When Zoey of Hayes Valley Farm asked me to write about potatoes, I was very happy to oblige. Of the roughly twenty kinds of vegetables I’ve grown organically, spuds are my favorite. The plant of which they are part is beautiful; they are to my taste the best-eating of vegetables; they are the staple par excellence, admitting of a virtual mono-diet, as was demonstrated by the pre-Famine Irish who ate almost nothing besides potatoes; and their cultivation entails strenuous exertion in the open air. On top of it all, potatoes are a food spiced with history and romance.
I didn’t see a potato in the ground until late in life. When I left my native San Francisco to settle in Ireland in 1994, I was a city bumpkin with no experience of agriculture; I couldn’t have had a green thumb unless I got gangrene. Aside from a determination to have a potato crop in my first year, I went to the Old World armed only with some literature concerning spud cultivation: an American magazine article given me by the late Dorothy Mayer of the Fort Mason Community Garden.
I was lucky. I acquired some land in County Leitrim, the heart of Eire’s Northwest and the least “developed” (i.e., degraded) county on the Isle. Hard hit by the Great Famine in the 1840s, Leitrim has 1/6 the human population it had in 1840: the ecosystem had rebounded to some extent and much of the land had lain fallow, the result being a relatively nutrient-rich soil.
I made no mistakes, aided as I was by local knowledge; and from 235 seed spuds set in mid-April, the usual planting time there, I got an ample crop of Kerrs Pinks, an ivory-fleshed, “late-crop” variety harvestable from late August on. I raised nine more annual crops, most of them considerably larger than that first one and each featuring early as well as late crops.
Now, before I tell you about my potato-growing methods, I must come clean about a few things. My experience is limited to the Green Isle: I may not know of problems which confront a spud-grower in California. Nor were my ways and means the same as those of Hayes Valley Farm. My potato plots or beds were monocultural, though I did rotate crops; and I was never as scientific as the planners of the Hayes Valley effort, preferring to direct my studiousness more towards philosophy and trout angling. In short, I can only tell you how I grew spuds.
The first thing I did was prepare the soil meticulously. I weeded, removed stones no matter how small, and threw pieces of wood to the field’s periphery where I’d eventually gather them for fuel. With the shovel I buried weeds and turned over the clods from which they grew. With the hoe I butchered them and with bare hands uprooted them. Both shovel and hoe broke up clods, making the land a yielding medium through which plants could send their roots. The object was to make a plot of clean and sandy soil.
Next, I dug shallow trenches into which to set the seed spuds. Depending on the width of the plots, I dug two or three lengthwise down each plot, all of them about a foot deep and 30 inches apart. Then, with the help of my wheelbarrow, I brought cow manure to the plots (the man who sold me the land was a cattle farmer and had left a huge pile of manure, which I dubbed “the Crock of Gibraltar”). From the wheelbarrow, I shoveled the manure into the trenches before placing the seed spuds. It was essential that the manure was well-rotted – very dark and without any offensive smell – and that I didn’t apply too much.
The seed spuds consisted of small whole potatoes and pieces of larger ones with “eyes,” and these I set right in the manure, “eyes” facing upward, the seed spuds about 16 inches apart. Then, a row completed, I covered them with the soil I’d displaced in digging the trench in which they lay.
After the first shoots became stalks from which grew stems and leaves and flower buds, I applied soil or manure, lots of it, to the base of the plants. This is called “hilling”, and when applied to a row of plants it creates a rather high ridge. Hilling is imperative. Without it the tubers, the part of the potato plant we eat, may be exposed to sunlight ,which makes them green and toxic.
Potatoes require lots of water to grow to optimal size. In the Irish West, where my farm was, the average annual rainfall was estimated to be 80 inches (it seemed more), so irrigation demanded little from me. My advice to a California spud-grower would be to keep the soil moist, and, in view of that purpose, to water only in the evening to avoid evaporation.
