It pays to grow your own small potatoes

With the enthusiasm only the dead of winter can inspire, I drew up some ambitious landscaping plans for my garden. They indicate that a secluded patio -- designed with reading, sunbathing, and maybe even a little snoozing in mind -- is to be erected right where a raised garden bed now exists. That bed will have to go, although not before mid-July or thereabouts. So, the question is: What shall I do with that bed in the roughly three months of growing season available before the time arrives to move it elsewhere?

Quick-growing peas or some members of the cabbage family would do. But right at the moment visions of boiled new potatoes garnished with chopped chives are dancing in my head -- and golf-ball-size potatoes, the best boilers of all, are readily grown in the time available.

Many home gardeners (and I'm frequently among them) don't bother growing potatoes. Some pretty good ones are available at the supermarket, we reason, so why bother. But we can't readily get freshly dug new potatoes, and that's the point of this article. It pays to grow your own small potatoes; and while we're on the subject, there are also some compelling reasons we should grow our own sweet potatoes, even in the North.

First we'll deal with the more conventional potatoes, the types that originated in the Andes and which Sir Walter Raleigh took to Ireland (hence the term Irish potatoes). In some regions they are also called spuds because, paradoxically, they once topped the hit list put out by the Society for the Prevention of Unwholesome Diets, or SPUD as the acronym had it.

For growing new potatoes, search out small seed potatoes that can be planted whole. Because they won't be in the ground long enough to make large bakers, you can plant them fairly close together -- between 10 amd 12 inches apart. Be sure the soil is loose and rich. Add plenty of compost and maybe some additional bone meal. Or you can use a 5-10-10 commercial fertilizer.

I plant potatoes 3 to 4 inches deep and as they grow I mound shredded leaves around them (spoiled hay is very good for this as well). This way a majority of the potatoes form in the leaves and are readily harvested a few at a time if you don't want to dig up the whole plant.

One year, just before harvesting some Irish Cobblers, I took cuttings from some of the greener stems and rooted them in the shade. The rooted cuttings were planted out in late July and by the time frost cut them down there was a second harvest of new potatoes, this time with little more than two months of growing weather. I presume this much speedier production resulted from the warm soil of late summer along with the fact that the cuttings were taken from mature plants.

Red Norlands and Irish Cobblers are two varieties that have given me good new-potato yields.

Meanwhile sweet potatoes are showing up ever more frequently in Northern gardens. Breeders have made this possible by converting the sprawling tropical vine into a compact, quick-maturing plant.

Tests at Cornell University have shown that the use of black plastic can significantly improve sweet-potato yields in the North.

Dudley Sanders, of Gleason, Tenn. 38229, has produced a leaflet on growing sweets in the North based on these findings. Send two first-class stamps to Mr. Sanders for a free copy of this leaflet plus a catalog of available sweet-potato varieties, three of which are specifically recommended for Northern gardeners.

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