Everything aligned to plant potatoes on Good Friday as is a Midwestern garden tradition. It began with cutting seed potatoes and curing them in the garage for about ten days.
I removed all but the lower four inches of soil in four containers. Adding two scoops of fertilizer to each (composted chicken manure), I stirred it around until the soil was broken up and the fertilizer thoroughly mixed in.
Next I arranged seven or eight seed potatoes in the soil at the bottom of the tubs. I got a yard stick and made marks eight inches above the soil. I filled them in two layers to the marks, putting a scoop of fertilizer in between layers.
After smoothing the surface, I applied ground red pepper flakes to deter digging rodents and defecating cats from getting into the soil. Next step is to get the garden hose from winter storage and give each tub a thorough soaking.
Once the potato vines begin to sprout from the soil, I’ll fill each tub to the top with additional soil. After that, the plants are monitored and watered. If Colorado potato bugs show up, I’ll pick them off and drop them into a bucket of soapy water.
This process doesn’t grow many potatoes, but the harvest is delicious and abundant enough. Importantly, it reenacts a gardening tradition inherited from my maternal grandmother.
When potatoes are in season we eat them, otherwise not so much.
This year I grew two varieties in four containers. I’ll get more with the fall share for which I bartered at the farm. When they run out we’re done with potatoes for the year.
We boil the first new potatoes and make hash browned with those nicked while digging them. We’ll bake some of the larger ones. We’ll make French fried potatoes, something we do only once a year. I grew leeks so there will be a batch of leek and potato soup. The small ones get halved and go into soup. Already I made the first batch of potato salad and there will be more before we are done. The key is to grow enough to make it through our recipe book at least once. There might be some potatoes left for Thanksgiving. There might not.
Potatoes are just another vegetable in a kitchen garden. It is important to grow a wide range of vegetables for the flavor, seasonality, and to use in traditional recipes. If anything, cooking is about tradition once basic dietary needs are met.
These spuds look pretty when fresh from the ground and washed up. It is a moment of brilliance in an otherwise regular day.
I like my lawn. It is a great source of mulch for the garden, although it seems like there is never enough.
What is there transitions throughout the growing season. We are currently in clover and around the edges native plants come up like the ones in the photograph.
These are weeds, but they look nice on the counter.
When basil comes in I make pasta sauce of last year’s canned tomatoes, onions, garlic and basil. I’m trying to use up the old tomatoes to make room for new. Pasta sauce varies from preparation to preparation. Near as I remember, this is what I did yesterday.
Summer Pasta Sauce
Drain six pints of canned, diced tomatoes in a funnel. Once thoroughly drained, put them in a slow-cooker, reserving the liquid for another dish. Whizz them with a stick blender until somewhat smooth yet with a few chunks of tomato.
Ribbon all the basil you have (about a cup and a half of chiffonade). Put the basil in the slow cooker and incorporate with the tomatoes.
Dice two cups of onions and mince three or four large cloves of garlic.
Heat two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan. Once shimmering add the onions and stir gently until they begin to turn translucent. Salt to taste. Next add the garlic and cook until the aroma of garlic rises from the pan. After a couple more minutes transfer the mixture into the slow cooker and incorporate.
Turn the cooker on high heat and let it go throughout the morning. Around lunch time stir and turn the heat down to medium. Once it’s dinner time, cook pasta noodles, put the drained noodles in a mixing bowl and ladle a couple of generous servings of pasta sauce on top and mix gently with tongs. It’s ready to serve topped with Parmesan cheese, pepper and maybe thinly sliced green onions.
We served the pasta with steamed green beans picked that morning and simple cucumber salad. We’re in the cucumber season so we eat them constantly. There’s no room for more pickles in the ice box or pantry.
New potatoes are in so I tried a new recipe for potato salad. I cut it back to make less for two people, so it could be doubled or tripled for a dish for potluck. In the time of the coronavirus, there won’t be any potlucks soon.
Summer Potato Salad
Boil a pound of peeled, cubed new potatoes. Don’t boil them to mush. Hard cook an egg and put both in the ice box overnight.
Dice the potatoes into a bowl. Grate the egg into the same bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste, a quarter cup prepared mayonnaise, a tablespoon Dijon mustard, and a generous tablespoon of chopped sweet pickles. Stir gently with a spatula until incorporated. Put the mixture in a refrigerator dish, level it out, and sprinkle paprika on top for decoration. Leave it refrigerated a couple of hours before serving if you can resist eating it at once.
Potato salad has many variations and this is most like what Mother made for us when we were graders.
The idea of new potatoes is to harvest them two weeks after the flowers are finished. This is what they look like with thin skins and creamy potato goodness inside.
