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Posts tagged with Real Food

Take advantage of a low-maintenance workhorse: How to grow your own potatoes

In the realm of potatoes, a little work goes a long way.

In the realm of potatoes, a little work goes a long way. by Sarah Henning

A few weeks ago, I wrote about why I garden. Basically, the takeaway is this: I do it because it's important to be connected to our food.

And though the last two growing seasons have been horrible for farmers and home gardeners alike, I still believe it's crucial to try if you can.

This weekend, I put my time and effort where my mouth is and worked in the garden with the kiddo to plant for the first time this season. We'd readied our three garden beds the week before, giving me the perfect canvas to plant my two garden workhorses: potatoes and onions.

Last year, I didn't get a chance to do potatoes or onions because of some scheduling issues with my time and Mother Nature, and we really felt it. Because of the heat, almost all of our other crops barely yielded a thing and because of timing, we didn't have either of our high producers to fall back on. Not cool at all.

This year I wanted to have a potato crop, even if I was going to be out of town on St. Patrick's Day. Though old farmers' tales say you should plant potatoes on St. Paddy's, I knew I wouldn't be able to do it. But I really do believe you can be late with potatoes and be perfectly fine. I've had two great potato crops — one planted right around St. Paddy's and one planted late, and they've both been terrific.

And by "terrific," I mean not only in the sense that you get a lot for very little time and effort. You also are growing one of the most no-nonsense plants available and if you have kids, they will love digging for the final product.

Our first potato haul a few years ago was pretty great, even the toddler can see that.

Our first potato haul a few years ago was pretty great, even the toddler can see that. by Sarah Henning

If you're up for it, I'll share my method for growing them. It will take you about two hours the whole week and you'll be good until late summer.

First, I grow mine in a raised 4x8 bed, under straw. I believe this method works if you're tilling straight into the ground, but you might want to check around to make sure there's not a better method for you.

What you'll need are some seed potatoes (available at pretty much any farm or garden store, plus some grocery stores). Look for ones that have several eyes. Take them home and cut them into smaller chunks, 1 to 2 inches across. Each chunk needs to have a couple of good-looking eyes.

Next, let them "cure" by placing them on cookie cooling racks for a day or two (up to a week).

My potatoes, curing.

My potatoes, curing. by Sarah Henning

When you're ready to plant, buy a bail of hay/straw, get out your gloves and trowel and get to work. I like to keep my potatoes in a single bed because it's easiest. You will want to dig holes at least six inches deep, and about a foot apart. Place the potatoes, eyes up, in each hole.

Eyes up to the sky.

Eyes up to the sky. by Sarah Henning

If you think you have more potato chunks than holes, just get picky about which ones you put in first. Ones with eyes that are already sprouting are the best, so they should get top priority.

Next, cover the potatoes with dirt, and then cover with as much hay as you can mound on. You're going to want to go for eight to 12 inches, on top.

The finished product, for now.

The finished product, for now. by Sarah Henning

Then, water them a bit (not too much!) and let them be. The only thing I do is add a bit more straw once it starts to get matted down, because you want to make sure your potatoes are completely hidden from the sun at all times.

Other than the straw, your only job is to watch the vines poke up. They'll grow, get tall and flowery and then they'll start to wilt and die. When the vines are dead, you can start digging for treasure right around the base of each dead vine. You should have a bunch of potatoes of varying sizes with each vine.

It really is that easy.

I'm not a garden expert by any means, but this is what works for me. You might Google around and find people who do something similar, or people who don't do it this way at all.

No matter how you do it, it's worth a shot. High yield for low investment. Plus you grew it.

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The case for gardening, even if Mother Nature doesn’t always agree

Our cherry tomatoes did great even with the bad weather the past two years. Good thing, too, because they are the only tomatoes the kid will eat.

Our cherry tomatoes did great even with the bad weather the past two years. Good thing, too, because they are the only tomatoes the kid will eat. by Sarah Henning

I might not get to celebrate spring break, you know, being old and all, but that doesn’t mean I’m not excited about it.

