Category Archives: Spuds

A strange potato

I came across this odd potato while digging the last row of the early crop of potatoes. The spud in question was mottled brown and yellow; its skin seemed rather tough.

I grubbed around with my hand and pulled up the prize. He regarded me with a grumpy red eye.

This eastern box turtle had dug himself down into the mulch that I hill up around potato plants. He was a good six inches down, where the soil is still somewhat moist and cool. All this happened several days ago. I replaced him, carefully covered him again with soil, and marked the spot so that I would not spear him with my garden fork. He’s still there: when I wiggle my fingers down I can touch his shell.

The technical name for this kind of summertime dormancy is estivation (aestivation in the Old World). The turtle is conserving water, saving energy, and waiting out this interminable heat. Which animal is smarter: the one snoozing in the shady soil or the one toiling to earn his potatoes with the sweat of his brow? I have my opinion on this; I’ll let you form your own.

The potato plant that he cuddled up to yielded the biggest load of spuds that I’ve even seen from a single plant (boastful evidence below). So, this fellow either brought good vibes with him or he has a taste for moisture that led him to the most productive spot in the garden. Both, perhaps.

Spuds for St Patrick’s day

The soil temperature is above fifty and dandelions are blooming, so it is time to get potatoes in the ground. I got four rows planted this morning with sprouted seed potatoes from the Farmer’s Coop. “Seed potatoes” are misnamed, they are not seeds but tubers certified to be disease-free and therefore good for replanting. Raising potatoes from actual seeds is almost never done.

Sprouted potato. When left in the light for a week or two, the potato breaks its dormancy and sprouts little shoots from "eyes." The potato is a swollen stem; the "eyes" are the nodes, like the buds on the side of a tree branch.

Eye-to-eye with a sprouted eye. Baby leaves are visible atop an expanding mass of tissue that will ultimately form the stems and roots of the new plant.

The date came to me as I planted: St Patrick’s Day. Of course, the Irish potato famine also came to mind, a disaster made possible by the combined forces of a genetically uniform potato crop (only one clone, the Lumper potato, was grown, making the crop very vulnerable), an attack by Phytophthora infestans (a water mold), and the policies of the British government.

Phytophthora is still a major pest of many crops worldwide. It caused the massive tomato die-off in the eastern U. S. in 2009. Its disease potential increased recently as new strains arrived in North America and Europe, allowing the species to engage in sexual reproduction (previously it had been breeding only asexually) and thus create new genetic combinations with which to attack its hosts.

Thriving spuds

Happy Solanum tuberosum

So far, this has been the best potato year ever. The relatively cool and wet weather has let them grow into gloriously lush plants. In most years, potatoes struggle a bit in the heat — Tennessee’s summer is not well-matched to plants’ genes which yearn for the cooler Andes (or perhaps for Ireland).