It’s that time of year. I bought seed potatoes. In the past, I went to Black Lake Organic for seed potatoes. Good prices, good selection, all organic, what more could I want? But BLO is shifting their focus and they no longer carry seed potatoes. So now I drive to Yelm to visit Gordon’s Nursery. It’s kind of a haul for potatoes, but I like shopping there. They have many varieties of organic seed potatoes and I can usually justify buying “just one more” blueberry or huckleberry or strawberry. I brought home six varieties of potatoes this year, but I could have bought a lot more.
I picked three full size potatoes: Cal White (early), Viking Purple (mid-season), and German Butterball (mid-season). I have grown Cal’s in the past and I loved them. I picked the Viking Purples because I try to grow a purple potato each year, and they are scab resistant. I picked German Butterballs because they’re prolific & delicious & our teenage German Student child loves most German food, like beer and sausage, at least in theory.
Krista loves to cook with fingerling potatoes. We prioritize growing them because organic fingerlings cost a small fortune. I picked up three fingerling varieties: French Fingerling, which we grew last year and loved, Russian Banana, another beloved 2010 spud, and Princess La Ratte. A lot of people love La Ratte potatoes in the PNW. I have never grown the Princess because it’s such a pretentious name for a potato, but I thought maybe 2011 is the year for a pretentious potato.
Last year we grew potatoes in wooden stacks that Krista built. I also grew some fingerlings in re-purposed burlap bags from a local coffee roastery a la Sustainable Eats. The year before that, we grew potatoes in recycled tires. I’ve discussed why we switched to wooden stacks. Although I was happy with the yield of both tires & wood boxes, the stacks had better drainage and were easier to manage. It’s difficult to compare my results from each method because there were many variables: temperature, water, different soil, different microclimate and so many potato varieties. So when people ask how I recommend growing potatoes in small spaces on small budgets, I don’t have enough information to answer them as effectively as I’d like.
Fortunately, Organic Gardening Magazine did some fieldwork for me. This article is long over-due in my opinion, and I couldn’t be happier that they wrote it. O.G. found that growing in the field (hill/mound method) is good enough, as potato farmers from centuries ago could have told you. But not all of us have that much space. Growing in raised beds is more productive than a field of hills, but requires a lot of dirt. Growing in wooden stacks is as good as raised beds, but energy-intensive to start. Growing in wire cylinders, grow bags, trash bags and straw are less ideal for reasons like yield, drainage, moisture, pests and cost. I want to see more data about with which varieties respond best to aggressive hilling (or stacking). Growing varieties that respond well to aggressive hilling is crucial to produce a lot of food in a small space. You might notice I’m not growing Yukon Golds this year, even though we love to eat them. They don’t respond well to being buried. Also, some methods will inevitably work better in different areas than others, adjusting for issues like drainage, temperatures & soil quality. But the Organic Gardening article is a big step in the right direction. Growing potatoes is such an experiment. I love the resourceful, creative ways people try to produce such a humble food.
Considering the Organic Gardening findings and the resources we’ve already sunk into the stacks, we will be growing potatoes in our wooden stacks again this year. Honestly, I have to grow potatoes in these stacks for years to make them cost-effective and I really enjoy using them, so I would use them no matter what Organic Gardening said. It’s convenient that I happen to love them.
I admit that if I see organic seed potatoes around town in the next few weeks, I will pick up a few more lbs. I can’t really help myself. Homegrown potatoes are worlds and epic legions better than potatoes from the store. I love growing & eating potatoes, but they are also an important crop. Potatoes are probably the best way to grow the most calories in the smallest amount of space. I don’t foresee my family adopting a 1-block diet, but the more calories we get from our yard the better, especially mashed, baked, french fried and roasted.