Avoiding the Blight
It’s an irony that the food most associated with Ireland is difficult to grow there. Except in unusually dry times, potato blight is always a danger. The blight is a fungal infection that kills the whole plant and makes for rotten spuds. So each season I had to decide whether to spray. Some years I did, some years I didn’t; some years I got away with not spraying, some years I paid the penalty. In ’94, against the advice of all the locals, I refused to spray and no blight resulted; in ’98, when torrential rains fell, the refusal was followed by the loss of at least 40% of a crop of huge, blue-ribbon tubers. The blight never struck during the years I sprayed; hence I can’t doubt the measure’s efficacy. Shunning the evil chemicals people recommended to me, I used bluestone (copper sulfate), a traditional preventive since about 1850 and, according to the official Irish standards of organic farming, an organic remedy.
After the potato’s white blossoms began falling to the ground you knew there were sizable tubers in the soil. At so early a stage of harvestability, I extracted the spuds a few plants at a time, according to need. Those still in the soil had more growing to do. Moreover a harvested potato, parted from its ‘umbilical cord,’ can’t keep for lengthy periods unless its skin has grown tough, and that toughening requires sufficient growing time. The test of storability is whether you can rub the skin off with your thumb. If you can, the potato will start rotting in about a week.
By late September all my potatoes had developed tough skins, and it was in October that I generally did my final harvest. Stored in a cool, dark space, some of the mature spuds were fine eating 10 months later.
Throughout my Irish years I was full of potatoes, and I’m not talking only about my belly. I pondered the potato. I found it one of the more intriguing of living things. It was more than a plant or a food: it was a cultural symbol of far-reaching significance.
Long cultivated only by Andean Amerinds, the potato was unknown to the rest of the world until the 16th century. A meeting of two worlds – a war of the worlds if you will – was required to get it beyond its ancient limits. Columbus had to accomplish his voyage in 1492, the Spanish conquerors had to follow in his wake, and one of them, a ruthless soldier of fortune named Francisco Pizarro, had to overthrow the Peruvian Empire. Driven by desperate greed for treasure, Pizarro and his men plundered the gold and silver of the Incas. But the invaders would find additional, if less glamorous, booty. For instance there was this pretty plant which produced edible tubers. Though it seemed of comparative unimportance, the tubers were a mainstay of the Indian diet; and some person, heaven knows who, speculated that perhaps they could be cultivated in Europe too. No one could’ve guessed that the homely spud would in time become more valuable than the precious metals. It became a major crop, not only in Spain but throughout Europe, and would become important to every temperate country on Earth. The metals were exhausted but the potato reproduced; and it remains an inexhaustible means of wealth as long as there are farmers.
The praties (pray-tees), as the Irish call potatoes, really did a job on the Emerald Isle, where they were consumed in unprecedented quantities. Bountiful and super-nutritious, the potato helped make the Irish the tallest, strongest and healthiest Europeans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And it stimulated a massive and dangerous rise in population. As it enabled the poor to grow heaps of food on small parcels, the soil was increasingly subdivided and each subdivision could support a large family. By 1844 the Irish population was pushing 8,400,000, several million above the numbers today. The stage was set for the Irish Diaspora.
The potato teamed up with the blight to disperse the Irish. The exotic vegetable had stimulated an overpopulation which it alone could support. It encouraged and then imposed a dangerous dependence on itself. When the mysterious, blackening, rotting disease came, making fields reek with putrefying spuds, millions had little or nothing to eat. Multitudes died of famine and a majority were compelled to emigrate. And so a rural island smaller than Indiana peopled spacious regions, chiefly in America and Australia, until there was more Irish blood abroad than there ever was in Ireland.
D.L. Vanini is a volunteer at the Hayes Valley Farm, from whose Web site this story is adapted with permission.
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The Hayes Valley Farm is a community farm (an Urban Permaculture demonstration site) on 2.2 acres in the heart of San Francisco, in the Hayes Valley neighborhood (at 450 Laguna Street at Fell). Non-profit and community-run farm, it provides education and research to urban dwellers. The location is open space created when a section of elevated freeway was removed after being damaged in the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989.
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