Thursday, December 2, 2010

Emancipating the Potatoes

While we were having Thanksgiving in northern Indiana our garden received the biggest rainfall since we began recording it in mid-April of this year. It won't be a surprise to folks in this area to know that the season's record breaking amount was only 1.85", and that fell over two days. (The next greatest two days were the 9th and 10th of July, adding up to 1.3".)
But it was enough. Anyone who asked how the garden was doing in the past three months heard "It looks like our sorghum did really well. The last thing we have to harvest is the potatoes, but they are locked in our brick-like soil. It's going to take a good rain to be able to get them out." People quit asking about the garden after awhile.
Now I have been volunteering, triumphantly, that the potatoes have been freed. We got back Sunday, and Monday's first order of business was to dig as much of the remaining potato area as possible because of the rain scheduled for Tuesday. (At left are the seed potatoes cut, ashed, and ready to plant, back in April.) We had planted 245 square feet of potatoes, and between July 20 and September 23 I dug out 143 sq ft of them. Mostly coinciding with one of our measly .1" rains. And the most area I managed in a day was 55 sq ft, because the ground was so hard.

Heading out Monday afternoon I dug the remaining 103 sq ft in an hour and a half, which is a testament to the qualities of perfectly moist clay soil. Not too mucky, not too dry, and the fork pulls them 'taties out like a dream. Well, almost.

We planted these potatoes in April and May, and I think the May plantings had just gotten their tops all established when it quit raining. Our yields reflect that we're working heavy soil that has had its fertility pillaged.

Just a hint of what I'm talking about: the May planting, our worst yielding, was 65 sq ft of Kennebec potatoes, and we got a total of 4 lb from that (Margo and Alten weigh them on our itsy-bitsy scale at right). It works out to 6.2 lb per 100 sq ft. For all of you commercial potato farmers out there (and I know you're reading my blog) that works out to 1.34 tons/acre. For the rest of you, it works out to .13 lb of harvested potato for every pound planted. Which is what we call deficit spending.

It is easy, at this stage, to look at our potatoes and declare failure, commencing to plant petunias next year instead. But I maintain that failure is important, and I routinely tell folks that in classes. When someone wants to know the most important thing to master in gardening I answer "observation." Paying attention to the processes in your garden means the difference between learning from your mistakes and suffering from them time after time. Also important (when discussing failure) is perspective. This is our first year here, and we hope to be producing all of our food within a few years. Is it better to have crop failure in one of our most important foods when we are getting on our feet, or to experience it when we are depending on that crop?

So what went wrong with our potatoes? There were two obvious culprits, which I have already mentioned. First, our soil is heavy clay, and little organic matter remains from its previous 20 or more years of being gardened. Root crops don't like that. They aren't allowed to expand, so they grow small and in funny shapes. The second was the lack of water, which we were counting on as rain (the healthiest form of irrigation for crops and soil). Additionally, we planted them about a month later than we wanted. Earlier planting would have given them quite a jump on growth before the hot (and dry) weather of summer hit. Quality of seed potatoes may have played a role, but most of ours looked very good. The first three variables are so overwhelming that smaller ones, like varieties planted, pest damage, and availability of micronutrients wouldn't add up to much.What will we do differently to address these troubles next year? Well, we'll start by getting a bigger scale, cause weighing even a small potato harvest 1 lb at a time gets tedious. Seriously though, we plan to post production of compost as a top priority, and though adding compost will probably take years to make an impact on this soil we're committing now. We saw that most of our crops needed at least twice as much water as they got which, though that wouldn't really be much water in the big picture, it is way more that we can store currently. So we'll add some rainwater storage and water more than just the newly planted stuff (and, of course, hope for a different weather pattern next year). We'll be as on-schedule as any farmer ever is next year, since we'll be starting out with more than practically nothing. And, finally, we'll watch and see what happens in the completely different conditions that next year will undoubtedly bring.
Until then we will be a little short on the homegrown mashed potatoes...

1 comment:

  1. I thought of you over Thanksgiving with the rain, and of your potato harvest! Sounds like next year will be a better one, but you're off to a very respectable start...