TECHNICALLY, THE VEGETABLE gardening season in Western Washington never ends. However, for most gardeners, March signals the start of a new season after several quiet months hibernating in a Snuggie watching “Matlock” reruns.
With any luck, you actually remembered to clean up the garden and wash your gloves before throwing them in the toolshed last November. Regardless of your hygge practices or fall garden hygiene, now is a perfect time to get back out there and start planting.
While there might be a limited selection of crops suitable for March planting, the potato is at attention and ready to go. March 17 is only days away, and St. Patrick’s Day is a traditional potato-planting holiday.
It also provides an opportunity to reflect upon the complicated history of this noble tuber. Although the crop was originally cultivated in South America, it is inextricably associated with Ireland because of the Irish Potato Famine. Peaking in 1847, the famine resulted from a toxic combination of a stratified social structure, imperial governance, poor farming practices and late blight. Despite this tragedy, potatoes are still popular in Ireland and around the world.
Of course, Washington state has its own place in potato lore. The region is home to perhaps the world’s best-tasting potato, the Ozette. The Ozette potato was cultivated and bred by the Makah Nation for nearly 200 years before finding its place on the world stage. The Ozette is unique in North American potatoes in that its genetics can be traced directly back to South America, whereas all other potatoes were routed through Europe before landing in the states.
The ancestor of the Ozette was brought to Neah Bay on a Spanish ship in the 1790s and cultivated exclusively in this region until the 1980s. For the past several decades, organizations like Slow Food Seattle have partnered with the tribe to make this potato more widely available to the general public. Recent distribution setbacks have made the Ozette scarce once again, but potato aficionados the world over are eagerly anticipating its comeback.
While Ozettes are not currently available to all growers, there are many delicious and colorful potato varieties to choose from. Consider planting several types to hedge your bets and increase your color and flavor options. Some of my favorites are ‘La Ratte’, ‘Rose Finn Apple’, ‘Dark Red Norland’ and ‘All Blue’. Believe it or not, even the ever-present ‘Yukon Gold’ is fantastic when homegrown.
Regardless of the potatoes you choose, their cultural requirements are pretty straightforward. Potatoes seem as if they should be an easy crop to grow, and they are. However, it’s important to keep in mind that they are heavy feeders and prone to soil-borne diseases (think potato famine). Potatoes are solanaceous crops, like tomatoes and eggplant, and should be rotated accordingly.
Potatoes are almost always grown from parts of the tubers themselves. You can buy these “seed potatoes” from any local nursery or online seed retailer. Once you’ve secured your potato stock, plant as follows:
1. For larger potatoes, cut them into pieces that are about the size of a golf ball. Make sure that each piece has at least 1-2 eyes. For smaller potatoes, you can plant each “seed” without dividing.
2. Dig an 8-inch (or deeper) trench.
3. Add about ¼ cup balanced organic fertilizer for every potato, and mix it into the soil.
4. Place a piece of potato every 12 inches in the trench. Make sure the eyes are facing up.
5. Cover potatoes with about 4 inches of soil, leaving the remaining soil in a neat dam to the side of the trench so it can be added to the trench later, as the potatoes start to grow. Each plant will yield 1 to 5 pounds of potatoes.