You don’t have to be a magician for a kid in your life to think you are. Just dig up a potato and watch their eyes widen in wonder.
Witnessing a familiar vegetable reveal itself from under the soil is one of the earliest memories many of us have in the garden, because it makes such an impression. When we grow up we forget this magic. The experience of buying potatoes at the grocery store soon conditions us to think of them as nothing more than a cheap staple for the dinner table, harvested in paper bags. We forget the thrill of digging our own. Adulthood can be too practical that way.
That’s why it is important to try a new twist on your favourite vegetables. Not only does growing your own root crops yield fresher, healthier and more environmentally responsible produce, there is more variety available at your local garden retailer than in any grocer.
Here is what and how to grow to put the root vegetable and tuber magic back into your soil, and onto your plate:
A Family Favourite, Potatoes
During the 1840s, roughly two-fifths of Ireland’s population was solely reliant on potatoes as a primary source of nutrients. When a potato blight swept across Europe wiping out crops, the resulting starvation, disease and emigration became known as “The Great Famine”, or often, “The Irish Potato Famine.”
As Cullens, we count ourselves among the many Canadians of Irish descent who ended up in Canada in the 1840s as a result of the Irish Potato Famine.
We love potatoes.
As with all things in the garden, growing potatoes starts with the proper soil preparation. They need about 50 cm (a foot and a half) of well-drained, loose soil that is rich in nutrients. Amend clay soil with compost and sharp builder’s sand. Add compost to very sandy, non-fertile soils.
Start potatoes from seed-tubers, or seed potatoes, purchased from a garden centre or hardware store. Seed potatoes differ from the potatoes in your fridge as they are bred for growing, not eating. They are virus indexed and specially grown and stored to prepare them for planting in your garden.
If you leave potatoes in a warm room for a few weeks they begin to “chit.” The knobby bits that grow from a potato produce creamy white sprouts that grow a centimetre or two, these are chits. This time of year, most potatoes purchased from a retailer have begun to chit. Cut the pieces so each has one or two sprouts per piece for large potatoes or slice the potato with more sprouts per piece for a higher quantity of smaller potatoes.
Plant potatoes as early as two weeks before the last frost date. Place the segments in a furrow about 25 to 30 cm deep. Choose the spacing based on the size of potatoes you are looking to harvest at the end of the season. To produce larger potatoes, plant 25 to 35 cm apart; for smaller potatoes space 15 to 20 cm apart.
They will begin to sprout through the surface of the soil within two weeks of planting in warm weather. As they are growing, hill up soil around the stem to keep the soil from drying out quickly.
This is an excellent time of year to grow all root crops. Consider sowing carrots, beets, onions and parsnips from seed.
Planting potatoes with kids is a great idea: they grow quickly, have attractive flowers by early summer and harvesting is a treasure hunt. Pure magic.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and holds the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, on Facebook and bi-weekly on Global TV’s National Morning Show.