Pink-skinned spud is a `garden gem'

THE potatoes on my plate were something else -- oblong with a bright pink skin, a buttery-yellow flesh, and a rich, delectable flavor. The occasion was a dinner for delegates to a first-ever seed conference sponsored by the National Association for Gardening last October and these particular ``spuds'' were exciting considerable comment. The speculation was quieted some minutes later when a young woman arose from a nearby table to announce that the potato in question was known as the Ruby Crescent, an exciting rediscovery of a very old variety that would be included in her 1986 catalog of unusual vegetables.

Jan Blum (pronounced ``bloom'') is an avid gardener from Boise, Idaho, who started ``Seeds Blum'' five years ago to counter the frustration she felt over the difficulty of obtaining all but the most common vegetable varieties from the bigger seed companies. Hers is a small but growing company, and finding Ruby Crescent is the latest in a string of minor triumphs to come her way.

In fact, the pink-skinned potato arrived virtually gift-wrapped from a customer who said, in effect, ``Try 'em, you'll like 'em.''

``Like them? I loved them!'' Ms. Blum recalls. She promptly set out to find where they came from. All potatoes originated from the South American Andes, but it is believed that these reds developed to their present state somewhere in Austria. They were probably brought across by a few immigrant families late last century and survived in isolated backyards until a few were presented to a farmer in Oregon. Like Ms. Blum, he found them so delectable that he was sure consumers would latch onto them in a hurry.

He was never given the chance to test consumer reaction, however, because the produce manager at the local supermarket had other ideas. A potato, in the manager's view, came white-skinned and in a certain classical form. Red-skinned, yellow-fleshed, and tubular (like a long fat sausage) just didn't fit. Fortunately, Ms. Blum found them just as they were about to become pig food.

Ms. Blum bought the entire field for seed. Test marketing showed the potatoes were, indeed, very acceptable to backyard growers. She has since had a full-sized seed crop grown and included the line in the latest Seeds Blum catalog (there'sa $2 fee for the first catalog from Idaho City Stage, Boise, Idaho 83706).

The quality and variety of vegetables in United States supermarkets have taken a dramatic swing for the better in the past 10 years, and this has had its impact on backyard vegetable growing. Increasingly home gardeners are growing those varieties and specialty items (``garden gems,'' Ms. Blum calls them) not readily available on supermarket shelves. Ruby Crescent potatoes fall under this heading.

Another potato option for the home gardener is to grow ``new'' potatoes. You can always buy large storage potatoes for a moderate price, but the early season ``new'' potatoes (actually young immature potatoes) never come cheap. Yet they are simple to grow and are out of the ground in plenty of time for a following crop of beans, fall cabbage, and broccoli, or even a second crop of new potatoes. Generally any early-season potato variety is suitable to produce small potatoes. Irish Cobbler and Norland (a red-skinned variety) are two that have done well for me.

Nothing grows potatoes better in my view than liberal volumes of compost. Otherwise, a tablespoon of 5-10-10 commercial fertilizer placed in each planting hole will do.

Set the seeds (small whole potatoes or wedges of large potatoes containing at least three eyes) in a furrow and mound up the soil around the plants as they grow. In the North where summers do not get too hot, you can plant the potatoes on top of well-fertilized soil and cover them with leaves and hay as they grow. I find shredded leaves are best; otherwise, whole leaves mixed with hay will do. For even, rapid growth, see that the plants never go thirsty.

Because potatoes can stand far more cold than their cousins the tomatoes, you can begin planting four weeks before the last expected frost in your area. A lightcloth or other covering will help if a heavy frost threatens.

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