I boiled a pound for dinner and served with butter, salt and pepper. Keeping it simple with condiment flexibility is a characteristic of our kitchen garden. Diners can take cooked vegetables and finish them how they will.
When I worked at the home, farm and auto supply store I bought seed potatoes as soon as they came in. Planting is within a radius of Good Friday, although not necessarily on the day. I planted early this year. A few years back rodents ate our potatoes in the ground so I moved them to a container. Container growing is working, likely helped by the two stray cats who hang out in our garden.
Our main sources of potatoes are from our garden and a bartered fall share of the community supported agriculture project. When there are potatoes we eat them and seldom buy outside spuds. We follow the season.
The soil in the containers needs recycling for next year. There are too many roots and not enough nutrients. This year the containers were more than half empty when I planted. As the vines grew I added more soil and compost until the container was full. The result was potatoes grew in layers and there were more of them in each container.
The photograph represents the yield from one container, about five pounds. There are four containers this year so they will last until the fall share begins in September. Together they should keep us in potatoes until Thanksgiving after which we’ll wait for more next year.
In addition to boiling potatoes, I’ll roast some with other root vegetables and onions when they are available. We make potato salad, escalloped potatoes, leek and potato soup, parsley potatoes, mashed potatoes, and add them to vegetable soup.
The harvest of new potatoes is another marker in the gardening season. Such markers help us keep our sanity in the chaotic world of the coronavirus.
Rain kept vegetable farmers out of their fields. The rule of thumb is wait four days after a rain for fields to dry. It rained all day yesterday.
Equipment is ready, truckloads of seed potatoes wait in bags, and farmers want them in the ground.
Conditions are ready to plant any cold weather vegetable once soil dries.
Traditional potato planting day is Good Friday, and some gardeners, including me, continue to follow that timetable. I’m growing in containers this year, so feel good about planting a bit early this weekend. I grow them in containers to keep burrowing rodents from getting the first pick and last year the technique worked.
In the break room at the home, farm and auto supply store a case was made not to grow potatoes at all.
They are cheap at the store. There is little difference between a freshly dug potato and a proper storage potato, they said. They take up space that can be planted with more desirable crops like tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. Nutritionally, potatoes are carbohydrates shunned in many modern households.
Nonetheless, I persist in producing spuds for fresh eating and cooking. They are a small crop in a diverse home garden.
Growing potatoes — gardening generally — is a statement of resilience. A personal action running counter to a political class with which we increasingly disagree.
Let them ask their questions. What is a leek? Why grow potatoes? While they do, a family can be sustained with leek and potato soup in a way hard to find during a time of pre-cooked meals and convenience store restaurants.
Thinking and talking about potatoes is sublime as gardeners head toward dry ground and the weekend.
A text message came March 20 while I was stopped at a traffic light in North Liberty.
“In total we need 22 120s this week so you actually might be able to do it all tonight!”
It was 4: 51 p.m.
The combination of daylight savings time and the vernal equinox provided a window to soil block at the farm after my shift at the home, farm and auto supply store.
Driving east on Mehaffey Bridge Road toward Solon and the farm, descending into the Coralville Lake and then the Lake Macbride dip in the road, I made mental plans on how to approach the work.
Pelicans had returned to the sand bars on the east end of the north branch of Lake Macbride on their annual migration. Their bright whiteness cheered the beginning of spring.
Sunset was at 7:18 p.m. It would be a push to get 22 finished by then. I made it, just barely.
I had planned to plant lettuce of my own, but waning sunlight made it difficult to see and separate the small seeds. I planted spinach instead. Chasing sunset is not always what we expect.
Yesterday I worked in the yard and garden, clearing one of the plots to make a burn pile.
The wind was negligible so I dumped a garbage can filled with shredded mailer envelopes and other paper at the base of the brush pile. It took one match to make the burn.
I got out the chain saw and cut down four volunteer mulberry trees that had grown 15 feet tall midst the lilacs. I hadn’t noticed them until last fall when sunlight from the Western sky highlighted them. They burned easily.
I gathered the tomato cages and piled them over the Belgian lettuce planted in March. The seeds are germinating and popping through the damp soil’s surface. The cages will be there to protect the lettuce for three to four weeks before the tomato seedlings are ready to plant.
It was a great day to spend in the garden.
A neighbor visited. She said the president of our home owners association sold his house and was downsizing to move into town. There would be three vacancies on the board with other resignations. I spend 14 years on the board beginning in 1995 and told her I would consider joining the board for the third time. I explained that I would start working at the orchard again in August, returning to a seven-day-per-week schedule. She thought the board could cover my absence, if needed, for a while.
Early spring has been busy already. There is so much life in which to engage. Taking part is important and contributes to sustaining a life in a turbulent world.