Thursday, June 16, 2011

June planting; minding the spuds

It's mid-June, which means hilling up potatoes.

Let me explain.  Potatoes grow in two phases, simplified a bit.  First, they push up stems and leaves above the ground, in the way we expect most plants to do.  Green stems extend upwards towards the sun, leaves appearing along them.  This classic upwards foliation goes on for a while, then stops, leading to the second phase.  That's when the plant turns away from the surface world (literally, the leaves droop), and spends all of its energies underground, plumping up roots into gradually thickening tubers - i.e., the taters we eat.

Potato plants in the upper plot
To help these plants make as many big spuds as possible, we need the plants to grow as much as possible, which means assisting the first phase by helping each plant grow taller.  That way they have more energy and more underground room to make more potatoes.

We do that by "hilling". When a plant extrudes another few inches upwards, we gently shovel some soil around it, leaving about an inch of remaining stalk above the earth's new top.  We check back every few days, and repeat the process if the plant keeps on getting taller.

The results are ever-ascending mounds, with potato plants poking out of the top.  Once this phase stops, each plant fills up their human-made mound with spuds (ideally).

Readers of this blog may recall that we're growing potatoes in three different ways this year: in dirt, in mulch, and in barrels.  Hilling works for all three.  I just described the all-dirt method.  For the mulch-bedded tater plants, we hill with more mulch hauled in from the goat/chicken shed (those animals continue adding to our homestead, months and years after their demise).  For the barrels, we add more compost, carefully dropped in between plant and barrel wall.

There's something deeply satisfying about seeing these mounds rise.  It's a physical, tangible sign of successful growing.  Each mount becomes a ministorehouse of potatoes to come, in my imagination.  And while what often comes next - plants pushing even higher from atop their new mounds - means a call to more work, that's also a sign of progress.

Each plant is also a reminder of winter to come.  I see the gleaming green leaves, and am achingly aware of how short-lived they are, how brutally important the tubers beneath are for survival.  Hilled-up mounds are ultimately hedges against starvation.

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