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Gardening : If You Dig New Varieties Grow Own Potatoes


There is simply no comparison between home-grown and supermarket potatoes--the flavor difference is truly dramatic. It is almost as dramatic as the flavor disparity between home-grown and a store-bought tomatoes. And by growing your own, you can harvest some of those delectable immature or "new' potatoes.

Yet many Southland vegetable gardeners have never planted potatoes. Many think they are difficult to grow. In fact, they are not hard to grow and may even be grown in a container. And by growing your own, you can sample many of the flavorful and heirloom potato varieties that are only available to home gardeners.

David Ronniger, of Ronniger's Seed Potatoes in Idaho, grows an astounding 180 different seed potato varieties for home gardeners. Ronniger's potatoes come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Many are heirlooms and all are grown organically.

With names such as German Butterball, Breen Mountain, Humbolt Red, Candy Strip and French Fingerling, and colors that include red, yellow, blue, white, purple and pink, seed potatoes from Ronniger's make for a unique growing experience.

Ronniger says that his yellow varieties are the most popular with home gardeners because of their delicious flavor. The yellows have a particularly rich, nutty flavor, he says. They also have better texture and don't stick to the pan while being cooked.

His personal favorites among his 180 varieties is Red Gold, a potato that has red skin and yellow flesh, and Yellow Finn, a pear-shaped variety with yellow skin and yellow flesh that has a particularly nutty flavor.

Mark Fenton, of Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in Northern California, is a supplier of organically grown seed potatoes. He concurs with Ronniger that flavor-wise, the yellow-fleshed potatoes are tough to beat. His personal favorites are Yellow Finn and Yukon Gold.

Potatoes are strictly a cool-season crop in the Southland. They are planted from fall through late winter.

Fall is an ideal planting time. However, most local nurseries don't have seed potatoes in stock until January. You can order seed potatoes by mail from Ronniger's or Peaceful Valley Farm Supply; both ship them in the fall.

To order from Ronniger's, send $2 for their catalogue and informative growing guide. David Ronniger said that they usually are able to fill orders through the fall, but sometimes if they experience freezing weather at shipping time (it harms the potatoes) they have to delay shipping until the weather improves. Send $2 to Ronniger's Seed Potatoes, Star Route 53, Moyie Springs, Ida. 83845.

Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, P.O. Box 2209, Grass Valley, Calif. 95945, offers a free catalogue that also lists unique shallots, onions, bulbs, garlic and organic farm supplies. They don't have near the selection of seed potatoes that Ronniger's has, but they do take orders by phone (916) 272-4769. Note that for a mail order under $20, they add an additional $5 handling charge.

Keep in mind that local nurseries should have a supply of seed potatoes after Jan. 1, however, they usually stock only a few varieties-mostly common types.

Growing Your Own Potatoes

Potatoes require a sunny growing area. They also need a soil that is slightly acid--this is a problem in most of Southern California because much of our soil tends to be alkaline. You can add the necessary acidity to the soil by adding either peat moss or soil sulfur to it. I prefer peat moss because it adds organic material to the soil. However, when using peat moss, you must moisten it before adding it to the soil; dry peat moss repels water and is hard to work with.

After you purchase your seed potatoes, if they are small, plant the whole potato. If they are large, cut them into two or three pieces; each piece must contain at least one eye.

Dig a trench in your garden 8 inches deep and 10 inches wide. Work into the top four inches of soil (in the bottom of the trench) a layer of peat moss (pre-moistened) and a dressing of time-release fertilizer such as Osmocote. Water the soil thoroughly and allow it to settle for a day before planting.

Lay the seed potato pieces at 12-inch intervals along the bottom of the trench. Next cover the potato pieces with a 3-inch layer of a soil and pre-moistened peat moss mixture (at the rate of one-third peat and two-thirds soil). When the potato plants grow to six inches above the soil line, fill the rest of the trench with more soil and pre-moistened peat.

Water the potatoes on a weekly basis if there is no rain. A convenient irrigation method is to lay a soaker hose along the trench. The potato plant has foliage that resembles its relative, the tomato. The potatoes are actually tubers that are formed in underground stems that will spread throughout the trench.

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