Tuesday, March 26, 2013

One Potato, Two Potato...

When planning our summer gardens, homegrown tomatoes get all the glory. Pages and pages of tomato varieties fill catalogs, centerfolds of lush summer fruit. 

But potatoes deserve more love.  

Once you've grown your own potatoes, you'll never want to eat bland store-bought spuds again.

Honestly, why choose run-of-the-mill Russets when you can feast on French Fingerlings or savor Sangre? Along with beautiful, delicious varieties enticing you to grow your own, you also can harvest early to enjoy new potatoes, while allowing the vines to continue to produce larger potatoes for late season enjoyment or storage.

When I first considered growing potatoes, I worried that the crop would occupy too much space in our garden. After all, our kitchen garden's sunny space is at a premium, since our property is heavily forested. So, for my first attempt at growing potatoes, I chose to use Grow Bags

Grow Bags are fabric bags that function like a pot, allowing you to adjust the height by folding down the sides, and then unfolding them and adding soil as the plants grow. The beauty of Grow Bags is that water easily drains through the bag, helping to avoid soggy soil. The fabric bag allows good air circulation, helping regulate soil temperature. Additionally, the bags can be positioned on patios, balconies, or any sunny patch in your garden. I place our bags strategically to capture as much sun as possible.

Last year, with the construction of the raised beds for our kitchen garden, I decided to devote one of the beds to potatoes. Everything began beautifully. Perfect soil, lovely sprouts, and then suddenly--the vines died. Yes, I didn't think about adding a bottom layer of wire mesh when building the raised beds to keep out my arch nemesis...the vole. I know better, too. Those nasty creatures ate every potato.

This year, I'm back to the Grow Bags, which I purchased through Gardener's Supply. (I've also seen several people use burlap bags instead of Grow Bags, which might not be quite as sturdy, but it seems like a good, cost-effective option. Honestly? You can grow potatoes in any large container that drains well.) I found this cute option when on a garden tour last year at Sunnyside Cafe, where they grow a large kitchen garden to support the restaurant:

Whichever method you decide, you need to grow potatoes. Trust me. 

Getting Started

Seed Potatoes

Decide which varieties to grow and order early. Seed Savers Exchange, Sow True Seeds, Territorial Seeds, and Grow Organic are a few excellent sources for seed potatoes. You can also find seed potatoes in your local feed and seed shop.

Some gardeners pooh-pooh the purchase of seed potatoes and use sprouted potatoes from the pantry. However, certified organically grown seed potatoes help reduce the risk of diseases in your crop, plus you'll know that you're planting potatoes that are chemical-free.

If you're planting potatoes in bags or containers, you may want to recruit a friend to share seed potatoes so you can have a good variety without incurring too much expense. One pound of seed potatoes can yield approximately 10-15 pounds of potatoes to harvest under ideal conditions. 

Seed potatoes should be firm with good “eyes” or buds. Cut seed potatoes into 2-inch pieces, making certain that each piece has at least one eye. Allow the cut surfaces to heal, or callous, for two days prior to planting, which helps eliminate rotting in cold, moist soil. You can directly plant small seed potatoes. 


In our zone 7b garden, St. Patrick's Day is considered a good time to plant potatoes. Generally, late winter is ideal for planting, as potatoes will tolerate light frost. Hard freezes, though, will delay growth and can damage vines. Potatoes prefer a cool spring with adequate moisture and soil temperatures between 60-70 degrees. Tubers don't form when soil temperatures exceed 80 degrees, so plant early.

Fold the sides down on your Grow Bag, making a 4 inch cuff. Fill the bag with approximately 4 inches of high quality soil. Potatoes thrive in soil with a pH between 5.8 and 6.5, so a soil test is always a good idea. They're heavy feeders, preferring a soil rich in phosphorus. 

Plant the seed pieces cut side down/eye up on top of the soil, spacing the pieces approximately 12 inches apart. Don't overcrowd. (It's my worst habit. More is not always better.)

