If you want to know how to care for a rare slipper orchid, ask an heiress who is always at leisure. If you want to know how to grow a spud, ask a housewife who has lived through a war. Neighbour Iris is old enough to remember civilian rationing and wise enough to know that, even in peacetime, one can never be too careful. She still plants potatoes in Melbourne each winter and cannot be persuaded that a family’s existence will not one day depend on her harvest.
“There are grim times ahead,” she said. She makes a good case for scarcity. We both planted a bigger crop than usual last week after seeing Professor Joseph Stiglitz warn on Lateline of crash-led austerity. There is no way more apt to mourn the slow death of late capitalist excess than with potatoes.
Of course, macroeconomic threat might not stimulate you into potato growth. And, to be candid, microeconomic threat shouldn’t do it, either. You’re not going to amass household surplus with the money you save growing spuds. What might entice you, however, is the wisdom in gardening circles that the blandness in flavour of store-bought potatoes can be traced to South Australia’s sandy plains. These tubers look good but poor soil tilth increases uniformity of flavour and texture even among different cultivars, 90 per cent of which are now grown in inhospitable conditions. You can coddle the starch and taste back into a homegrown spud. Most importantly, growing these common tubers is a thorough, simple and delicious introduction to “no-dig” vegetable gardening.
Yes. That’s right. I have no truck with shovelling dirt. I did, however, have a truck come by to drop off a bale of lucerne hay. Thanks to another wartime housewife, this stuff turned from horse feed into the lifeblood of a no-dig vegetable bed. Lucerne came to her, she said, “in a dream”.
In 1977, Sydney woman Esther Deans was in her 60s when she produced one of the foundational works of sustainable gardening, Growing without Digging. After a bout of serious illness a decade before, Mrs Deans had set about finding the reward of health in the garden. She became convinced not only that food cultivated without commercial chemicals would improve the constitution, but so could the experience of gardening itself. Determined to make gardening accessible even to those whom she refused to call “disabled” – instead, Mrs Deans coined the abysmally chipper term “handi-capable” – she set about finding a way for anyone to grow on any surface. Even, say, the terrible soil of the Australian interior or the concrete roof of an institution. Potatoes, she reasoned, were for everyone.
When I grew my first potatoes – the queenly Dutch cream and waxy bintje – a few years back, I used Deans’ method, with a few Peter Cundall modifications and some of my own. In her book, now republished as No-Dig Gardening and Leaves of Life, she instructs us to go to the greengrocer and select 10 potatoes with some nice pointy eyes. Now, at Cundall’s exhortation, I started from seed. I would recommend you do this, too. Not only are they certified as disease-free but they are not treated with a sprouting retardant – not a consideration in Mrs Deans’ day. There are those gardeners who insist farmers’ market organic potatoes are fine to plant; I imagine this is the case. However, they’re not really any cheaper than online seed potato stock and their procurement involves a trip to a farmers’ market and, frankly, there is nothing that shrivels my enthusiasm for vegetable cultivation faster than the vision of a parent with a bunch of $10 kale sticking out the back of a Bugaboo.
Iris just uses whatever has sprouted in her cupboard. This might work for her but is completely lawless. This “chitting” process of seed potatoes is supposed to start on your windowsill.
Chitting is not essential, but it will turbocharge your tuber growth. Terrence Rattray of Tasmania’s Anchor Organics potato farm puts it this way: “To be sure that your seed will survive, green the potatoes off.” A hardened, green potato will resist fungus. To coax the spuds out of dormancy, pop them in a box – an egg carton is ideal – in a light, cool spot and spray them with just a little water every few days. After three or four weeks, when the eyes start searching for the sun, you can plant them. Here, Rattray’s advice agrees with the Iris practice of cutting the potatoes into segments. “You can certainly cut them up as long as there is one eye per seed-piece.”
For the frugal gardener who fears a market collision, this little trick is a boon. One seed potato can produce several plants that will, if left undivided, simply choke each other. When separated, however, they will thrive. Think of the potato division as a sort of Keynesian control.
But you do risk making the tater vulnerable and so Iris likes to pop it in the fridge for a day to “scab it up”. On his farm, Rattray uses wood ash as an organic antifungal. As I have no rustic slow-combustion stove, I use three teaspoons of baking soda and a few drops each of olive oil and liquid soap in four litres of water for fungicide.
After chitting and Silkwood-showering your seed – which, by the by, is now inedible and toxic if green – drop your spuds into a big pad of Deans’ beloved lucerne at about 30 centimetres apart. If you intend to plant directly on the ground, just cover the area first with a good lot of drenched newspaper or cardboard as a degradable weed mat. If you want to grow in a plastic container in your yard or balcony, make sure there are holes and perhaps some gravel in the bottom before you pop in the lucerne. You can also fashion chicken wire into a cylinder to contain the plants or you can grow, as Iris does, in tyres that you pile up as the potatoes grow upwards. I prefer a potato planter bag, which can be used in any space. You can buy the plug-ugly poly-something one I did or you could use a hessian sack if you want to bring a little charm to your small space.
On top of the lucerne, Mrs Deans places compost and then straw. Cundall adds blood and bone and dolomite and manure to the mix and I, too, would be pretty nervous not using fertiliser. Over this, place 20 centimetres of loose poo-streaked straw and perhaps some sawdust to keep the sunlight out, then water the hell out of it. As the potato grows up, keep it covered with straw or grass clippings or some other form of mulch such as sugar cane.
Save for topping up your container or pile, do nothing for three months. You will have potatoes. “As soon as they finish flowering, you can begin to harvest. The sugar is high then and they are quite a delicacy,” says Rattray. You can keep harvesting until the plants begin to wither.
Now. It would be a great deceit if I were not to tell you that not only Iris but a good many organic gardeners despise this no-dig medium for potatoes. Rattray’s taters are not raised by the mulch method. “I think there’s only one way to grow potatoes and that’s in soil.”
“Why do fish like water? It’s where they belong.”
Even some devout no-dig gardeners prefer to enrich their soil and grow potatoes the old-fashioned way, and despite my own dedication to Deans I am playing off mulch against earth this season. For container growers, this experiment poses no backbreaking problem at all. Just buy a bag of enriched soil.
But I will urge you to try it Deans’ way. Even if you do not produce prizewinners, what you will have is a great basis for an ongoing no- dig laboratory. Your potato plot will be perfect to plant in summer with lettuce and corn and whatever you fancy and, as you continue to add living layers, you will extend Esther’s dream.
The good lady passed away in 2008 at the age of 97. All the royalties from her best-selling books were passed on to societies to assist the “handi-capable” and tens of thousands visited her Sydney garden. She kept a visitors’ book and it is to my great regret my name is not among the many. Instead, I honour the peculiar wisdom of this great organic gardener in a backyard full of horse feed.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 19, 2014 as "The tater economy". Subscribe here.