Digging for potatoes like finding buried treasure

This potato plant is looking sad and dead, which is the sign that it's time to dig for the potatoes. I didn't actually plant this potato in the midst of my squash bed this year. It is a volunteer from last year.

The first year I grew potatoes, I was a bit alarmed when they all started to die by midsummer.

Then I did a bit more research, poked around in the dirt and discovered that when the plant above ground looks dead, it's a sign that the potatoes underground are ready.

Digging for potatoes is like digging for buried treasure. It's incredibly satisfying to shovel up dirt and find potatoes, which is a bit silly. After all, I planted potatoes, I saw them grow above ground, and yet, when I pull a potato out of the ground, I feel like I have won the lottery.

Perhaps it's because I can't see what is underground, and I never remember where I planted different varieties, so it's always a surprise to see if the potatoes are red, gold or purple.

Like a gold miner finding a huge nugget, it's doubly rewarding to discover a huge potato lurking in the dirt, and it's also kind of fun to see how many potatoes you can find from one plant.

Other gardeners get more yield per plant than I do, and that likely is because potatoes don't have ideal growing conditions in my garden. Because they will grow in places that get a fair amount of shade, that's where they have to grow. It's not ideal, but I don't have any garden spaces that get full sunlight from sunrise to sunset.

I do have a few spots that have longer periods of sunshine than others. Sorry, Mr. Potato Head, the tomatoes get those prime spots. You'll have to make do somewhere else.

My rule when planting potatoes is to plant any variety except russet. It's not that I hate russet potatoes, it's just that they don't cost much at the grocery store. Me and russet potatoes are both cheap, so I'd rather grow varieties that are more expensive at the store.

Over the years, I've also tried to look for varieties that take longer to grow. The typical time to plant potatoes is in April, and I'm not interested in early season varieties that ripen in 90 days or less.

We don't eat a lot of potatoes in July and August, when it's a hundred-kazillion degrees outside and our swamp cooler keeps the kitchen comfortably sweltering in the early evening.

Sure, I could just harvest them and then try to store them until the weather turns cooler, but have you ever read instructions for curing and storing homegrown potatoes?

One website said to cure them in a room with up to 95% humidity and moderate temperatures of less than 65 degrees, before storing them permanently in your root cellar, which should be about 40 degrees.

I have no root cellar and no rooms in my house are 65 degrees in July and August. The only place where the humidity might hit 95% is in my shower. I like potatoes, but not enough to shower with them.

I try to find varieties that take longer than 100 days to reach maturity. With my less-than-ideal, semi-shady gardening, it always takes longer for produce to get to maturity, so if I plant a late variety that says 110 days, it's probably closer to 130 days in my yard. It's perfect, because I don't really want potatoes until the fall, anyway.

And there is my final reason to love growing potatoes: You want the plants to get to a mostly dead state. With the typical July heat wave and no-show August monsoon season this year, everything in my garden looks half-dead right now. At least, with potatoes it's a sign of success.

Penny Stine is an avid gardener, who makes a lot of gardening mistakes and occasionally learns from them. Look for her column on the third Saturday of the month during the growing season. Stine is the staff writer for The Daily Sentinel's Special Sections department and can be reached at Penny.Stine@gjsentinel.com.

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