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Have you ever tasted freshly dug potatoes? You may not recognize them.

Potatoes may seem humble, but if you've tasted new ones fresh from the garden, you know they can be sublime.

Thin-skinned red and white kinds are favorites of gardeners, especially when harvested while small (no more than 3 inches in diameter) and eaten soon afterward. Their flavor is superior to that of market potatoes. Some enthusiasts liken the difference to that between home-grown and bought tomatoes.

If you want to grow potatoes for storage, russets for baking are a good choice. But many gardeners have trouble duplicating the hefty size of market bakers, and storage tends to reduce the flavor advantage after two or three months.

Plant potatoes as soon as they are available at nurseries, garden supply stores, or feed and seed centers in late winter or spring. Don't plant market potatoes--they're often treated with growth retardant. Red-skinned seed potatoes may be in short supply in some areas this season due to a partial crop failure.

Seed potatoes, shown in step 1, are widely sold. You'll sometimes find handy precut chunks--1-inch-diameter pieces that are callused and ready to plant.

Cut seed potatoes as shown above, then let them cure for one to three days in a humid spot away from direct sun.

Where to plant, how to plant. In full sun, prepare soil with plenty of organic matter so that it will be rich, fluffy, and well drained. Raised beds can provide an ideal environment. The 4- by 8-foot raised beds shown here, made from redwood 2-by-12s, contain a light, porous mix of equal parts of topsoil and redwood compost. If you don't have wood-framed raised beds, make mounded beds about a foot high.

Before planting, mix in a complete fertilizer. If you use slow-release pellets, you won't have to feed again; with other kinds, apply one or two light doses of nitrogen fertilizer once the plants are growing well.

Keep up with watering, since closely spaced plants dry out quickly. It's important to keep the soil evenly moist: periodic drying will result in misshapen potatoes.

When to harvest. Thin-skinned potatoes are ready to dig when the plants start to decline; stems will start toppling and leaves wilt and eventually yellow. This usually occurs a week or so after flowering. You can dig up the whole plant or raid a few potatoes by digging into the soft soil with your hands. The raised bed shown here provides potatoes for four people over a six-week harvest period.

When washing harvested potatoes, slosh them in a container of water (brushing can damage skin).

To enjoy their delicate flavor, simply boil or steam unpeeled potatoes until tender and serve with butter and parsley. They also are excellent in salads.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Feb 1, 1985
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