Recently, a friend handed me a bag containing six different types of potatoes dug from her garden. Thrilled with the gift because I hadn’t yet unearthed dug mine, I scurried home to use the potatoes with dinner that night.
Grabbing the first group from the lot, I lifted out gorgeous red potatoes, their skins rosy and thin. Washing them carefully and plopping them into some water to boil, I cooked them, skin and all, then pulped them into a soft mash. They were delicious.
Curious about the other gems my buddy gave me, I rummaged through the other bags to discover spuds in traditional brown, but also buttery yellow and intriguing purple. It made me excited to dig my own up, but I waited a few weeks until the plants started fading for the season. The harvest was small, pathetic really, so I went to my friend to beg for her secret to good potatoes.
“It’s all an experiment,” said Tamla Blunt, gardener and author of Mountain Gardening: Not for the faint of heart blog, “and we get tasty food to eat after I’m done with the experiment.” Laughing, she described her garden at 8,600 feet.
“We do live in the Rocky Mountains, so my soil is pretty rocky, but not as bad as other parts. I amended it with well aged horse manure – it adds a lot of tilth, and the ground wasn’t as hard.” Blunt worked a grassy spot into a patch containing potatoes, onions, garlic. “I planted on June 5, but we got snow on June 13. That set the plants back a little; the soil was too cold.”
If the short growing season doesn’t defeat a gardener, the wildlife will, and Blunt has been battling critters big and small for her plot of vegetables. But the potatoes shrugged off attacks. “They’re a solanaceous plant; related to tomatoes and peppers. So deer and moose don’t eat them,” said Blunt. “The voles and chipmunks might nibble a root, but they quickly left the plants alone and the rabbits never bothered them.”
Using drip irrigation to water her potatoes with non-potable water, Blunt coddled them through the short season. Weather played havoc early and late – with frost singing the foliage in September and a cold snap killing the plants to the ground.
She decided it was time to call it a season. Digging through the quarter-acre patch, her reward was 100 pounds of delicious spuds. “Colorado is a well-known state for producing seed potatoes, and I planted a few varieties the experiment station sent up for me to try,” said Blunt, who works at Colorado State University as a plant pathologist. “They sent Rio Grande Russet, Russet Norkotah, and Purple Majesty.”
“Then I ordered Yellow Finn, German Butterball, Nicola and Colorado Rose. The funny thing is, the company I ordered them from was in California, but the potatoes were shipped from growers in the San Luis valley, here in Colorado. I asked the company if I could waive the shipping fee and go pick up the potatoes myself – I probably know who the producers are.”
All of the varieties did well for Blunt, turning out good-sized potatoes. Her favorite? Those beautiful Colorado Rose potatoes. “They did nice this year, and I’ll definitely order more of that for next season. But the Yellow Finn surprised me – I got some really nice tubers out of them, too. One thing I won’t plant again is Yukon Gold. For some reason it doesn’t do well up here.”
Blunt isn’t likely to try the russets again, because they seem to require a much longer growing season than her high altitude home has. Blunt offer these tips for mountain gardeners:
– Choose the sunniest site on your property, to maximize sunlight in the short growing season. Watch how the sun moves across that spot, east to west, to choose a warm spot for the spuds.
– Amend the soil well – potatoes won’t grow through heavy clay or stone. “They have to expand; if they can’t you won’t get a good-sized tuber.”
At elevation, potatoes don’t have the insect or diseases gardener battle at lower elevations, but the summer quickly gives way to killing frosts. Select spuds for short seasons, harvesting some young for fresh eating and letting others sit in the soil for a few days after the plant dies back to set their skins.
“When the foliage dies down, if you leave the potatoes in the soil, the skin sets and they store longer with a thicker skin. Taking them out of the ground right away results in thinner skin, perfect for fresh eating,” she said.
Order your potatoes for next year early, to ensure you get the varieties you want – then cozy up in your mountain home to wait out the winter, dreaming of spring.