manner, and from each hill I harvested a measly few spuds, each barely the size of a tater tot. Clearly, Norland Early Reds hated my soil. Discouraged but determined, I combed the Internet for advice, and sleuthed out new varieties of potato in the aisles of garden shops. Then I tested techniques and types.
In the end, I settled on Red Pontiac potatoes as my variety of choice, and the peat moss nest as my pampering technique.
On May 1st, I planted my potatoes for this year. I began by running a line of twine across the garden. As I mentioned in my essay on onions, I have this droll fancy that the string guide will help me garden in straight lines. Following (more or less) the line of the string, I dig a trench, taking care not to plunge the shovel so deeply that I disturb the solid clay below the mixed clay and soil.
Using my foot-long ruler, I place a peat moss nest every ruler-length along the trench, snuggle a seed potato in each nest, and cover the potato with more peat moss. Thus is the delicate spudlet completely surrounded by a cocoon of airy peat moss. Over top, I put a layer of mixed compost and soil.
Over the years, this combination of Red Pontiac and peat moss nest has worked brilliantly. In the fall, I harvest bucket after bucket of potatoes, most the size of a mighty fist, some even bigger. To anyone who might say a person who pampers a potato is crazy, I nod in sage agreement. Crazy indeed. Crazy like a fox.