Spuds Without Buds

The humble potato is the world’s most consumed vegetable. This worst kept secret is backed by data from the Produce Marketing Association and many similar organizations the world over. Despite the bad reputation spuds have for its high content of carbohydrates in the form of starch, potatoes continue to be popular in many kitchens regardless of consumer’s race, colour, religion or creed. Perhaps the flexibility of this tuber is responsible for its status in the vegetable hierarchy, because there are as many ways to prepare potatoes as there are human beings on Earth.

I also happen to be one of the many fans potatoes have; so much I decided to grow some in my front yard garden. Many houses have lawn or a flower bed in their front yards, but I decided to enclose mine to prevent cattle from stamping on it and planted potatoes and some ornamental vegetables. South Africa has a very high level of petty crime and opportunistic looting has almost become a way of life so when I decided to use my front yard as a garden to supplement my very small backyard I was always worried that people will uproot my vegetables. Initially, I had decided to plant only tubers and alliums as those are a bit cumbersome to uproot without a garden tool and not so easy to conceal once uprooted. But after careful consideration I came to a decision to plant potatoes alongside Bright Lights Swiss Chard, Beetroot and Red Cabbage. This burst of colour mimics flowers that clad many front yards.

Once a potato plant starts growing flowers it is ready to harvest, but mine are on collision course with nature. Although potatoes are “cold weather crops” they’re frost-resistant and in most likelihood frost will reach my region of Eastern Free State, South Africa, before my potatoes have bloomed thus not ready to harvest yet. What a tragedy.

Or not. Frost will kill only the top part of my potatoes leaving the tubers underneath the soil intact. They will then bloom in the spring when the frost is gone, soil temperature has risen and it has begun to rain. This practice of leaving vegetables in the ground the entire winter and harvest first thing in spring is called overwintering. It is especially common in the production of slow-growing alliums such as garlic which takes six months to be ready for harvest. Overwintering garlic therefore saves one three winter months that would have ran past non-productively since very few crops grow in the frost and indeed during snow.

Potatoes typically take three months for them to be ready to harvest. I planted my first batch this year February, but they didn’t sprout until April. I am not quite certain as to why they laid dormant for two full months before emerging above the ground which placed them right in the path of an on-coming, vicious Highveld frost.

I first grew potatoes in 2016 as an experiment I had seen on the internet. The spuds I grew in old car tyres sprouted on time, but I did not get to eat any of them as moles got to them before I could harvest. Since then I got in the habit of using garlic as companion crop for my potatoes. Those in the know say mole rats have poor vision but an amplified sense of smell; as a result they’re quite averse to the “foul” smell of garlic. For the first time this year I will overwinter both my garlic and potatoes, the former intentionally while the latter purely by accident.

Potatoes do not grow from seed the same way many vegetables do so I cannot run and lay a complaint at any manufacturer’s door for the slow germination of their seeds because to grow my potatoes I placed store-bought spuds in a dry, dark place for two weeks until some growth called “eyes” started protruding. Many people tend to proceed to plant these “seed potatoes” whole but no one in this Junk Status South African economy can afford to do that; we simply peel off the section with the “eyes” and plant that the proceed to eat the rest of potato.

Fortunately, the potato crop compliments the water scarce climate of South Africa as it is not an overly thirsty vegetable. This is especially beneficial for a first time grower since the habit of watering one’s crops takes a bit of time to establish for some people. Unfortunately many new growers also kill their potatoes with kindness by watering them too much.

In an ideal growing environment potatoes would be sown in the first month of Autumn/Fall and again in the first month of Spring, based on the Gregorian calendar; that is March and September. In the Southern Hemisphere March marks the beginning of Autumn/Fall while the same month in the Northern Hemisphere signals the entrance of Spring. In the Southern Hemisphere Spring starts in September while it Springs in the Northern Hemisphere on March the first.

Potatoes then continue to grow for approximately 91 days before flowering, but once the potato crop has become bushy and tall we have to “hill” it. Hilling appears around halfway through the growing duration. It is a stage when the base of the potato is covered with organic matter; usually soil but some people use compost, wood chips and grass clippings. I normally just build up the soil around the plant into a hill to prevent the tubers growing close to the surface from being exposed to sunrays. Potatoes that have been exposed to sunlight for an extended period turn green and this green pigmentation is poisonous; a great ingredient to add to your mother-in-law’s next meal.

Once the potato plant has been hilled the next step will be to wait for it to flower. This stage doesn’t necessarily indicate harvest time, but there become available small potatoes close to the surface that can be consumed, provided they are prepared immediately and not stored. It is only when leaves of the potatoes crop turn yellow that and begin dying back that potatoes can be dug up and stored in a dry, dark place for up to six months.

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