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The Seed of the Potato Bears Bitter Fruit!

Q. Alex and Lois in East Greenville PA write: "We are long time listeners and watchers." [I digress here to mention to our Podcast and radio families that there is a half-hour television version of the show that appears on PBS Channel 39 {or its cablestic equivalent} in Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Delaware; and of course, online. Conversely, we re-inform our TV audience that an hour-long audio version of each week's show is available on selected NPR stations across the nation, the US Virgin Islands and as a popular Podcast.]

Alex and Lois continue: "We love your show and your unparalleled knowledge of everything that grows in the dirt." [Actually, my knowledge of such things is extremely paralleled; but who am I to contradict such an obviously nice couple?]

Alex and Lois try to continue AGAIN: "We've had vegetable gardens on and off for forty plus years without much success. This year we decided to take your advice and try raised beds filled with composted soil and perlite. Between that and the excellent growing weather, we have a bumper crop of everything we planted. Our potato plants even look good! We've never been able to grow them before and I'm very anxious to open the underground treasure chest and gather up my harvest of Yukon Golds.

"One odd thing, however: little buds have appeared on the plants above ground. They look like little tomatoes. We've never seen them before, but we're sure you can explain them. What are they? Are they of any use?"

A. Despite your naïve certainty, I actually DID know what they were! (I don't ALWAYS pick these questions at random, although some days I wish I would randomize less so that I'd have to research less!) But before we reveal the anxiously-awaited answer, I must make one last digression (OK--it MIGHT be the last one; I still got 500 words to go) and comment on your success with raised beds, because you are far from alone. I receive tons of emails every fall from people who have struggled for decades trying to grow in Flat Earth, FINALLY move up to Raised Beds and 'suddenly' find success.

Don't WAIT decades! It's like trying to build the house before the foundation! Start small; build a few raised beds a season, fill them correctly and your harvests will greatly improve.

And that leads us to one last digression. (Again.) I have no idea whether {quote} "composted soil" means topsoil or compost, but it is important to fill those beds with the right stuff from Day One. And there is no such thing as "composted soil"; if there was, how could you tell when it was done?

Raised beds should be filled with approximately half yard-waste compost, half high-quality screened topsoil and a LOT of perlite for superior drainage and water retention. (Perlite is a natural mined volcanic glass that is popped into little white balls in giant ovens [no; that white stuff in your potting soil is NOT Styrofoam!])

(PS: This little detour does NOT count as a digression; mostly because I'm the one doing the counting.)

Now, back to Alex and Lois. Remember Alex and Lois? That nice couple we abandoned at a non-working bus stop a while back? Those little green balls that appeared at the tops of their potato plants are filled with potato seeds; a topic that is devilishly hard to research because the disease-free whole potatoes you buy for planting are called 'seed potatoes'. So you got your potato seeds and you got your seed potatoes. Good luck.

Anyway, you plant your crop of healthy sprouted potatoes as soon as the soil can be worked in the Spring. (Potatoes love to grow in cool weather.) I personally plant whole potatoes. Large-scale growers (and/or people who simply think it MUST BE DONE) 'coin' their potatoes into chunks with at least one or two healthy eyes apiece to save money. If you're a potato newbie, always start with whole potatoes. THEN you can allow your false bravado to enter the game and 'coin' them up the following year.

Then you can go back to whole potatoes.

The above-ground growth will be green and lush; and at one point a single stem will often appear atop each plant, adorned with beautiful flowers that reflect the color of the spuds growing underground. This does not always occur, but when it does you should examine the flowers carefully, as they are gorgeous. You should also note the date those flowers appeared, as 'fingerlings' (small spuds with intense flavor and nutrition) can be harvested three to four weeks after that. Or you can allow the potatoes to mature to a much larger size at the end of the season. Either way, pull the flowers off after they begin to fade.

Otherwise, they will progress into those weird round green things that really do contain growable potato seeds. If you wish, you can try and use these seeds to grow whole potatoes; it will take a full season in a coolish clime to get them to a decent size, but it can be done.

WARNING: Do not attempt to eat the actual seeds and/or seedpods; they are incredibly toxic. As are any green areas of a potato (caused when the spuds are exposed to sunlight). If a harvested potato is green, compost it. If only small portions are green, cut them off and eat the rest.

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