Sunday, May 27, 2007

Planting a Rainbow

It's Sunday, my day off from bus driving, my day for farm work (I do reserve Sunday evening for social and spiritual companionship). I had about 5 people interested in coming out to volunteer at the farm today. But it rained this morning, and only one woman showed up.

J. is nearing retirement, a self-employed teacher and musician. Though she's energetic in her varied interests and activities, and enjoys walking for exercise, she's not someone I think of as a physical laborer. I met her through intellectual and spiritual pursuits, not through my agricultural endeavors. She's always been a part of my "time off from the farm" life.

But she showed up, clad in a light hoodless windbreaker, just as it began to rain. I offered to excuse her on account of the rain...we could have made a cup of tea and sat in the house and had a fine chat, I'm sure, as we have many times. But she was insistent that she didn't mind the drizzle, so out we went to see what we could do.

Most styles of gardening come to a standstill when it starts raining, and then don't resume until the soil has dried out for a few days. But planting potatoes here can go on no matter what. So together, in the rain, we forked "shingles"of compacted waste hay out of the spot where I'd fed big round bales mid-winter. Sheep haven't been on it since then, so it's well-aged and sprouting the most interesting array of fungi. We put a modest load on the big garden cart, since it was quite wet and heavy from several days' rain, and like a team of horses pulled it to the potato bed. Then we carefully laid the"shingles" in overlapping rows along the last 3' x 23' planting bed in that half-block...the East Half of the Southeast Block of the Southeast Quadrant of the garden complex.

Two cart loads covered that bed and about a quarter of another. Then we went to the garage, where the seed potatoes are pre-sprouting, neatly labelled, in plastic mesh "bulb crates". The bed map indicated Desiree was the variety to go in that bed--a dependable "standby" new potato variety, yellow flesh with pink skin, that does extremely well in my system. Of course it was in the bottom crate--a simple matter to restack the crates, since they're modular. One of those little investments that pays off time and again in little efficiencies.

I demonstrated cutting the seed pieces. Searching out any sprouting potatoes that were starting to get soft, or had bad spots, that wouldn't keep. Starting with the smaller ones that will dehydrate quicker. Cutting each so that there is one big sprout and at least one smaller sprout or eye on each chunk. Counting carefully in order to cut just 45 pieces, the number needed to zig-zag down the center of the bed at 12" intervals.

We carried the seed pieces out to the garden in a small bucket. Then we set up a string line down the center of the bed: two metal stakes with exactly 23' of baling twine between them, just touching the surface of the mulch. I aligned the planting board--a sheet of scrap Lexan Twinwall, about 5' long and 8" wide, marked with triangles staggered along each edge to show where to locate plants--under the string line.

I showed J. the planting steps: pull back the mulch near the board next to a triangle, use a trowel to dig a hole about 6" deep in the soil under the mulch, keeping the dug soil within the "well" of pulled-back mulch, drop a seed piece with the sprout on top into the bottom of the hole, push the soil back over the seed piece, and finally pull the blanket of mulch back over the planted spot. Since we only had one trowel, we worked together: First I pulled back the mulch, then she dug the hole and finished planting the seed piece. When I had pulled back mulch for all the planting spots in the bed, we shifted the routine: One of us dug the hole, the other put the seed piece in and covered it.

From beginning to end, we spent not more than 1 1/2 hour mulching and planting the bed. The heavy mulch will prevent most weeds from growing, so there will be little maintenance until harvest time. It will also help keep the soil cool, and prevent moisture from evaporating.

Potatoes will be harvested by an uncommon method, as well. After the plants bloom, I know it's time to look for new potatoes. Going down one side of the row, I push the mulch back from the base of a plant and rummage in the soil with my fingers, being careful not to upset any more roots than necessary. Usually the light soil and the subterranean tunneling of busy worms and ants makes this easy...if not the first time, then the second time. When I find eating-size potatoes, I gently break them off the plant. Then I scoop the soil back over the remaining little tubers, carefully replace the mulch, and leave the plant alone for a couple weeks to grow more potatoes.

This method means that I can tell my market customers that the potatoes were just "dug yesterday"...the freshest at market. The skins are new and brightly colored and often so fragile that a hard spray from the garden hose peels them if I'm not careful. I only harvest what I think I'll sell, so I don't have to worry about storage.

It's a good way to really learn the "personality" of each variety. Some hold their tubers close to the stem, some send out long runners. Some wait a long time after blooming to start start producing tubers, some set tubers right away.

Since I grow many varieties, the flowers are a wide range of colors: white, pink, purple, blue. There's a real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of potatoes in my garden: Yukon Gold, German Butterball, Yellow Finn...not to mention Desiree, Huckleberry, Pink Wink, All Blue, Red Thumb, Purple Peruvian, Rose Finn Apple, Ozette.

No comments: