The Washington Post

Make room for potatoes, even in a small garden

Homegrown new potatoes are superior to store-bought. (Barbara Damrosch/BARBARA DAMROSCH)

If your garden is a very small neighborhood, who gets to move in? A friend of mine remarked recently, “I love growing potatoes but feel I’d have to give them too much real estate to make them worthwhile.”

The potato’s history as a crop of sustenance certainly wins it high honors, but people with small properties may not judge it this way. With space at a premium, vegetables have to be more than just staples. Today’s gardeners are more likely to rank veggies on a scale of distance between homegrown flavor and what they can find in the store. People grow tomatoes for that sun-ripened taste, peas and corn for their just-picked sweetness, herbs like basil for their abundance, as compared with little sprigs from the store.

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.” View Archive

But potatoes are getting a second look, not only because sustenance once more has become important at a time of thrift, but also for the potato’s not-so-obvious virtue. As more spuds are grown, the truth about them has come out: They are not just brown lumps, the same from any source and the same at any age. Baby new potatoes (the real ones, not old, small ones sold as such) are as much a revelation as fresh tomatoes, peas and corn. Even storage potatoes taste much better when grown with care. When we travel, my husband and I miss the savor of our own, waiting at home in their dark bin.

Good potato flavor is partly a matter of choosing the right variety. I’d start with the ones offered by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.
), which are well adapted to the D.C. region. But growing practices are even more important. It takes soil rich in organic matter to produce a memorable potato. In the Aran Islands, off the Irish coast, they’re grown in a soil that is almost pure seaweed mixed with sand. It’s the seaweed, rich in a wide range of micronutrients, that makes them great.

Another thing potatoes need is consistent moisture, which not only improves flavor but also heightens resistance against Colorado potato beetles. The wettest summer we ever had was the one where no beetles showed up. We find that, in addition to irrigation in dry weather, a thick mulch of hay will help keep moisture in, as well as reducing weed pressure, keeping the soil cool (another plus) and preventing any heaved-up potatoes from turning green.

If you still can’t seem to make a potato row magically appear in your small plot, here are a few ideas. Plant some in a compost pile, preferably one that is resting while it matures. Growing a few spuds will not rob the pile of its powers, and you’ll get a tasty, abundant harvest. In the garden, accept the fact that you won’t get bushels of them for winter use, but you’ll get some priceless early new ones. Find fertile spots where you can tuck potatoes. The plants, and their pink, purple or white flowers, are an addition to even an ornamental bed. Like my friend, you will love pulling up those roots, dangling with buried gold.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”

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Tip of the week

Gas-powered lawn mowers should be serviced or repaired over the next month before the grass begins to grow. For do-it-yourselfers, plan to change the engine oil, air filter and spark plug. Set the spark-plug gap to the maker’s specifications. All mowers — and lawns — benefit from a fresh blade at the start of the mowing season.

— Adrian Higgins



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