Friday, June 8, 2012

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

When it comes to raising potatoes, I am the kiss of death.

I realize that’s a bit of an unfortunate allusion, given the Irish Potato Famine back in the 1800s. But call it what you will, whether my problem is ignorance, negligence, bad luck, or out-and-out stupidity, as the Berryridge Farm potato manager, I have overseen the ruin of more potato crops than you can shake a hoe at.

Early on, I took charge of our potato crop because a) I love potatoes, and b) since I’m Irish on both sides, I should be a champion spud grower.

But it hasn’t turned out that way. I’ve weathered early blight, late blight, weeds taking over, and storage stupidity. In 2008, we had a fantastic crop, not much blight, with about one hundred pounds of taters, many of which I’d harvested in the cold November rains. I stashed the whole caboodle in our un-insulated shop. That’s where the stupidity factor comes in: I forgot to bring the potatoes into the house when we got smacked by a late December Northeaster and the temperature dropped to five degrees. Can you say “taters frozen hard as baseballs?”

I thought we could save the crop, until the weather warmed up. That's when I had a half-dozen grocery bags full of blackened, squishy, rotting potatoes. I almost cried. That was my low point.

The next year, we escaped the blight, but our harvest seemed a little…modest. Picking potatoes, I’d turn up a hill, and find two or three teensy tubers. Where were the lovely fist-sized spuds of yore? But I’d just published my memoir Little Farm in the Foothills, and busy with author appearances, I didn’t give my tater mystery the attention it deserved.

But the following year, 2010, the mystery deepened: the yield was even smaller, and almost all the larger potatoes had big chunks missing. At the same time, swathes of seedlings of our above-ground crops sort of just disappeared too. We did a little research and discovered where our potatoes (and seedlings) were: in the tummies of our resident voles. Voles are little rodents a lot like moles, who live in underground tunnels. Only moles are carnivores: they like to eat bugs and stuff underground. Would that voles ate the same! No, they’re vegetarians—and they are voracious eaters of just about everything in your garden, above and below ground: your carrots, beets, peas, kale, spinach, broccoli, and yes, your potatoes.

Due to vole predation, last summer’s crop was small too—but at least I’d protect it from freezing. We put a fridge in the shop, and I stored my taters in there. But I forgot one small detail: to adjust the temperature setting suitable for an indoor fridge to an outdoor one. After another northeaster, I went out for some more potatoes, and discovered my bags were full of frost: foiled—or should I say frozen—again! I turned up the fridge temp, but of course it was too late. My crop went the way of the previously frozen one: the compost pile.

But I have new hope for the 2012 season, even if this seems like the coldest, rainiest June ever. John traveled to eastern Washington and brought me six packages of certified organic seed potatoes from the Irish Eyes Seed Company, based in Ellensburg. The other bright spot: I’m planting potatoes in the raised beds John has built, with screening covering the bottoms. Voles, whose habit is to feed from below, can’t get to the plants!

Well, these Irish eyes are really smiling now. I’ll let you know if they’re still smiling in August, when I start harvesting!