When I was maybe three or four, my Grandmother walked me out in what looked like an unplanted area of one of the fields. She stuck a gardening fork into the ground, instructed me to watch carefully, and as she levered the tool, red potatoes bubbled up out of the soil. My eyes widened and I took in a deep breath. Magic. If you want your kids to get excited about gardening, conjuring potatoes from what looks like barren soil could be the way to go. Although maybe do it before they find out about the internet.
I’m pretty sure that cultivar of my childhood was Red Pontiac, but since then I have successfully grown whatever happens to sprout on the countertop before I can cook it. I’m not sure why so many places will tell you not to grow potatoes from the store, unless it is because conventionally-grown potatoes are usually sprayed with a substance that prevents them from sprouting. Search 1,4-DMN for more information if it interests you. If you buy certified organically grown, the chemical is not used, and your potatoes may even sprout before you realize it’s happening. (Oops.)
The sprouty ones can sit on the countertop for a while. Weeks, really, until you think the ground may not be frozen and they can be planted. Mine went out and got their own bed early this spring. I planted them fairly deeply, about twice to three times the length of each potato, covered them up, piled on some mulch, and they grew beautifully this cool, rainy spring.
As the plants got taller, I shoveled on more mulch and compost to keep the tubers from getting exposed to the elements. I’ve seen videos of people who have modular, vertical ring systems for their potatoes, sometimes even constructed from old tires. The potatoes get planted at ground level in the first tire, then subsequent rings are stacked on top of the other and filled with soil as the plants keep growing, making potatoes as they go. When the entire apparatus is disassembled, it’s potatoes-a-plenty in a small horizontal space. If I knew that I had the kind of potatoes that would do this, indeterminate cultivars, I would give it a try. It looks like great fun. These are mainly Yukon Golds, though, determinates, according to Duck Duck Go.
I found a couple of half-devoured potatoes in the garden before I thought the plants had declined enough that I should start digging. I left them where they had been dropped, hoping that some bushy-tailed bandit might choose to come back instead of pilfering another. Once the vines were mostly dead, I began to dig up the crop. You don’t necessarily have to wait until the plants are completely finished, although it will ensure you get the largest tubers that would have been produced. Little “new” potatoes are a delicacy in their own right and can be dug as soon as they are a size you deem appropriate for the dish you want to prepare. Dig at will.
“Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew.” Everyone has a favorite potato dish. If these had been russets, I probably would have made pommes Anna, but they were waxy cultivars, and it’s been hot, so I made a potato salad. Freshly dug potatoes will be a lovely surprise if you have never tried them. There is a crispness and sweetness that dissipates with storage, and a rinse or gentle scrub is probably all it will take to get them ready to cook. Delicious. The next time you have something sprouting on the countertop, consider giving it a little space in the garden. You never know what’s going to grow.