Cover the seed potato pieces with three inches of soil and water well. Add a high-nitrogen organic fertilizer approximately 6 weeks after planting, when the tubers are beginning to form. 


As the potato vines grow, maintain a good watering routine, particularly when blossoms form. Remove any weeds, which should be minimal in Grow Bags or containers. As the vines reach approximately 8 inches in height, add an additional layer of soil over the potatoes to avoid exposure to the sun, which causes scalding/green potatoes. Green parts of potatoes contain an alkaloid that's poisonous, causing the potato to taste bitter. Remove any green portions of potatoes before using.

After the vines grow an additional 8 inches, unfold the bag, add another 3 to 4 inches of soil, and water well. 


Potatoes mature approximately 100 to 120 days after planting. If you want to eat fresh new potatoes, you can harvest a few small early potatoes, leaving the vines intact for continued growth. After the vines have died, it's time to harvest the main crop.

The best part of using a container or Grow Bag is the ease of harvest. We turn our bags over into a wheelbarrow, and the kids root around to remove the potatoes. When we're through, we wheel the soil over to the compost bin. Clean and simple! 


Late potatoes are best for storing. Place them in a cool, 40-50 degree area with high humidity, and they should last 6 to 8 months. 


Mashed, fried, boiled, roasted, hobo, gratin...so many choices! Still, one of our favorite ways to prepare potatoes is making Rösti...Peter's yummy recipe brought with him from Switzerland. Basically, Rösti is like a giant potato pancake, or hash browns formed into a big, yummy, crispy round cake of deliciousness. The secret ingredient? Bacon. You can't go wrong with bacon and potatoes! 



1 lb. Potatoes, peeled and shredded

½ lb. Bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 tbsp. butter

salt and pepper to taste.
  1. Fry bacon, set aside.
  2. Add 2 tbsp. butter to hot skillet, thoroughly coating the surface. (You may need to add more if potatoes stick.)
  3. Add potatoes and cooked bacon, salt and pepper, stirring in skillet to mix bacon into potatoes well.
  4. Form potatoes and bacon mixture into a large “cake” in the skillet, allowing the mixture to brown well, approximately 8-10 minutes.
  5. With nerves of steel and a limber wrist, flip the cake in the skillet. (Peter is the flipper...I always end up make a mess of it.)
  6. Allow second side to brown, approximately 5-7 minutes.
  7. Slide onto plate and serve.
Really...you need to plant potatoes, just so you can enjoy Rösti.

Happy planting!



This post was shared with Wildcrafting Wednesday. Check out some other great blogs and ideas here.

Part of the Backyard Farming Connection blog hop!

Friday, March 15, 2013

The (Almost) Spring Garden--Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day

Ah, South Carolina...how can you not love a place where the temperatures are 75 degrees one day, then 40 degrees the next? Our temperature fluctuations definitely keep us on our toes! 

March's longer days help combat my winter blues. The added hours of daylight into the evening foreshadow upcoming summer nights, when our family has no agenda besides playing in the pool past normal school bedtimes. The extra light promises that yes, spring is coming...only a few short days now, and my favorite--and busiest--season will arrive. 

Already, bulbs show their sweet, early blooms.

The first hyacinths appeared in a pastel rainbow, with more tardily planted hyacinth bulbs just beginning to emerge. (Of course, I planned it that way, so we'd have the sweet fragrance of hyacinths throughout the spring. My tardy planting had nothing to do with over-ordering bulbs and not finding time to plant them.)

Our sweet 'Icicle Follies' daffodils continue to charm, but many blooms look tired. I need to add more late-blooming daffodils to the garden. 

A few late-planted snow drops remain...

...as do equally late-planted paperwhites. What can I say? Procrastination paid off for March Bloom Day!

We left the leaves to serve as a protective mulch over the winter, and now we face the task of cleaning them out and ordering our hardwood mulch. Still, looking carefully through the layers of leaves, I spotted the first grape hyacinth peeking through its protective coat. Such adorable little blooms.

