The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Some Potato Advice

By Ashby Hartwell Williams © 1989

Issue: February, 1989

Down through the years, the lowly potato has had great historical significance. If it weren't for the potato famine in Ireland, many of our Irish ancestors would never have come to America. There were a lot of the Irish who settled in the Blue Ridge and perhaps their blessing enriches the dark mountain soil to grow some of the world's finest potatoes.

The history of one entire community in Southwest Virginia started with planting potatoes. There is a historical marker in Tazewell County that reads:

"Site of James Burke's Garden. In this fertile soil James Burke, who discovered this hunters paradise, planted potato peelings by the camp fire of a 1748 surveying party led by Colonel James Patton. The next year a fine crop of potatoes were found here so the name Burkes Garden was jokingly given. On the bluff east of Station Creek, Burke built a cabin where he lived from 1753 to 1756 when he was driven out by the Shawnees."

It's almost the time of year to start thinking about gardening and plowing time. Seed catalogs arrive in the mail with the New Year, and fire restless minds into planning this year's garden. The color photographs of fruit and vegetables in those catalogs make mouths water and dreamers out of the most unimaginative souls.

Each year, practically without exception, every mountain family that plants anything at all will be planting potatoes. If there is one thing dark, rich Blue Ridge Mountain soil is good for, it is growing potatoes.

For some reason, mountain people seem to take particular pride in a good crop of potatoes. Friends and neighbors always ask how many bushels were yielded in the harvest and more than once, a particularly proud farmer has been known to stretch the truth about how big he could grow potatoes. One farmer said someone came by his place and wanted to buy five pounds of potatoes but he told then that he wasn't going to slice one for anybody. If they wanted it, they would just have to buy a whole one.

A lot of people around here plant a variety called Kennebeck potatoes. Some buy new seed potatoes each year. Some save and plant the best of last year's crop. And a few, like James Burke, plant peelings. Most people cut seed potatoes in sections that have one or more "eyes" on it and plant the potato pieces.

I once heard of a farmer who experimented with one hill of potatoes. When the plant came up, he put an old tire around it and filled it in with dirt. As the plant grew up, he kept putting tires on top and filling them with dirt. By the end of summer, it was over four feet tall. When the plant died down, he removed the tires one by one. As the dirt fell away, that plant had grown potatoes all the way up to the top tire. He got nearly a peck of potatoes from that one plant.

Many farmers plant by the "signs." Potatoes should be planted in Pisces, or the "feet," as they are a root crop. Never plant when the moon is in Virgo or the "blossoms," as it is a barren sign and you'll get a lot of blooms and little produce for your efforts. A lot of people think it will produce a good crop it they are planted on Good Friday, before Easter.

Potatoes need to be planted in well tilled loose soil. It makes it easier for the potatoes to grow and you to harvest. I have known a few farmers who dug a pit, filled it with sawdust and fertilizer and planted potatoes in it. When potatoes are planted this way, they are as clean when you dig them as if they had been washed. As potato plants grow, you have to dig the weeds away from them and push dirt up around the plants. Pushing dirt or "hilling" potatoes, as it is called, increases the number of potatoes you will get from each plant.

Sometime from early to mid-summer, depending on the climate where you live, you can start digging under a plant or two for the treat known as "new potatoes." Potatoes at this stage will be about the size of a golf ball. The skins will still be quite thin and they can be boiled whole, skins and all, in a little water and a lot of butter. The variety of potatoes known as Red Bliss is particularly good when new and tender. Their skins are so thin you can rub them off with your finders as you wash them. Country housewives sometimes can tiny potatoes whole.

One elderly woman told me that when she was a child, her family grew a wonderful crop of potatoes each year but her father sold all of the good ones to make ends meet. As a result, the family kept only the little ones to eat all year. "I've peeled marbles," she said. It must have been disappointing to the children to dig those big beautiful potatoes knowing they would not get to eat them.

Weeding potatoes is sometimes no easy trick. I once lived on a farm that was plagued with wire grass. We knew we were in trouble when the man who brought his tractor over to plow the garden told us his son was in Japan, where they dropped the bomb, several years after the event and the only thing he saw growing for miles was wire grass. What chance did we have of getting rid of it if an atomic bomb couldn't destroy it? That year we dug potatoes that had wire grass growing all the way through them. They weren't much for baking, and when you peeled them and cut them up you had to trim the grass out. Other than that, it was still a good crop.

Potatoes are ready to dig when the tops die. Some people plow them out and others use the old fashioned shovel. Potatoes are then spread out one layer thick to dry out before storing. If they are stored with moist dirt on them, they will rot. Do not let them air in the sunlight though, because they will turn green; after potatoes are dry on the surface, store in a cool, dark, dry place.

A lot of things in this article on growing potatoes will be so familiar to some of those reading it that they don't even think about them any more. They just do them and produce the great crops I mentioned early in the story. There are a lot of ins and outs of gardening that is learned only by experience. But, there is a whole new "crop" of gardeners out there who will be planting a garden for the first time this year. If you're in this last category, the best advice is to find an old timer and ask his or her advice frequently. They have an encyclopedia of practical knowledge about gardening in their heads that will beat any book you could ever read.