Paul and Nila Dowlearn-Owners of Wichita Valley Nursery.  Paul’s recent books, “The Lazy Man’s Garden” and “Touch the Earth” are available at the Nursery, 5314 S.W. Pkwy, Wichita Fall, Texas.

Digging fresh potatoes during a mid-August heat wave? ….Yep.

After sleeping an extra hour and a large cup of coffee I stepped out to dig some taters for supper. At 9am it was already 91(f) on our thermometer. The tater patch was once a pit I had dug and lined with 12mil plastic to grow trees in. The plastic would hold water long enough for me to flood the pit once or twice weekly. After the 2011 drought I dumped the remaining soil from the tree containers and planted potatoes leaving the plastic which by now was beginning to break down. Spuds in the ground, I proceeded to dump leaves on top to 6” or more deep.

Years prior I had learned from reading the history of potatoes the early Mexican/South American cultures did not harvest potatoes like we do today. They simply took a forked stick and gently poked around to pick the largest spuds and left the plant in the ground to grow more. I modified this approach to suit my needs better and have been using a shovel. I do manage to slice into a few (bummer) but I would pick the eating size taters and put the smaller ones back. They always return in the fall with cooler weather and I often get a secondary harvest usually not as good as the spring crop but appreciable. Again, I would pick the best and leave the smaller ones to come up the next spring. This way, at least in theory, potatoes last forever.

Ever wonder why taters tend to be round? Native potatoes (somewhere near 200 varieties) evolved in the mountains of what is now Mexico and South America. Being round assisted the potato as mountain slopes are precarious at best. Erosion, landslides, and earthquakes are common in those habitats so any potato of decent size could roll downhill, lodge between rocks, and usually get covered over to root and grow again. Pretty neat survival strategy….

So, potatoes must have loose rich soil to grow in. Compacted soil is not often found on mountain slopes. This is one of the major reasons folks do not grow potatoes around here. Our clay-based soils are too tight for potatoes to grow and swell to full size. Container growing is a good option for backyard gardeners. We did grow some in regular 3 to 5 gal. nursery containers this year. Didn’t sell too many so the employees ate what was produced. No other nurseries do this so we may try again for a couple years to see if the market develops.

Meanwhile, I was able to sit cross legged (easier on my lower back) and easily shove my shovel under the loose (but very dry soil) where the dead stalks indicated a plant. This year, due to a longer and very wet spring I found plenty of big baking size to medium size potatoes. Having read about the Early Americans leaving the plant to grow clued me that the taters would still be good to eat. They likely last just as long in dry soil as they do in a dry warehouse out on a farm somewhere. I found only two rotted ones which I tossed out to the mesquites. I filled a regular five gal. bucket from an area about 8’ X 10’. At least ten pounds I figured. That will last Nila and I two weeks or more… And I have more patches yet to dig.

As I dug, I went ahead and pulled some of the accursed Bermuda grass runners that were invading from the edges. After that I grabbed my harvest and headed back into a nice hot bath with a book to read. At 10am the temp read 97(f). It had risen 6 degrees in about an hour.

Yesterday (Saturday the 10th) the official high registered at SAFB in The Falls was 104(f). Our recording thermometer at home showed 111 and it was still 106 at 6:30pm when I got home. I have always said, “Out here in the country, the hot gets hotter, the cold is colder, wind is windier, and the insects are biblical.” Proof was on the thermometer.

Speaking of insects, Wichita Valley is now an official dealer for predatory insects. The new technology now includes home delivery. While predatory insects and parasitic nematodes and such have been around for decades, one of the inherent problems has been keeping them alive at the point of purchase. Now we simply fill out a card, mail it in, and a few days later you get fresh from the dealer.

We realize we are still living with that mindset of sprays and powders for your every need, but we are now in the 21st Century. In both of my published books I state unequivocally that we can only attain sustainable agriculture/gardening by using natural processes. I also predicted that using natural predators and parasites/diseases will become the norm. Naturally we are counting on some of you to try this and encourage others. So what could be easier if you are infested with mites and aphids than releasing a critter that eats mites and aphids for a living. Mixing up a batch of toxins or attempting to get the ingredients of a homemade recipe in the right proportions? Then spraying the stuff up a big tree? I think not… We can do this. Come see us.

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