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Simply Spuds

My introduction to gardening came while growing up on a farm in southern Minnesota. I had four brothers who could consume lots of food, so we raised our own meat, fruit and vegetables, including potatoes.

Since that time, I have learned that 6 feet of sandy loam topsoil is not universal in all parts of the country. This has required my learning new methods of raising some crops. Including potatoes.

In Minnesota, it was simple. Just put the spading fork into the soil, drop in a piece of potato and cover it up. Sandy loam is ideal for potatoes, as they can grow and expand underground, and if you keep them weeded and pick off those nasty potato beetles, you're set for winter.

But now I have heavy, sticky, clay soil, hardly ideal for potatoes. So how can I raise them? I've talked to several successful backyard gardeners about this, including Brad Spencer in Medford. What follows here are tips from Brad, Oregon State University and my own observations.

First, unless you happen to live on an old riverbottom, forget about planting potatoes by making a hole and dropping in a piece of seed potato. Our clay soil is too dense to allow the potatoes to grow well.

Instead, make a shallow furrow with a hoe and lay the seed-potato pieces in there about 15 inches apart. Or you can just lay pieces of potato on top of the soil. Then cover the pieces with four inches of compost. As soon as you see potato sprouts coming through the compost, add more. Keep the row well covered with compost — and maybe a little of your native soil — until the potato "hill" is a foot high.

Some people like to confine the plants a bit by putting a bottomless, five-gallon bucket, a giant nursery pot or a circle of low wire fencing around each plant, but it's not necessary. Keep the compost damp but not wet as they grow; overhead sprinkling works just fine.

I recommend that you buy certified seed potatoes, which aren't seeds in the usual sense, but potatoes grown and certified to be disease-free. Potatoes from the supermarket have been treated so they won't sprout.

Potatoes can be planted whole if they are golf-ball size, otherwise cut them so each piece will have an eye or two on it. Before planting, let the cut sides of the potato dry for a day to help prevent them from rotting. If you find sprouts on your potatoes, be careful not to break them off before planting.

Potatoes are traditionally planted around Easter; my dad aimed for Good Friday as his planting date, but because Easter varies from year to year, let the weather be your guide, too.

Yukon, Burbank Russet, Pontiac Red and fingerling are all good varieties for this region. Or you might want to try purple potatoes, such as All Blue. Potatoes bloom several weeks after planting. At that time, feel around in the compost hill for some new potatoes. Don't pull out the plant, as it will continue to grow potatoes until the tops of the plant begin to dry.

Coming up: Master Gardeners Monica and Steve Farnsworth will teach a class about French Intensive Gardening from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, April 11, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road. The cost is $5. Call 541-776-7371 to register.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at diggit1225@gmail.com.

Simply Spuds