Early Potatoes II

This is a continuation from the article Early Potatoes. In homage to the sun, I decided to wait until Summer Solstice, June 21, to dig up the golden yellow tubers, still a good month or two before most potatoes are ready. I was a little worried that I wouldn’t have anything to harvest so I gave the plants extra time to mature, turns out that was unnecessary. By the time I got my hands dirty I wasn’t disappointed with the results, the tubers were all the size of my fist. Within minutes they were on the BBQ and once served received a rave review from my guests that evening, an unexpectedly fine and delicate dish.

Some of my worry about the potoatoes came from the longer than expected wait to see them poke up above the soil. Normally I use my own stored potato seed, but this year I bought new seed that had been stored very well, too well in fact. Not only did the plants show up in the mail a little later than I wanted, but pre-sprouting them also took longer and with sprouts not achieving much size by planting time. My own cold storage is less than ideal and causes an early and more vigorous sprout that works well with an early planting. The other thing I noticed after digging them up was I had fewer but much larger tubers than I had experienced in the past.

earlypotatoesIn the UK potato varieties are classified into three categories: first earlies, second earlies, and main harvest. The first and second earlies are bred to tuber up several weeks before the main harvest varieties. Over here we call those potatoes new. Freshly dug new potatoes are a true delight and a real contrast from the large, bland and thick skinned kind you find in the stores. New potatoes are richer in flavor, full of moisture and have thin and delicate skins, so thin in fact I don’t ever bother pealing them. New potatoes also don’t store well, so they’re a true gardeners treat and can only be purchased seasonally from the farmers market.

No matter when you planted your own potatoes, or how long they take to mature, you can benefit from the taste of new potatoes buy harvesting a handful a few weeks after you see the flowers set. You can pull up the whole plant and harvest all of them, or carefully root around in the soil with your hand and pull just one or two from each plant to minimize root disturbance.

My favorite method of cooking new potatoes is on the outdoor grill. Place your gently washed potatoes onto a sheet of tinfoil, cut them in half if they’re too large. I like to add a few shallots or a fresh spring onion, whichever is most mature in the garden at the time. Then pull up some green garlic bulbs and add the cloves by the handful, or instead try using several garlic scapes. Then add add a tablespoon or two of good pastured tallow.  I also use lard, goose fat, duck fat or bacon grease (always from pastured animals) but tallow is my favorite. You can use olive oil but the potatoes are more likely to scorch and stick to the foil. I never ever use cheap vegetable oils as I believe them all to be mildly toxic. Complete the package by adding some fresh Thyme from the herb garden and sea salt, then carefully wrap it all up to minimize moisture loss and place it directly onto the hot grill. To time it right, I add the potatoes first as they do take some time to cook. They’re done when you can easily push a fork into the larger pieces all the way through.

If you have a favorite summer potato recipe please share.

~Sean

Early Potatoes

Last weekend I planted my early potatoes, far ahead of the main potato planting schedule. If all goes well we should be roasting fresh new baby potatoes by June, four to six weeks before the main season starts. If you want to try your hand at growing early potatoes, this is my method.

I grow about eight varieties of potatoes every year, but only one for early potatoes, Yukon Gold. Normally I wouldn’t have picked such a commonly available strain, but for our purposes we need one that’s vigorous and matures quickly, something Yukon’s work very well for. I’ve also found this varieties yellow flesh to be richer in flavor, as a matter of fact, every variety with yellow flesh is richer in flavor. Since discovering that I’ve dropped all those boring and tasteless white fleshed types from the growing schedule. The flesh color comes from several health giving phytonutrients and is documented well in Jo Robinson’s book Eating on the Wild Side. White fleshed potatoes are very low in these extra nutrients, even if the skin is dark and vibrant.

chitpotatoesThe time for planting early potatoes is about four weeks before you would otherwise plant your main harvest potatoes. The first step is to pre-sprout, or chit them. I pulled my seed potatoes out of storage three or four weeks ago and carefully arranged them into an empty seed flat so that the root side of the potato was generally downwards. The root side can be identified by locating the scar where it was attached to the mother plant the previous year. I then placed the tray in a warmer room exposed to indirect light. After a few weeks you should see small buds forming as you can see in this picture.

You can’t drop your potatoes in the cold damp soil of early spring to decay, the soil must be warmed first. A week ago I moved one of my cheap portable low tunnels over the planting bed, and was simultaneously blessed with a weeks worth of sunshine. By potato planting time, the soil temperature had risen to 55 degrees, while the outside soil was still slinking at a cool 40.

For seed bed preparation, most of the work was done the previous fall where I had carefully deep-tilled and re-mineralized the soil. My beds are about four foot wide and this year I will be fitting in two ten foot rows spaced about 18 inches apart. With a narrow shovel I quickly dug two parallel trenches down the bed, about eight inches deep. I then sprinkled in a few handfuls of Gypsum into each trench to provide some extra Calcium.

To prepare the seed potatoes, carefully cut the larger ones into golf ball sized pieces, making sure to get at least a few good sprouts, or eyes, on each piece. Your typical potato planting recommendations encourage you to coat each piece in a sulfur based anti-fungal powder/chemical to kill pathogenic fungus. For naturally disease resistant and nutrient dense potatoes that’s an absolutely terrible idea. Of course I did the exact opposite and coated my seed pieces with a beneficial fungus instead.

lowtunnelPlace each potato seed about a foot apart into the trenches, making sure the eyes are facing upwards. Then partially fill in the trench with about four inches of earth. Lastly, I added a couple handfuls of high quality worm castings, kelp meal and about two lbs of rock dust per trench and watered it all in well.

Now the potatoes just need some time, and a little climate control by covering their bed with the low tunnel again. Our baby potatoes now have everything needed to encourage maximum biological activity and nutrient availability for a healthy start.

~Sean

UPDATE: read about the results here on Early Potatoes II