Sure, I grow fancy-pants crops like chiles and okra and celeriac. But my very favorite crop, right after the holy triumvirate of arugula, basil, and tomatoes? The humble potato. How do I love thee, you lumpy roots? Let me count the ways.
1. The flavor of homegrown organic potatoes is fantastic. Of course, organic potatoes are just as good from the farmer’s market–but commercially grown? Inedible. They not only taste watery and have a weird texture, but are apparently drenched in pesticides.
2. I’ve had good luck starting my crop for zero money, with stuff I’d otherwise compost, such as sprouted leftovers from the supermarket or the tiny potatoes from last year’s crop. I’ve noticed no carry-over of disease from this, but conditions, as we all know, may vary in other yards. I have heard of the Irish potato famine, and I’d hate to cause another.
3. They are so forgiving that you can plant them in April or in July in my part of the world. I usually do both. They are the perfect replacement crop for peas, spinach, strawberry plants, and other stuff that poops out early.
4. They are not fussy about when you harvest them. They’re ready to be harvested after they’ve bloomed and the plant begins to yellow and wither–but you can start stealing potatoes from the edges of the plant early just by feeling around in the soil. And then, after they are done, you can let them sit for a while, making sure you harvest them before the mice get them or they freeze.
5. Harvesting them is fun. I fork up the plant, and my kids love spotting them and picking them out of the soil.
6. In the same space in which I’d get a few meals worth of peas, I can harvest 50 pounds of potatoes.
7. The only pest that’s ever bothered mine is easily identifiable. I’m talking about the Colorado potato beetle, neat and appealing in his yellow- and black-striped suit. That doesn’t stop me from squishing him whenever I see him, before he and his girlfriends get to the egg-laying stage. Because the larvae that come after them–pink slugs–are not remotely cute. And they are ravenous.
8. Potatoes will break up clay soil and improve its texture. And my experience in my current garden, which borders on boglike, gives the lie to the idea that potatoes don’t like wet soil. I’m getting bumper crops here.
9. They are so various. Some take 60 days, some take 90. Some are white inside, some are yellow, some are blue. Some are good for mashing, some for baking, some for boiling, and all of them, somehow, are great roasted. Some are at their best right out of the ground. And some are great keepers, hanging around in my warm basement without getting soft until March. My favorites thus far: ‘Yukon Gold’ for boiling, even though it’s not a terribly productive plant, ‘All Blue’ for mashing or baking, ‘Sangre’ for keeping. But I’m always heading out for new frontiers.
10. My children behave as if I’ve just served them ice cream whenever I put potatoes on the table. They are crazy about potato leek soup–which may be too much of a good thing, because potato leek soup is just not exciting enough for me, but I am forbidden from duding up that dish with any of the fancy-pants crops.