Also emerging through the leaves is the first sign of the peonies. I've only spotted one so far, and I can't wait for the others to emerge and fill the yard--and my vases--with their frilly beauty.

I've been eagerly anticipating the blooms of the fall-planted witchhazel. For such a young plant, it's putting on a nice show--and the scent is divine.

Hellebores continue to star in the garden. I'm amazed at the profusion of new plants and blooms I've found. From the original five plants purchased more than 10 years ago, we have hundreds of hellebores throughout the garden. They're practically invasive--and I love it! I just found dozens of new babies to transplant. Now, that's my kind of flower!

Oreo found something interesting in the patch of hellebores in our back garden.

Our camellias are bursting with buds and blooms. They deserve a better position in the garden, as the majority of our camellias reside on the side of the house where no one can enjoy their show.

The forsythia, on the other hand, greets visitors in the front yard with its showy splash of color. Forsythia bushes are scattered throughout the garden, and it's amazing how the different microclimates affect the appearance of blooms on forsythia. Some bushes are full of flowers, while others are just beginning to burst from their buds.

Buds are swelling everywhere in the garden, with a few early blossoms appearing on the cherry tree.

Next month, loropetalum blooms will be ready for Bloom Day.

Ah, the first blooms of fraise des bois! My mouth is watering for these tiny berries. Not much longer until we'll be harvesting fruits in the garden.

A sweet violet emerges from its leaf blanket. We find tiny violets throughout our forest. I can't wait for all of the forest wildflowers to emerge.


I think this is a turtlehead that I planted last fall, but with kids, cats, chickens, and our pups Chloe (left) and Sophie (right)...

...the marker disappeared. Ah well, such is the life of a busy garden!

To visit more gardens, please stop by May Dreams Gardens and say hello to Carol, who hosts Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.

Happy Bloom Day to you!



Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sweet Citrus: How to Avoid a Sour Experience.

Today, I will be hiding out in the greenhouse. Don't tell anyone. I'll be there, with my trusty guard cat, Oreo, pretending to work, potting up my green babies. In actuality, I'm just avoiding the inevitable.

The Master Gardener police will be arriving any moment to revoke my membership.

I deserve it.

Because the truth is...

I am a plant murderer.

It wasn't intentional, I promise. There was no premeditation, no plan to off an ugly specimen to make way for a new, lovely purchase. If I'm guilty of anything, I loved my plants to death.

My remorse is overwhelming.

Last spring, I succumbed to temptation. (Isn't that how these sad stories always begin?) The desire to test my gardening mettle proved too great, and I obsessed with growing citrus for my family.

Citrus. In our zone 7b garden. Foolish, you say—and you're correct. But I had a plan.

In my mind, lovely containers of dwarf lemon, orange, and clementine trees, heavy with fruit and smelling of bliss, could easily move from garden to greenhouse when the weather proved too chilly. I would nurture them, baby them, and then feed my family heavenly doses of healthy vitamin C, grown with a mother's love.

All went well...for awhile. The six citrus trees thrived in the South Carolina heat with barely a pest in sight. When my friend Libby mentioned she was eating homegrown oranges in Charleston, I barely registered jealousy—knowing that soon we, too, would feast on deliciousness. As the fall days turned shorter and cooler, I moved the containers into the greenhouse to avoid frost.

And there they sat, patiently waiting for spring.

I visited them, inspecting for pests, checking their health, but letting them rest, too.

Then, this happened:

Stunning, divine blooms began appearing on one of the orange trees. Another began sporting tiny buds. I became obsessed with sniffing their scent, watching as miraculously blooms began opening and filling the greenhouse with fragrance.

Until this point, the greenhouse remained unheated. But seedling season began, and as soon as the tiny green babies began showing their heads, I turned the propane on full-throttle to a toasty 75 degrees.

Suddenly, one morning as I watered the seedlings, I heard strange noises. Fearing a furry critter resided in the greenhouse, I turned around and watched in horror as leaves dropped, one by one, into huge piles beneath each citrus tree's container.

