Easy Gardening – Potatoes

Potato PatchWhen growing anything, my ideal plant is one that can be put into the dirt and ignored until I want something from the plant.  When growing vegetables, potatoes are close to perfect.  It can be as easy as putting them in some dirt, then ignoring them until 2-5 months later when you want to eat potatoes.

Many people say that soil should be mounded up around potato plants.  This is called “hilling” and there are tools to make the job easier (which means it’s lots of work).  I’m partial to gardening methods that require the least amount of effort while yielding maximum results.  Carefully hilling extra dirt around my potato plants every week does not fall into the “least amount of work” category.  Fortunately, potatoes are much easier to grow than all the effort required to build a small mountain around every potato plant.

Growing Potatoes
First, realize that not all potato plants grow the same way:

  • determinate – grow in one layer, so there is no point in mounding soil around the plants; usually produce an early crop (70-90 days)
  • indeterminate – can produce multiple layers, so hilling soil around plants can significantly increase the yield; usually produce a late crop (110-135 days)

Early (determinate) potatoes can be sown about 4″ deep in very loose soil.  After the plant emerges, mulching heavily will help inhibit weeds and will protect the potato tubers from being exposed to sunlight.  Sunlight causes potatoes to turn green and toxic, so mulching is important.

Late (indeterminate) potatoes are good candidates for growing in potato towers/boxes.  The best plans I’ve seen for building a potato box are here.  Put soil down and toss in potatoes; cover with 4″ loose dirt.  When the plants are about six inches high, add three inches of soil or straw or hay or dry leaves (potatoes aren’t picky), leaving part of the plant exposed.  As the potato plant grows, continue adding new layers of soil/straw/leaves; new tubers will grow at every level that soil is added. Note that boxes are not necessary for late potatoes; these spuds can be grown in traditional rows, but you use more space to grow fewer potatoes so it makes sense to grow them in towers.

Fingerling potatoes are determinate, regardless of how many days it takes them to mature.

Harvesting
Unlike beans and zucchini that can get too big and tough if not harvested at exactly the right time, potatoes can be ignored.  When the potato plant is done growing, it will die.  Some people say to wait about two weeks for the potato peels to cure.  Others dig potatoes right away and let them cure in a cool, dry place.  The potatoes don’t care, and I refuse to be a slave to my garden (it serves me; I don’t serve it) so I harvest them whenever it’s convenient.

To harvest potatoes grown in a tower, simply unstack the tower and pick up the potatoes.  When you unstack the tower, it might be a good idea to have containers handy for the extra soil.

To harvest potatoes grown in rows, use a digging form (similar to a pitchfork, but with wider tines) to dig well out from where the now-dead plant was growing; gently lift the dirt to look for potatoes.

It’s possible to harvest new potatoes from healthy, green plants, just reach beneath the plant and dig around in the dirt.  I like to grab three or four baby (new) potatoes from every plant, leaving plenty to mature.

Soil
Do not waste manure or good, fresh compost on potatoes.  Doing so will produce fantastic looking leaves, but that is not your objective.  Save the compost for lettuce, corn, and other things that grow above ground.

Older soil (not freshly composted/manured) is great for tubers.  It needs to be loose, not compact (no clay).  It also needs to be well-drained.  Potatos will rot if the ground is too wet.

Seed Potatoes
Most potatoes from the grocery store have been chemically treated to inhibit sprouting.  Even if they get old and sprout, they don’t yield a good potato crop.  Visit a nursery and buy “seed potatoes,” which are untreated potatoes that have begun to sprout.  My favorite nursery sells seed potatoes in April (when it’s time to plant); in mid-May, when potatoes are supposed to already be in the ground, the price on seed potatoes drops to 50% off (and there is no problem with planting them late enough to get the price break).

The potato “seed” that is planted is really a sprouted potato.  At least two eyes are needed.  If you have a larger seed potato with many eyes, you can cut the potato into 2″ chunks and plant the chunks separately.  After cutting, let the potatoes sit for a day before planting; this will give the cut edges time to dry and form a seal so that the seed produces a new potato plant instead of rotting.  I prefer to use tiny seed potatoes that can be planted whole; it’s easier than cutting potatoes into chunks and having to wait a day to plant them.  I’m all about easier.

Which Kind to Plant
Choose potato varieties based on what you want to cook.

