Monday, May 16, 2011

Planting Potatoes in Central Texas

Yellow wax, french fingerling, purple Peruvian, and red potatoes

We have two great challenges to growing potatoes in central Texas.  First, potatoes like deep, rich, loose, slightly acid soil and ours tends to be shallow, poor, highly alkaline, and sticky.  Potatoes also give small yields if exposed to high temperatures or really wet conditions too early.  And we have short, wet (if we're lucky) winters and springs.  So many gardeners in this area grow potatoes in chicken wire towers or boxes from pallets.

My dad and the old German farmer down the road from us grew potatoes old school, straight in the ground, and had a good amount of success, so I tend to do the same thing.  Dad and our neighbor both had the strange good fortune to possess some small pockets of deep, black soil among the rocky hills that make up most of this area. Plus, they were both incredibly stubborn.

We too have a pocket of fairly good soil, although it's a little heavy and sticky.  Still, with lots of organic amendment, I can grow potatoes right in the ground with reasonable success. And I even take a few liberties with conventional wisdom about growing potatoes.

Here's what I know of conventional wisdom and where I've diverged:

Using grocery store potatoes versus seed potatoes
The word is, you should never plant grocery store potatoes because they may have been treated with a growth inhibitor.  I guess that may be true since everyone says it, but it's an hour drive to the nearest place that sells seed potatoes and I've yet to try and save my own seed.  So I've planted grocery store potatoes from time to time. They do sprout quite readily.  Hasn't everyone accidentally sprouted potatoes in their kitchen?

Pre-sprouting versus not prespouting
I think the idea behind pre-sprouting is that it shaves a week or so off time between planting and maturity.  It also easily lets you see where to cut the potatoes so that you have at least one growing eye in each piece. 

Our neighbor never presprouted.  He had a huge field he planted every year, and he said he had to move too fast to worry about knocking off the fragile sprout tips.  He grew more potatoes than anyone I've ever known.  My dad always pre-sprouted so I always did too, until this year when my mother-in-law gave me a bunch of very tiny seed potatoes from her nursery.  They were small enough that I knew I couldn't cut them and also, for some reason, they never sprouted above ground.  So I planted them anyway and have had a pretty good harvest. It's hard to tell if it took a lot longer for the potatoes planted without pre-sprouting to mature because we had a crazy early heat spell that caused the plants to jump ahead by about a month.  So we harvested in early May.

How to Pre-sprout (also called chitting)
 Lay potatoes in a single layer on a shallow box or tray. Do not let them touch. If your potatoes are small enough, an egg carton is a great way to keep them sorted properly. They should ideally remain at around 60-70 degrees.  But that's a temperature range that's hard to come by around here.  Outside, in the house, on the porch, in the garage, it's usually either hotter or colder than that.  I think as long as it's well above freezing and below wiltingly hot, those potatoes will sprout. Also, try to keep them dry.  Try to plant before the sprouts get too long or they will tend to break as you drop them in the ground.

Cutting potatoes versus planting whole
A large sprouted potato can often be cut into three or four pieces, so cutting is definitely the frugal choice. If you do cut, no peice should be smaller than a golf ball.  

Curing seed potatoes with sulfur versus wood ash versus nothing 
The purpose of curing cut potatoes with sulfur is to prevent rotting in the ground.  My dad always used wood ash instead of sulfur and he had enormous yields.  I confess that I have several times skipped this step entirely and have yet to suffer adversely.   I wonder if it is in wetter climates that curing really matters?

How to cure seed potatoes with sulfur or wood ash
After cutting potatoes, let them dry until a skin forms on cut surfaces.  Dust with sulfur or wood ash and let potatoes dry another day before planting.

How to plant potatoes
Dig a furrow 6-8 inches wide and 6-8 inches deep.  Most sources say to space seeds about 10” apart, but if there's room, space even more widely.  I like about 14 inched so they have plenty of room to spread their toes.  I also think it keeps disease down. Cover potatoes with soil. After plants are about  3-4” tall, add more soil.

When to harvest potatoes
Once the plants are flowering, wait a week or so, then carefully dig around the plants for new potatoes.  Between  90 – 120 days, the plants suddenly turn yellow and start looking like they're dying. Now it's time for the big harvest.  This year, the potato gods went crazy and I started havested in about 70 or 80 days.  This means I'll have a smaller crop, but it's still a good one. I think it got hot so early it sent the potatoes into hyperdrive.  

What varieties grow best in Texas?  Well, I've tried a number of red, white, yellow, and purple.  Sadly, so far I've had very limited success with purple.  I say sadly because those are my favorites and they are also the most nutricious.  Here in our alkaline soils, it seems the yellow, waxy varieties grow best. 

