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Potato update: curious. May 17, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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In my previous post, “Tower of (potato) power,” our friend Ben described how I was growing ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes in a cylindrical bin to save precious bed space for other crops. I’d alternated layers of straw and soil in the bin, and planned to continue piling up alternating layers as the potato shoots grew to make sure I got the biggest possible potato harvest once the tops die down in fall. (Potato plants will form tubers all along their buried stems, so it pays bigtime to keep burying the stems as they grow. My plan is to keep adding layers of straw and soil until the shoots reach the top of the bin, then allow them to sprawl at will until they die back.)

This is, of course, something of an experiment. I figured we had nothing to lose, since our CSA will provide us with plenty of potatoes if ours don’t produce a crop. Still, our friend Ben was as nervous as a new father, checking the bin every day to see if there were any signs of the much-anticipated shoots. Had I put too much straw on top of the seed potatoes? Could the shoots push through? I began fluffing up the straw at the top of the pile, surreptitiously checking for any signs of life. Finally, this past week, I saw shoots stretching up through the straw. And then, yesterday, green leaves poking up through the top layer. Hallelujah!!! They’re alive. Now I just need to keep adding layers of straw and soil to keep up with the leafy shoots as they continue to grow.

Our friend Ben is greatly relieved that our ‘Yukon Gold’ crop is doing its stuff and I didn’t screw everything up. But this isn’t the curious part. What’s curious is this: Last year, our friend Ben planted some wonderful seed potato collections from Wood Prairie Farm (www.woodprairie.com), a family-run organic seed and potato company in Maine, in one of our veggie beds. I’d chosen the Wood Prairie Farm Experimenter’s Special and The Organic Potato Blossom Festival, which includes six varieties noted for their blossom beauty and fragrance as well as for producing wonderful potatoes. How could I resist?

Now, here’s the curious part. It’s not easy to harvest every last potato in your bed unless you’re really thorough or you’re growing them in a bin (as we are this year). Doubtless, I left a few in the ground last year. This is not a good thing, since winter turns in-ground potatoes to soggy mush. So you can imagine our friend Ben’s astonishment as our puppy Shiloh and I were inspecting the bed to check on the progress of the lettuces and mesclun mixes, strawberries, sugar snap peas, radishes, onions, bell pepper, pickling cuke, and summer squash plants, and I saw that some very vigorous potato plants were coming up!

The thought that seed potatoes could survive a Pennsylvania winter was news to me. (It’s never happened before through many years of potato-growing.) Now I can’t wait to see which potatoes they are! Guess I’ll have to be patient ’til harvest time, though. And then I’ll have another experiment on my hands: Comparing the yields of the in-ground potatoes to the ones in the bin. Stay tuned!


Two must-have seed catalogues. December 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, chickens, gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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The 2009 seed and nursery catalogues are turning up in the mailbox here at Hawk’s Haven. Hooray! Our friend Ben will take on nursery catalogues in another post, but here, I’d like to recommend two favorite seed catalogues that should definitely be showing up in your mailbox: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Wood Prairie Farm.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is one of the great success stories of our day. It all started with a dream (and a couple of cooperative parents). In 1998, 17-year-old Jeremiath (Jere) Gettle sent out 550 copies of a hand-printed seed catalogue that featured organically grown, open-pollinated heirloom seeds. He filled his seed orders from his bedroom.

Fast-forward to 2009: Jere (that’s “Jair,” not “Jerry”) prints 150,000 copies of a full-color, 124-page catalogue. It contains more than 1,200 heirloom varieties from 66 countries. And they’re all still organic and open-pollinated, which means that, if you want, you can save seed from them yourself and they’ll come true, unlike today’s hybrids. Jere takes a strong stand against genetically modified seeds and other atrocities like war throughout his catalogue. He even quotes our hero and blog mentor, old Ben Franklin!

Our friend Ben admires Jere. I love Baker Creek’s selection of heirloom vegetables, seed-grown fruits, herbs, and flowers. And dear to our friend Ben’s heart are the 20 kinds of heritage-breed chickens wandering the Baker Creek grounds (you can buy chicks in spring and summer).

I’m only giving you part of the Baker Creek picture here: Jere, who is trying to preserve the best of pioneer culture, has actually recreated a pioneer village called Bakersville on the Baker Creek property, and holds open houses and festivals there with old-time music, seed and plant sales, pioneer crafts, garden speakers, good food, and much more. And he publishes a quarterly magazine devoted to heirlooms, The Heirloom Gardener. But I’ll let you read about all that on the Baker Creek website, www.rareseeds.com, when you go there to check things out and order your catalogue!

