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Potatoes ... home groan.

In the spring a young man's fancy may lightly turn to thoughts of love, but it's also the season when the more mature man's blood-stream turns as lightly to potassium nitrate and his thoughts to Vigaro. And neither wife nor age nor stubborn soil nor common sense can prevent his annual attempt to grow his own groceries. At least his own potatoes, if nothing else.

Raising potatoes begins by turning under the weeds on a designated plot of ground. This will assure a good crop of new weeds, potatoes or no. Conditions are at their best when the designated plot contains a fair percentage of sand. But when one's plot is high on a hill, one's sand went into the valley shortly after the Big Bang. My neighbor, who lives in the valley, has soil so sandy his wife can turn it with a spatula. What I have is a type of clay that would give a bowling-ball manufacturer cause for turning handsprings. This spring, after trying to turn it with my rotospader, I borrowed my neighbor's horse for plowing. It came down with a hernia on the second lap.

As to seed, some seed catalogues now advertise only the "eyes." While it's true that the eyes have it, this seems to me not only morbid, but I, personally, would as soon plant a potato chip. I prefer to leave the eyes in teh carcass, cutting the seed potato sot hat each section contains at least two. My reasoning is that sprouts can find their way to the sunshine easier with 20/20 vision than with a single 20. I also believe that a large potato cut into pieces yields large potatoes than a small potato planted in its entirety. Paul Williams, as my thinking goes, can never sire a 7'5" professional basketball player.

Until my back condition caused me to find a third, there were basically two theories for getting the seed into the ground. One, dig a trench about three inches deep and press the hunks of potato, cut side down, into the trench at roughly two-foot intervals. The other calls for digging three-inch holes two feet apart. In either case the seed is then covered with soil and pressed down with foot or hoe to assure that the soil and the seed make contact.

Here is where the green-thumb crowd and I part company. The know-it-alls say the seed should be covered with soil "free of lumps." But covering seed with my so-called soil, it's a question of one lump or two. And it was this double duty of having to bend to plant the seed and bend again to position the lumps that set me thinking about a third theory for getting those suckers into the ground and out of sight.

Now, according to my wife, I am not as young as i used to be. I let her get away with this only because it is, to date, her most profound statement. Also, just between us, my backbone might indeed have lost its resilience. (I'm sure it's somewhere along the ditch I dug for the kitchen drain, but I've given up looking.) Anyway, I came up from the garden this particular afternoon to have her confront me with the exhilarating news that she had mislaid the can opener, and we'd have to eat in town.

Normally, by the time I have slipped out of my casual gardening attire, showered and got into something more confining, my spinal network has pretty much returned to the approved 180-degree alignment. Not today. Going out to the car, I walked as if looking for a lost dime in tall grass.

My wife, ever sympathetic, said she would drive--"and for heaven's sake don't die in that osture or we'll have to bury you in a drum!" It was in the waiting room at the doctor's that I discovered I had somehow managed to get the end of my necktie caught under my belt.

Credit for the inspiration to plant potatoes without bending over should go to the radishes. I had the radish seed losse in my pants pocket and was making a furrow for the little devils with the end of my hoe when I noticed they were sprinkling along through a hole in the pocket. The spacing left something to be desired, but I always have to thin radishes anyway. Unless the aphids, earwigs, thrips and that crowd beat me to it.

This worked out so well, in fact, that when it came to planting the rutabagas, I ran a spike through the bottom of the other pocket and planted two rows at once. The rumor about my walking spraddle-legged like that originated, I'm sure, with my neighbor who, under the pretense of having hit a stump, stopped cultivating and came over to the line fence to get a closer look.

Another reason for suspecting him--he got even nosier when I went back to planting potatoes. For one thing, he is not a golfer. So I suppose there was some reason for his being mystified, after I had made a row of holes, to see me dump a bucket of seed potatoes on the lawn, taking a pitching wedge out of my golf bag and begin chipping potatoes at the holes. It wasn't until I began putting, however, that he stopped histractor and stood up on the seat to watch.

Every potato grower since Abel has no doubt asked the question, "What do potato bugs live on before my potato vines poke their tender little leaves up through the soil?" Or clay, in my case. Some naturalists hold to the belief that those white butterflies flitting across the garden are the bad girls, laying the eggs that turn into babies that become the mammas and the papas responsible for the population explosion. Or is that the cabbage worm? Whatever, once these little leaves find a crack in the clay and poke their way into the sunlight, they find a reception committee composed, not only of bugs, but beetles, blight, cutworms, hail, quack grass, dry rot, astigmatism, the whole army, waiting to begin the welcoming ceremonies. Thus one is obliged to begin hoeing, spraying, bugging, beetling, watering and, eventually, hilling (hoeing dirt up around the hills, that is, so the potatoes won't suffer a case of sunburn--sunburned potatoes, reportedly, are lethal; some say they can even kill you).

True, potatoes are both time and trouble. But that time and that trouble, ane ven that suffering sacroiliac, are forgetten once the proud gardener takes his potato fork--or jackhammer, in my case--and begins bringing those lovely Irish cobblers out of their earthly abode.

Only the mother of quintuplets can comprehend the exhilaration of the gardener who has chipped and putted a single seed into the soil and now sees a dozen or more descendants drying in the sun and waiting to be eaten, perhaps with a new crop of peas, or to be stored for the winter.

Several gardeners after my own heart have come up with ways of landing spuds that preclude the use of so mcuh as a potato fork at harvest time. Instead of dropping the seed into holes a couple of inches deep, one man merely disturbs the soil with rake or rototiller, places the seed in a row the approved 2 1/2 to 3 feet apart, and covers it with straw. In the fall he goes out to remove the straw, and voila, potatoes de jour.

The second method is even more after my own heart. This fellow places a tire, drops in a few seeds, covers them with dirt, sets another tire over the first one, more seeds, more dirt and so on. At harvest time, he lifts off the tires and has a mound of potatoes with no digging at all.

Then there's member of my own family whom I won't mention by name (but he married out daughter) who planted his first seed potatoes two feet deep "to give them room to grow." Needless to say, they required no hoeing, no tilling or digging up. As a neighbor gently told him, "You didn't plant potatoes, you buried them."

And of course there's the farmer who is said to have planted his row of potatoes straight up the steepest hill on his farm. In teh fall, he had only to dig down at the bottom of a row and hold a sack, and all the potatoes rolled into it. However, I'm not sure about this.

But would you believe it--no one else will--in spite of my obdurate soil, the bugs, the worms, the blight, the weeds and all the other potato predators, after jackhammering out just five hills this past season, a bushel crate wouldn't hold them. (That's what I tell everybody. But I'll level with you--the potatoes were so small they fell right through the slats.)

Nevertheless, large or small, cooked with their "jackets" on or in the nude, the versatile potato not only is good to eat, but good for you. And seriously, folks, if I can grow potatoes in my soil, you can grow them about anywhere but on the sidewalk. In fact, you'll find raising potatoes more fun than I have described. More important, potatoes are a bargain in food energy. They store well all winter, and the ones left over in the spring can be sprouted and planted for still another crop.

One final note, a row of onions planted betweent wo rows of poratoes is highly recommended. Especially in dry climates. The onions see, and this saves getting out the garden hose or sprinkler ... hey, where's everybody going?
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Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1984
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