Since we eat them, we might as well grow them

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By Cheryl Steenerson

Spring has sprung and all I can think is “Ah, warmth.”
It’s a psychological high unmatched by anything after the winter we had this year. I say psychological because 60 degrees outside is different than 60 degrees inside. One calls for shorts and flip-flops, the other a sweater and slippers.
Go figure.
Warmer temperatures mean we’re getting closer to planting everything. Many of us have already started our spring gardens. My lettuce is coming up and the peas aren’t far behind. My next effort will be the vegetable we all love to eat.
We eat an average of 125 pounds of it every year. It gives us more potassium than a banana and almost half of our daily vitamin C requirement.  It’s high in fiber, complex carbohydrates, minerals and vitamin B-6.  It’s even low in calories, depending how you fix it.
So, what is this miracle food? Unless you’re on a no carb diet, I’m guessing you eat one a day. Even my non-vegetarian friend Paula eats one a day. Have you guessed it yet? It’s served a variety of ways. I’m talking about taters.
The potato is one of the most nutritious and versatile vegetables of them all. Just think of all the ways we can eat them. Potato soup, chips, and cakes are just the tip of the iceberg. We mash them, hash them, fry them, boil and bake them. We just plain love them and they have an interesting history, as well.
French fries were introduced in this country in 1802 by none other than Thomas Jefferson, our most famous presidential gardener. He served them at a White House dinner. Ever wonder how tater tots came to be? Ore-Ida came up with them in 1951. It’s the shavings left over from cutting french fries.
Since we eat so many, you might as well grow some in the garden. You just need decent soil. About the only pest to ward off is the potato beetle, and it’s easy to eliminate.  You can grow a variety of potatoes and some even have more vitamins and minerals than others.
If you’ve grown potatoes, you’ve probably grown more than one type. We all have our favorites.
I like the little red ones, called Sangria, but there are many red types.  They go great with beans and can be canned for winter use. Yukon gold are delicious for mashed and baking and they store pretty well.
Go to any greenhouse or plant store and you’ll find a variety of certified seed potatoes to choose from.  Catalogs give you so many choices, it’s hard to pick.  Pick you must, though, because it’s time to plant.
Be sure to cut them into pieces, with an eye per piece, and let them cure a few days before you plant them. Some folks plant on St. Patrick’s Day, some on Good Friday and some just get them in the ground when they can.
You don’t even have to grow them in the ground. I’ve grown them in a round mound of straw, held in by a wire fence. The trick is keeping the spuds covered. Never let sunlight reach the potato or the skin will turn green and toxic. Keep the green growing above the straw.
If you’re an in-the-ground grower, be sure to mulch. This keeps the weeds down. Weeds compete with the plant for food, causing fewer and smaller potatoes. Mulch by laying newspapers down and then covering with straw.  You won’t have to weed. Watch the leaves closely for the beetles to arrive and start stripping the leaves off the plant.
I use my smelly onion and garlic spray to fight them off.  Pick and squash them if you must.
Just don’t let them get ahead of you and strip the plant. In a few months the plants will start to die off naturally and you’ll know it’s time to dig. You can dig early, if you want some small new potatoes.  You should get four to six potatoes per plant, on average.
Now, allergy sufferers, please start your daily regimen of a tablespoon of local honey a day. You won’t be so susceptible to all things in the air. It’s hard to enjoy all the sun and fresh air when you’ve got your nose in a Kleenex.  Happy spring, everyone, and of course, happy growing.

Cheryl Steenerson is a gardening columnist for The Anderson News.