Not only does it mean the unofficial start of warm weather (hear that, snow!?) and March Madness but also means that spring is here. Or almost here. Or close enough that we can all start thinking about gardening.

For months, I’ve been talking with a part-time farmer friend who is growing several types of kale this year. With each little update on this process (picking seeds, ordering seeds, starting seeds indoors), I’ve gotten more excited about the coming growing season. I’ve had a garden for three years — three raised beds plus a pretty good-sized container garden on my deck — and it’s been fun, though not necessarily highly productive.

If I’m being honest, the last two summers have been a kick in the teeth as a gardener. Plants bolted. The bugs hit. Blossom end rot did in many tomatoes. Poor planning left some plants gasping for nutrients. My blueberries and raspberries were crushed by the heat, as were many of my container herbs — I’ve been able to kill three “unkillable” mint plants every single year (yes, the body count is at nine). Melons have never, ever thrived for me. Oh, and it turns out I hate weeding.

That entire paragraph probably makes you wonder if I have a black thumb or why I’d ever want a garden in the first place, especially since I apparently suck at it.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think I suck at it (the weather had a lot to do with my kill rate) and I actually do find it fun.

There’s something downright enjoyable about being able to go out and harvest what you put into the ground/raised bed/pot. And 100-degree temps, a hatred of weeding and bad luck aren’t going to change that.

Because, here’s the thing: I think it’s incredibly important to get reconnected with where our food comes from.

On the hunt for tiny strawberries.

On the hunt for tiny strawberries. by Sarah Henning

Growing up, we had a garden, but I only really remember harvesting tomatoes. And at the time, I don’t think I totally “got” how good a fresh tomato was. It was just a tomato that appeared in our backyard after way too frickin’ long.

In fact, not only do I think I didn’t get it but I also think I didn’t really appreciate that homegrown food at all. It was a novelty, and the big, smooth vegetables sans imperfections from the grocery store seemed more like “actual” food to me.

It’s silly to think about now, but I don’t know how I could’ve been so disconnected. And I don’t want my son to ever feel that out of touch with what he puts in his mouth.

It’s not that my parents didn’t try to interest me in our family garden, it’s more that the food culture was very different back then. We were in the middle of a shift from agricultural awareness to total blindness and back again — at least in my opinion and experience as a child of the ’80s.

Today, we have the advantage of a resurgence in restoring some awareness of our food chain, not only where we buy it from, but where food comes from in general.

And I want to keep that earth-to-table connection as plain as possible in my own kitchen, for my benefit and my family’s.

My son knows more about how foods grow and come to be than I ever did at his age, and I’d like to make sure that knowledge stays with him. Because he helps in the garden, he tends to try new things just because he helped pick them. He doesn’t like everything, but there’s a better chance he’ll try something if he gets to harvest it himself than if he helps me pick it out at the store.

He's got his picking tub and he's not going to let go.

He's got his picking tub and he's not going to let go. by Sarah Henning

So, I’m planning my three-season garden for a fourth straight year. I’ve learned I grow some foods rather well (potatoes, Swiss chard, cherry tomatoes) and some plants rather poorly (see my litany of murdered plants above), but I grow them, and that’s what matters.

My planned plants for spring, summer and fall are as follows. As for which will survive, your guess is as good as mine.

Potatoes (several types)

Onion sets (white, yellow, red)

Garlic

Shelling peas

Bush and pole beans

Strawberries (on their third year)

Blackberries (to replace my murdered berries)

Kale (black and curly)

Swiss chard

Spinach

Beets

Tomatoes (black krim, Cherokee purple, sungold and sun sugar)

Peppers (Italian and various bell)

Herbs: basil (various), mint (various), sage (various), rosemary (various), thyme, parsley, marjoram, dill, garlic chives, cilantro (which I hate, but comes in handy)

And anything else that ends up looking intriguing (which always happens)

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