(Note to Jere and Emilee: Silence Dogood, who’s reading over my shoulder, says that the one thing missing is a collection of recipes featuring heirloom veggies! She would of course like to see recipes in the catalogue itself, but if there’s no room, the website would be a good place to tuck them in.)

Lack of recipes isn’t an issue in the next catalogue I’d like to recommend: Wood Prairie Farm’s Maine Potato Catalog. Wood Prairie’s Jim and Megan Gerritsen not only feature recipes and cooking tips throughout their catalogue, they’ll send you their potato recipe booklet with every potato order. Like Baker Creek, Wood Prairie is adamantly organic, and Jim and Megan also seek out the widest variety of truly great potatoes and other products, along with their own line of organic veggie and herb seeds. Their seed selection is geared towards short-season growers, so all Northerners and Canadians, take notice! You’ll especially appreciate Wood Prairie’s seed potatoes and veggie and herb seed selections. But the potatoes are selected for every climate, including the South and Southwest, so everybody, read on. There’s much more for you to know!

Wood Prairie’s focus extends beyond organics, cold-climate gardening, and even potatoes. Their catalogue is small but mighty, filled with fantastic old-timey color illustrations (you’ll get a free selection of these as postcards when you order their potatoes). They offer delightful products and innovations in so many areas, our friend Ben hardly knows where to start. I guess the best place is with those potatoes.

Not all that many catalogues carry seed potatoes to begin with. (Gardeners don’t typically raise potatoes from actual seeds, but from small potatoes called seed potatoes. When you’re ready to plant, you cut each seed potato into chunks, with each chunk containing one or more “eyes,” or nubby sprouts, let the pieces dry out or cure for a couple of days, then plant them. You can plant very small seed potatoes whole.) You’re lucky to find a nice assortment and a little information about each variety (more properly cultivar, for “cultivated variety”).

In the Wood Prairie catalogue, you’ll find an amazing selection of the very best potatoes for early, midseason, and late growing. Each will be accompanied by a wonderful illustration and information on maturity, size of plant, color of skin and flesh, tuber shape, size of tubers (potatoes are technically tubers), tuber set, yield, flower color, disease tolerance, in-row spacing, ease of growing, and more. There are charts of potatoes by texture and how to use each variety for best flavor and texture; tips on organic potato growing; and delightful potato gardening collections, including the Organic Potato Blossom Special (did you know potato flowers could be colorful and fragrant?), Red, White and All-Blue Seed Potato Collection, and our friend Ben’s favorite, the Experimenter’s Special (four varieties, your choice).

Rather cook than garden? Wood Prairie offers a vast selection of organic potatoes for cooking, as well as a Maine Potato Sampler of the Month. You can order organic garlic, shallots, onions, beets, carrots, and/or parsnips, a selection of organic whole-grain bread mixes, whole grains (including wheat, oats, spelt, rye, and even flour or “dent” corn), cheeses, sprouting seeds, and even cover crops.

Check out Wood Prairie’s catalogue or website, www.woodprairie.com, for even more. Plus, first-time customers get $5 off their first order!

Our friend Ben thinks that every vegetable gardener should have copies of these catalogues in their hands this winter. They’re better than any movie for inspiring wonderful dreams, in this case of great gardens to come. Do you have vegetable catalogues and companies you feel especially passionate about? If so, please share them with us!

Potatoes for planting and eating March 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. As potato-planting season approaches, our friend Ben and I are expecting the arrival of seed potatoes from Wood Prairie Farm, a small but phenomenal organic potato-growing operation in Bridgewater, Maine. (Prairies in Maine?! Go figure.) We first stumbled on Wood Prairie this winter while reading an article on ‘King Harry’, a new pest-resistant potato from Cornell’s breeding program. (Ack—I can’t remember which magazine featured the article, but I think it was Mother Earth News.) There weren’t many sources for ‘King Harry’, but Wood Prairie Farm was one of them.

