Sunday, March 20, 2011

our homestead: welcoming spring with a potato (and pea) planting

Spring! Spring! Oh my darling, you've come back to me! In celebration of the growing season, I've spent the day digging around one of my garden patches, planting out potatoes and sugar snap peas. To prepare this year's potato patch, I was sure to clear out any pesky weeds and dig up any large stones, then I put down heaps of rich compost (potatoes love some fertile soil) and "green manure", also known as alfalfa grass, grown by a local farm. I selected three organic seed potato varieties: 1) french fingerlings (a buttery, gourmet finger-shaped tuber with a golden flesh and blush, papery skin), 2) all blue potatoes (it's safe to say that this one's my favorite- blue in hue, slightly sweet, and oh boy! it makes the best mashed potatoes with peas), and 3) classic red nordland roasters (bring on the rosemary!). I dug three long trenches about 3-4 inches deep, about 2 feet apart, and dropped a potato every 12 inches down each row before covering them up with a blanket of soil.
When their first starts emerge from the earth, I'll begin drawing up the soil around their stalks as they grow. This is known as "hilling"...essentially as your potato plant grows you build a mound around it on either side, ensuring its developing tubers aren't exposed to any sunlight as sunlight causes them to turn green. Eventually the potato plants will grow bushy (they almost look like determinate tomato plants), flower, and then they will start to turn brown. A midsummer dying potato plant marks the kickoff for potato harvesting (of course you can always dig around before this point...usually when the flowers appear...and steal a potato or two). To harvest, whole plants can be pulled up, attached tubers and all, and digging around the plant's surrounding hill will reveal even more new potatoes.
So why did I plant sugar snap peas by my potatoes? Other than the fact that a fresh sugar snap tastes like vegetable candy, peas, another cool-weather crop, are kindred spirits with developing potatoes. Peas, like all legumes, are "nitrogen fixing", meaning they'll grab a hold of nitrogen in the air and enrich their surrounding soil. Nitrogen is essential for healthy green development (leaves, stalks and shoots), and potatoes are heavy Nitrogen feeders. Want to strengthen your soil for some summer corn or tomatoes? Plant some good ol' peas now!

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