  • Baked potatoes, mashed, fried:  Choose potatoes with a very high starch content and low moisture content, which makes them ideal for baked and fried potatoes but mushy in potato salad.  These are known as “mealy” potatoes.  These potatoes tend to have a coarse-appearing skin and include Russets, Butte, Rose Gold, and Mountain Rose (to name a few).
  • Soup, potato salad, casseroles, scalloped potatoes:  Choose potatoes with a low starch and high moisture content.  These are perfect for boiling because they don’t absorb much of the cooking liquid.  Low-starch potatoes are known as “waxy.”  The moisture content is too high to make good bakers or fries.  Waxy potatoes tend to have a very smooth skin.  Varieties include Purple Viking, All Blue, Onaway, and Red Norland.

All-purpose potatoes have an in-between moisture and starch content.  Experiment to see which varieties you prefer. Yukon Gold, Peruvian Blue, German Butterball, Yellow Finn, Superior, Kennebec, Red Cloud, Bintje, Elbe, Caribe, and Katahdin are a few of the all-purpose varieties.

The waxy/mealy categories have no correlation whatsoever to whether the potatoes are determinate/indeterminate.  Ideally, a garden would have a few rows of mealy early potatoes, a few rows of waxy early potatoes, and a tower or two each of mealy & waxy late potatoes.  Throw everything in the ground and cover with about 4″ of soil.  About 3-4 weeks later, mulch rows if you haven’t already.  Add soil to towers every 2-3 weeks after that, depending on how quickly your plants grow.  It takes very little work.

Rx Insurance

It was bound to happen sooner or later.  My “specialty” meds can no longer be filled at my local drug store.  Instead, for my “convenience,” I’ll have to drive 22 miles to Walgreens, instead of 3 miles to my local pharmacy.  How the &*!%$ is that convenient?!

RxLetter

Methotrexate and Cimzia are both on the list.

Now, I realize that one option is to get prescriptions through the mail, but I have heard so many horror stories about the incompetence of mail-order pharmacies that I don’t see that as a very good solution.

Furthermore, one doesn’t have to read very many pharmacy blogs to be aware that Walgreens is one of those pharmacies that have a truly horrible reputation for pushing pharmacists to do more and more work in less and less time, without enough manpower to ensure patient safety.  I guess I can be relieved that my particular meds affected by this are ones that just require slapping a label on the box.

Any suggestions?

Physical Therapy

PT & OT. What’s the difference?  Does it matter?

Even physical therapists and occupational therapists can have a hard time explaining the distinction between the two fields because there is significant overlap.  When asked, professionals who have been able to formulate any sort of response have explained:

  • PT tends to work on large joints (knees, hips, shoulders); OT tends to work on small joints (hands & wrists)
  • PTs tend to prescribe formal exercises; OTs are more likely to learn about your daily life and find things you can fit into your normal routine to exercise the joints involved (an OT will tell you that knitting and piano playing are excellent hand exercises).

However, PTs can work on the hands.  In fact, they can earn extra “hand” certification.  I discovered this (and many other interesting things) because my daughter has decided that her career goal is to become a physical therapist.  She has been learning what hoops she’ll need to jump through to make that happen, and one requirement is a certain number of observation hours in a variety of PT settings.  Two local PT offices have graciously allowed my daughter to observe in their clinics, so she has been able to compare not just different therapists in a single location, but the differences between how two different clinics are run.

One of the PT clinics where she’s observing is a large chain.  An advantage to large chains is that they employ floaters who act like a substitute teacher, travelling from one clinic to another to cover for those who call in sick.  Patients can set up a therapy schedule and be confident that they won’t be cancelled if their therapist becomes ill.  One disadvantage is that the PTs there are extremely clock-conscious, and ignore the patient part of the time because they’re doing documentation.  In case you haven’t discovered it yet, ignoring patients to do documentation means that the therapist doesn’t notice when patients are doing their exercises wrong.

The other place is a small, privately owned clinic.  They do not watch the clock as strictly, and tend to be more focused on accomplishing specific goals for each patient each day.  If that requires an extra ten minutes, it isn’t a problem.  On the down side, if someone is out sick, either another therapist has to pick up extra patients all day, or patients have to be rescheduled.

Schooling

In the past, PT was an undergrad degree.  That has changed, however, and new physical therapists enter the field with a doctorate in physical therapy.1  DPT school is every bit as competitive to enter as medical school, and has stringent entrance requirements:  at least one year each of college level biology, human anatomy & physiology, chemistry, physics, and psychology, with a number of other “strongly recommended” courses, as well.

Benefits

Anyone with RA (or another type of autoimmune arthritis) can benefit from consulting a physical therapist.  PTs can test to determine which muscles need to be strengthened, and can then teach the least painful way to strengthen muscles so that joints work as efficiently as possible.  The more I learn, I believe there is value in shopping for a PT like we shop for a physician.

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1Occupational therapists enter the field with a masters degree, which honestly makes no sense to me, since it takes about the amount of time to earn as a DPT.