One quick look online (www.woodprairie.com) and we were hooked. Wood Prairie Farm is definitely our kind of place—small and passionate about what they’re doing and offering. For those who’d rather cook than garden, they offer an incredible selection of gourmet organic potato varieties, special types of organic wheat, spelt, corn, rye, and oats, numerous healthful bread and pancake mixes, organic sprouting seeds and equipment, organic cheeses from Neighborly Farms in Vermont, organic nuts, organic dried fruits, Maine maple syrup, and much, much more. For those who, like me and our friend Ben, love to garden and cook, they offer organic wheat and oat seed, carefully chosen organic veggie and herb seeds, certified organic seed potatoes, organic supplies, and on and on. Their colorful, personable catalogue offers descriptions, recipes, tips, and lots of hard-won, first-hand experience, and should be on every gardener’s shelf.  You even get $5 off your first order! Thank you, Jim and Megan Gerritsen.

As you might imagine, our friend Ben and I didn’t leave our Wood Prairie adventure empty-handed. In addition to ‘King Harry’, we purchased seed potatoes (despite its name, this is not actual potato seed, but small potatoes that you cut up to plant, leaving several sprouts or “eyes” on each piece, or plant whole) of ‘RoseGold’, ‘Rose Finn Apple Fingerling’, and ‘Russian Banana Fingerling’ as part of Wood Prairie’s “Experimenter’s Special.” And we couldn’t resist their “Organic Potato Blossom Festival” pack, with “exceptional blossom beauty and fragrance.” It includes ‘Red Cloud’, ‘Carola’, ‘Cranberry Red’, ‘All-Blue’, ‘Onaway’, and ‘Butte’ seed potatoes, enough, according to the catalog, to plant a 4-by-4-foot bed. 

We also succumbed to some of the more unusual veggie seeds—‘Latah’ tomato, Wild Garden Mix fall and winter salad, ‘Cardinale’ lettuce, ‘Plum Purple’ radish, ‘Yukon Chief’ corn, and ‘Cosmic Red’ hot peppers. Wood Prairie sent the (beautiful) seed packs promptly, and will send us our seed potatoes when it’s time to plant them in our Zone 6 garden. We’re like two kids at Christmas waiting for the box to arrive!

Potatoes played a starring role in our recent vacation in North Carolina, too. We were staying with family, and the octogenarian patriarch is the family chef. He’s always a bit bemused by my vegetarianism, but gamely tries to come up with veggie-friendly recipes when I’m down there. This time, he struck gold with a main-dish potato salad. Mind you, our friend Ben and I are generally not fans of potato salad. Why eat a cold, mayonnaise-laden conglomeration of potentially bacteria-laden (and definitely calorie-laden) glop when you could eat luscious hot potatoes?

However. This particular potato salad would make a convert of anyone. It’s not only not gooey and gloppy, it has a special character thanks to using russet (aka baking) potatoes instead of the waxy-textured potatoes that are staples of potato salad. Think baking potatoes would make a gross, crumbly potato salad? I did, too. But it simply ain’t so. This salad is so good it flew off the table—even in March, not traditional potato-salad season—and into the mouths of friends and relations who kept trying to discreetly leave the table but made themselves conspicuous by returning with mountainous platters of second and third helpings. (What little was left of the enormous amount Mr. Hays had made mysteriously disappeared during the night, much to everyone’s chagrin. The culprit failed to come forward, but I have my suspicions. Are you reading this, Ben?!)

Of course, I begged for the recipe. Mind you, when I make it, I think I’ll try some hot just for the hell of it—I really do love hot potatoes. But trust me, it’s just fabulous cold. Served with a simple side salad of beautiful lettuces—maybe with arugula, scallions, sliced almonds, and orange segments in a light balsamic vinaigrette—and a dry Riesling, you have a perfect meal. So without more ado, here’s the recipe. Enjoy it!

Mr. Hays’s “Baked Potato” Salad

3 pounds russet potatoes

1/4 cup cider vinegar

2 T chopped parsley leaves

1 t salt, or to taste

1/2 t fresh-ground pepper, or to taste

1 cup chopped celery

4 large eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and chopped

1 cup diced red bell pepper

1 cup diced sweet onion (Walla Walla, Vidalia, or red Spanish type)

1/4 cup each diced sweet and dill pickles

3/4 cup mayonnaise

Cook the potatoes 25 to 30 minutes in boiling water, until easily pierced with a fork. Drain potatoes and remove skins by rubbing them off with a paper towel while still warm. (Note from Silence: If using a thin-skinned potato like ‘Yukon Gold’, I’d try this with the skins on.) Cut the potatoes into 1-inch pieces and toss with the cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and parsley. Stir in the celery, red bell pepper, pickles, and onion. Fold in the eggs and mayonnaise. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight. Serves 10. (Note from Silence: Yeah, right! Serves 5 is more like it, especially once everyone’s had a taste.)