by Norm Budnitz
Red Thumb, Red Gold, Yukon Gold, French Fingerling, Purple Peruvian, Austrian Crescent, Kipfel. These are some of the potato varieties we are growing this year. And what a joy that is.
Each winter, Tim and Helga go through the seed potato catalogue and pick and choose the varieties we will grow. We have our standbys, but Tim almost always gets tempted by something new like Purple Majesty or Purple Viking.
Come spring, as soon as the soil is dry enough to till, we prepare the beds. The seed potatoes (actual potatoes, not seeds) are cut into pieces with one to several eyes in each piece. After the cut edge has had time to ‘heal’ for a day or so, these pieces are planted. Dig a hole, drop in a potato piece. Dig the next hole putting that dirt in the first hole, drop in the next piece. Again and again and again. This year we planted ten 100-foot rows.
After a couple of weeks, the first sprouts appear. These sprouts are a bit tender, so if frost is predicted, we go down the rows with a hoe and cover each sprout with dirt. Once the soil warms and days become springtime mild, the plants take off. They have coarse, dark green leaves, and they are pretty tough. Colorado potato beetles can wreak havoc, but that’s about it for insect pests in North Carolina. An organic insecticide called spinosad can keep them under control—harmless to humans, lethal to beetle grubs.
Sometime in late May or June, flowers start to appear on the plants. Flowering coincides with the growth of the tubers underground. The little baby potatoes form on and along special underground stems (not roots) called stolons. And now the fun begins.
First of all, Helga’s mouth begins to water. Helga is Danish, and potatoes and Danes go extremely well together. Next comes the exploratory digging. When the flowers have gone by and a plant looks big and bushy, it’s time to get out the digging fork to test the output. If the potatoes are still small, no harm. Helga will still be happy with these delicious morsels. But if they are big and full, it’s time to go at it. And here’s the surprise part of surprising spuds. Digging potatoes is like digging for treasure. There is simply nothing quite like loosening the soil, turning out a big healthy potato plant, and finding a veritable treasure trove of spuds.
White ones, red ones, gold ones, purple ones. Round ones, oblong ones, finger-shaped ones. Large, medium, and small. Oh, so good. Some will look ‘normal,’ but some will simply make us laugh. They will have ‘legs’ or ‘arms’ or ‘heads’ on bulbous bodies. Some will be long and skinny and some will be round and plump. Some will get pierced by the fork and will be greeted with cries of anguish followed by murmurs of inner joy. The staff gets to eat those.
Freshly dug spuds are a treat that grocery store shoppers rarely have access to. Their skins are papery thin and delicate—no need to peel them. Their flesh may be melt-in-your-mouth soft with a hint of sweetness or firm, waxy, buttery, even after cooking, perfect for potato salad. All will have that wonderful potato flavor that is just mouth-wateringly special. A surprising, special, springtime treasure, indeed.