Potatoes are an easy garden crop. They prefer the cool climates of the North, but new varieties and heavy mulching have made them a popular Southern crop, too. Mulching, in fact, has made potato-growing incredibly easy.

It's not always practical for large-scale potato-farming, simply because of the amount of mulch involved, but in the home garden, mulching has made growing potatoes as easy as laying down a carpet of straw. And mulch-grown potatoes seem less susceptible to diseases than those grown by conventional methods.

Mulch-grown potatoes require no digging. The mulch keeps them cool enough to do their best, and moist -- but not wet enough to rot. Mulching also improves the soil texture. Its benefits are so great that I'd really have to think before I'd plant potatoes any other way.

You have to start with potatoes, because they're grown from tubers, not from seed; the variety goes from old standards like Irish cobbler to blight-resistant Kennebec, to yellow fingerling potatoes and exotica, like blue-skinned or blue-fleshed spuds - so starting is choosing.

Whatever the choice, use certified seed potatoes, because they'll be free of disease. If they're egg-size, they can be planted whole. If they're larger, cut them into egg-sized pieces, with an eye or two to each, and let them dry a few days before planting.

Potatoes can be planted any time now, and can be planted in summer, too, as long as they have time to mature before the first frost of fall. Late varieties should be blight-resistant.

Because potatoes are members of the solanum, or nightshade, family, they shouldn't be planted where tomatoes, peppers, eggplants or other relatives grew last year. This familial association also explains why potatoes were believed to be poisonous when they first arrived in Europe.

Potatoes prefer a slightly acid soil, so don't add lime or wood ashes to their plots. Fresh manure is also unacceptable to these tubers, so either manure in fall or add well-aged manure or compost in spring.

It's a good idea to start with some rotting leaves. These can be added spring or fall, turned into the soil or not. Their acid level will help prevent scab.

Once the bed is ready, you can lay your tubers down. I usually plant them a foot apart each way, in beds, but many people grow them in rows, with 2' between rows and 6" to 12" between the plants in each row.

Cover the tubers with a thick layer of hay or straw, at least 6" and up to 12" deep. The plants will find their way to sunlight, and the tubers will have an easy life, because they won't have to push earth to grow.

Try hand-picking insects as they arrive, and they might not get heavy; try to stick with natural sprays if they do. The most nutritious part of a potato is the skin and the flesh just beneath it -- in fact, Edgar Cayce claimed it was the only part to eat. By growing your own, you can be sure the skin will be good for your health.

Once the plants have flowered, you can begin carefully lifting the hay in search of new potatoes. Any time you can find them, they're fit for eating. If you want to keep some, though, it's best to harvest them after the vines have died down; that's when they're fully mature.

Potatoes aren't that fattening, either, despite what we've all heard -- not as fattening as the butter, gravy and sauce that goes on them. They're highly nutritious, and rich in vitamin C when raw. Raw potatoes have been used to prevent scurvy and to heal wounds, too.

Nutritious, delicious and easy to grow even when seasons are short and cool, potatoes keep well throughout the winter and can be cooked in all kinds of ways. I can't think of any reason a gardener with space would choose not to plant them.

Finding them beneath the hay is truly like finding buried treasure, because they give so much food for so little work.