For red potato, Red La Soda and  Pontiac are proven favorites;  for white, Kennebec or Irish Cobbler varieties are the choices. Russets do not grow well in our area.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Are Oak Leaves Safe for Garden Mulch?

Everyone knows that walnut trees produce a potent growth inhibitor as a way of protecting their territory.  Juniper trees are rumored to do so as well.  But what about oak trees?  Live oak trees, which are our most plentiful hardwood, make small, very fibrous leaves that take forever to decompose.  For that reason, as I explained here, I've been tending to use them as mulch rather than adding more than a small percentage to my compost pile.  And because I'd heard they might contain a plant growth inhibitor, I only used them on the walkways, never near the vegetables I was growing.

But now as weeds invade my beds and rows of tomatoes, squash, greens, onions, herbs, beans, garlic, peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, and other lovely deliciousness, I wonder if I can use oak leaves as mulch near the plants themselves.  Oak leaves are certainly something we have plenty of.

It turns out the question of oak leaves containing growth inhibitors is fairly debatable.  Definitely they contain lots of tannins.  That's why if oak leaves fall in a container of water, the water will turn brown like tea.  As far as I can tell, tannins do play some role in plant growth regulation, in the plants that produce them.  It might be reasonable to expect them to affect plants growing in the same soil in which tannins from other plants are being released.  But whether that means tannins from oak leaves would inhibit vegetable seed germination and growth, I don't know.  One benefit would be that many animals find the taste of tannins unpleasant, so perhaps oak leaves would repel unwanted pests.

More definitively, oak leaves release phenols in their first month or so of decomposition, which do inhibit seed germination and growth.  So I'd conclude that only leaves that have rotted for a month or more should be added to the beds itself, but that fresh leaves are fantastic for walkways.  In fact, this is the perfect way to work with nature instead of against it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Oak Leaf Mulch

 Here in Central Texas, oaks are the most common deciduous tree.  So we have lots of leaves and they take forever to decompose.  I've taken to using them less for compost and more for mulch for this reason.  I understand that most people shed them with a mower first but I think that step is unnecessary.  They compact pretty quickly and in the meanwhile, I'm prepared to slide around a bit.  It may be that they contain some kind of plant growth inhibitor, as juniper is rumored to contain.  Just in case, I've not ever tried oak leaf mulch around the plants themselves.  I do know that I won't have any weeds between rows this season.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Easy Homemade Laundry Soap

The simplest, most effective, least costly soap I know of.  It takes a minute or two to make, works in any type of washer, is safe for all washable clothes, is non-toxic, and stores indefinitely.

Chopping the bar soap before adding it to the food processor
You’ll need some kind of bar soap.  I prefer my own homemade soap, but just about any kind will work.  Fels Naptha and Zote are especially nice because they were designed for laundry (Zote is also hot pink and makes a very pretty laundry detergent J), but I’ve also used Ivory, and once in a pinch, I used a handful of tiny hotel soaps.
 You’ll also need washing soda and either borax or baking soda.  I prefer baking soda because it’s non-toxic and does a nice job deodorizing.

A note about the ingredients:
Washing soda or sodium carbonate: It removes dirt and deodorizes.   I’ve found it in the laundry isle of my grocery store and also at Ace Hardware.

Baking soda or sodium bicarbonate:  It also removes odors. 

Borax:  Also a deodorizer but a whitener as well.  It’s a great ingredient but I don’t use it anymore since I had kids.  It’s a little more toxic than I like to have around my kids.

Finished Laundry Soap
The Recipe
 Actually, it’s so simple it can hardly be called a recipe.  First grate the soap. (I chop it roughly first and then finish the grating in a food processor.  You can also use a cheese grater.)  Then mix one part soap, one part washing soda, and one part baking soda (or borax).  Store in a container with a lid and it lasts indefinitely.  Use about 1-2 teaspoons per load of laundry.  Yes, that’s right: 1-2 teaspoons.  This soap has no fillers or liquids and you don’t need very much.

Why go to the trouble of making your own soap?
1) So, so much cheaper. By my rough calculations, this recipe comes out to about a penny a load.  Seriously, a penny.  Even the cheapest commercial soap costs far far more.

2) Less waste: no enormous plastic containers to end up in landfill.  No filler ingredients had to be manufactured either.

3) Easier.  Takes about a minute to make enough to last a month or more.  No toting heavy containers from the store.

4) Non-toxic ingredients.  I feel better about using it for my own laundry, my children’s laundry, and my pets’ bedding.  I’m not worried about the fumes created when it is dissolved in hot water, nor about storing it in my household.

The most common questions about this recipe are: Is it safe for HE  or front loading washers? And, does it work? Well,  I’ve been using it in my own HE washer for over five years with no problems. And I have two kids, two dogs, and a messy, messy life.  It works as well as any other laundry soap or detergent I've ever used.