My first reaction, of course, was to cover up the crime. Had I forgotten to water? Quick, let's give them a good drenching. Was it time to fertilize? Not sure, but let's add some organic Dr. Earth citrus tree nutrients. And then let's water a little more.

In my panic, I committed more crimes against these poor, defenseless trees...until they looked like this:

Gone were the beautiful blooms, filled with potential. The tiny buds dropped, unopened, into the mounds of leaves. Only thorny remnants remained to mock me.

I mourned my actions and researched what went wrong—then I had a blinding glimpse of the obvious and headed to the grower's website. (Please note: these trees arrived in beautiful condition from Four Winds Growers. They supplied detailed instructions on how to plant dwarf citrus trees in containers, and the trees thrived until they...didn't. I highly recommend them.)

Here's what I learned:

As any decent gardener knows, extreme shifts in temperature will adversely affect the plant. Ironically, less than two weeks ago, I lectured a class full of organic gardeners about the need to harden-off seedlings. Why did I think my citrus trees could handle the cold of an unheated greenhouse one day, and then bask happily in permanent 75 degrees? Of course they were going to revolt.

For further proof, here's a quote from the website:
“...dislikes abrupt temperature shifts.”

Oh, really? Sheesh. What was I thinking?

So, yes, I claim complete responsibility for my poor leafless, bloom-less sticks. 

However, the charges against me might change to reckless endangerment rather than murder. Apparently, the lovely people at Four Winds Growers anticipate distraught gardeners who've potentially murdered their plants. They kindly tell us that a naked citrus tree doesn't necessarily spell its demise. By lightly pruning it back, new growth might be encouraged to appear.

There is hope.

As part of my penance, I thought I'd share some of the tips provided by Four Winds Growers to help you avoid my painful path. Growing citrus should be a pleasure, not a crime.

How to Grow Dwarf Citrus in a Container
  • Order trees from a reputable source. Dwarf varieties are grafted onto rootstock that maintain the tree's smaller size, which makes them perfect for containers. And containers mean that you can grow citrus, even if your zone says not—just bring the plant inside...slowly.
  • Use a container that's twice the size of the root ball, and make certain it has good drainage.
  • Fill the container with a slightly acidic, loam-based potting soil that allows good water flow. You don't want to use heavy garden soil, which can compact and cause root rot.
  • Site the plant so that it receives 8-12 hours of sun.
  • Maintain a temperature between 55-85, with 65 degrees as ideal. If you make a change, acclimate your tree slowly to the new temperature. (In other words, do not place it suddenly in front of propane heater.)
  • Provide regular watering, but keep the plant drier in winter to avoid root rot. Citrus trees like moist air, which can be accomplished by using a humidifier or misting.
  • Fertilize every three weeks in spring and summer with a high nitrogen organic fertilizer for citrus trees. In fall and winter, fertilize every six weeks.
  • Move plants indoors before frost, slowly acclimating them to indoor conditions. Likewise, carefully acclimate the plants to the outdoors in spring, first positioning the plant in partial shade, later moving to full sun to avoid shocking the plant and scorching leaves.
  • Watch for signs of pests or disease. Yellow foliage can indicate lack of fertilizer or over-watering, and some leaf drop is normal in hot summer months. However, monitor for severe problems to ensure the plant's health.
By following instructions and not murdering your plants, you can expect fruit and flowers on 2-3 year old dwarf trees. Harvest time varies, depending on the variety. Most lemons and limes require 6-9 months from bloom to edible fruit, while oranges take up to a year for harvest.

Now, you're ready to grow your own citrus. I hope the Master Gardener police will let me off with a warning, as I've shared my shame as part of my rehabilitation. I'm off to prune the trees, hoping to push that new growth.

One day, we will grow our own citrus.

Until then, thank goodness for The Orange Shop at LocalHarvest.

Hanging my head in shame...


Monday, March 4, 2013

Perfect Peas...You Can Grow That!

