It’s been warm and sunny, but the light has shifted to golden and the potatoes are ready to be dug. After lunch, I gather the wheelbarrow, six paper bags, a water bottle, and a few hand tools and headed down the street to the second garden. Three raised beds are covered with dried, crunchy old potato vines. I push them aside, plunge my hands in, and haul out a huge red potato, followed by three or four small ones, pop them into the bag, and move onto the next plant.
Digging potatoes is like a treasure hunt. You know there is something down there—somewhere—but not exactly where or how much. There are always surprises—a huge potato that could feed a family of four, a migrant clump of red potatoes in the blue potato line, one that has dug itself deep down into the bed, below all of the others. You never know. Slowly, the bags fill up and the scope of the harvest is clear. This was a pretty good one. The red potatoes did really well, but the rose fingerlings, usually a strong producer of complex, lumpy, knotty tubers, were sleek and thin this year. Why? Was it planting time? Water? The new beds? Or are the tubers starting to peter out, succumbing to disease? I wonder as I dig, thinking about next year.
Why do I plant potatoes every year? They’re cheap to buy, even the organic varieties at the market, and ubiquitous. There are lumpy, dirty, and decidedly uninteresting as a plant. And, according to old diet theories, you shouldn’t eat too many—starch is bad for you. But, for the last five years, I’ve planted five or six varieties of potatoes, first at the community garden and now here, in the second garden behind our rental. There are many reasons.
First, they are an excellent community garden crop. They don’t need hours of care, once planted, and no one knows what they are, so no one messes with them. Avery Garden has a harvest problem, but no one ever harvested my potatoes, buried under straw and dirt, hidden by dead vines. You can go in at the end of the season and haul them all out in a morning. The first year, the haul was much larger than I expected and my bike could hardly handle it. I barely made it across Western without spilling the harvest all across the highway. After that, I brought the trailer and Mark.
Then, there is the genetic component. I feel very close to my Irish roots when I dig the potatoes. This is not something I had to study to learn, like I had to work at how to change the oil in my old VW Rabbit. It feels natural, like sliding bread out of the oven using a peel. I have done this before. Dug trenches, cut the saved tubers, buried them in the ground, weeded and watered, and pulled them out to the root cellar, to be eaten all winter. I love eating my own potatoes.
And that may be the crucial reason for this work. In a world that is rapidly sliding towards chaos—we are not going to be able to keep importing our food from around the world much longer—I am working towards a more direct food supply. I’m not participating in a Think Tank on Peak Oil. I am not fussing about carbon offsets to balance out my supply of tropical fruit through the winter. I am not depending upon others to feed me. In the small way, I am independent. We are, at my house, Potato Independent. We will eat the potatoes that we raise and then, when they are gone, we will not eat potatoes until they come again.
So it’s warm afternoon, with fall coming on. The plum tree and grapevine down here are also calling me—but that’s another day’s work. Right now, I am hunting potatoes. One hundred and five pounds of potatoes, to be precise. And, when I am done, I’ll put them in milk crates and stack them in the space under the cellar stairs, where the temperature is always about the same, and be greeted by their earthy fragrance as I move up and down, putting by food for the winter.