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All About Potatoes

potatoesPotatoes are one of the most fun garden crops and one of the easiest to grow.  Potatoes can survive in nearly any climate above freezing, and they require next to no effort.  There are many varieties that will flourish in home gardens.  Just make sure, like with most plants, that you give potatoes plenty of room to grow.  Don’t try to place seed potatoes too close together, or you’ll reduce your crop.

Potatoes grow best in a hill or mound of dirt.  They’ll produce a lush, leafy green plant on the top, which sends nutrients down to the tubers.  Whether you’re harvesting “new” potatoes, the small, delicate early crop, or later crops, the process is the same.  Choose a warm and dry day—but make sure it’s not too sunny, because sunlight on the potatoes will cause them to turn green, which will alter their flavor.  You’ll know when they’re ready to pull from the ground, because they cluster just below the surface of the soil and it’s easy to tell by sight and feel when they’re adequate size.

Gently stick your hand into the soil and dig around for the ripe potatoes.  Or, you can carefully use a pronged fork to loosen the soil around the clusters of potatoes and ease them up out of the soil.  Take only the potatoes you want, and leave the plant intact in the soil if you have enough frost-free weather remaining for it to continue producing potatoes.  Shake off any loose soil, and have a warm, dark place ready to leave the potatoes for an hour or more to dry.  At this point, don’t handle the fresh-picked potatoes too much if you’re trying to brush the dirt off them, and don’t wash them.  They’ll store better if the skin isn’t bruised or nicked, but they need to be as clean and dry as possible.

If you stab a potato with a prong as you’re digging, be prepared to eat it right away, because it won’t store well.  It’s best to dig with your hands, but if you use a prong or shovel, dig well below the level you believe is the bottom of the potatoes and raise the entire cluster up out of the soil to avoid injuring them.

It’s not uncommon for potato skins to have small cuts or bruises.  That’s why a curing period of a week or two is required for best results before long-term storage.  Allowing the potatoes to rest in a 55- to 60-degree location with fairly high humidity and darkness will give the skins time to heal.

After curing, move the potatoes to a dark and cooler location, with temps between 35 to 40 degrees.  Moderate humidity and good ventilation will keep the tubers at their resting best.  A root cellar is the ideal location for keeping potatoes throughout the winter, but a basement or even crawl space with good air circulation will keep spuds from sprouting or rotting until you’re ready to eat them.

Because potatoes provide large bounties of produce, it’s a good thing they are versatile in the kitchen.  Remove as many potatoes from your storage area as you’ll need for one meal, then bake them whole, and top with butter and/or sour cream and chopped chives.  Or dice them for a filling breakfast hash.  Slice them for hot German potato salad, or cube them and chill for American potato salad.  Make your own French fries or potato chips.  And what stew would be complete without potatoes?  No potatoes will compare to the ones you grow yourself!

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