We're in serious countdown mode for spring...only 15 days, 5 hours, as of my most recent check. Hooray! But, my friends, you know what that means: it's time to get busy.

I know some of you are still buried in snow. I'm sorry. Here, in our zone 7b gardens, we're cleaning up beds, adding fresh compost, and—of course—planting peas.

Peas are one of the easiest, earliest, and most satisfying spring crops to grow. With two children who fuss about every vegetable served, I'm in heaven when I find something they'll eat without too much drama.

And they eat peas.

Peas get a bad rap. Too many generations grew up with the smelly, unfortunate canned peas that they were forced to choke down at the dinner table. 

Fresh-from-the-garden peas, however, share no resemblance to their canned cousins. These sweet, crunchy, garden treats often don't make it to our dinner table. Instead, they're eaten like candy, munched on while gardening, a handful plucked while playing with pups.

This year, however, I've planted enough peas to ensure they will accompany meals—and hopefully enough to harvest and store as well. While I planted peas in the main kitchen garden, more pea seeds await their new home in the potager. (Can someone please figure out how to add a few more hours to the day? I seriously need the extra time or a clone in order to get everything done. Thank you.)

Of course, I couldn't decide on just one variety. Instead, I selected six pea varieties for the gardens this spring. Golden Sweet, Blauwschokkers (Blue Podded Shelling), Amish Snap, Snowbird, English Sugar Snap, and Tom Thumb are all tucked into the cool soil.

But how do you decide which varieties to select? And how can you ensure good growth and harvest?

No worries. Peas are simple. I promise: You Can Grow That!

Selecting Seed

First, decide which type of pea you and your family enjoy the most. Do you love stir fry? You'll want to grow snow peas in your garden. Do you want to harvest and save peas for winter dishes? You'll want to add shelling peas. If you enjoy eating sweet, crunchy side dishes, sugar snap peas provide a delicious, nutritious addition to dinner.

Or, like me, you can grow a bit of each variety to cover all of your bases.

When selecting seed, you're looking for peas that have edible- or non-edible pods. Non-edible pods are the traditional shelling peas, which are quite labor-intensive. You won't win over the kids' taste buds if you enlist them to shell peas for hours.

Edible-podded peas include snap and snow peas. Snap peas are eaten similarly to snap beans—they are, after all, related. Simply remove the ends and pull off the string, et voilá! A tasty treat, ready for eating. You can also serve them cooked, but remember—less is more. There's nothing appetizing about mushy peas.

Snow pea pods are also eaten. However, they're traditionally picked before the pea inside the pod swells. These are the yummy flat peas most often associated with stir fry.

Of course, it would be too simple to have only two types of peas, right?

Then, we have dual-purpose peas. My purple podded and Golden Sweet varieties can be harvested small and eaten like snow peas, or I can allow them to ripen on the vine to produce shelling peas. (By default, I tend to get quite a few shelling peas when life gets too busy for daily harvesting.)

Peas benefit from an overnight soaking in water to speed germination. I've planted both straight and pre-sprouted seeds, and I've always enjoyed an earlier harvest from the pre-sprouted vines.

Sow seeds early, as soon as you can work the soil in the spring. (I also plant a second crop in the fall, and in our zone with a bit of frost covering—we harvested peas through December.) Space seeds 2-3” apart and plant at approximately ½-inch depth.

Peas thrive in well-drained, moist soil with good sun, approximately 6-8 hours. Honestly, though—our peas planted in the potager grow well with less than the recommended amount of sun. When planning crop rotation, peas often do well following potatoes, and brassica crops do well following peas, as they absorb the nitrogen that peas nodules provide if the roots remain in the ground.

Pea varieties range from two to 10 feet in height, with the tall varieties requiring trellises. I plant my peas in the same beds that held last season's tomatoes, taking advantage of the staking/trellising system that I used for the tomatoes. Rows of peas are planted on each side of the trellis. In our potager, peas trellis along the garden fence, which is not only practical—it's also pretty. Pea blossoms are a gorgeous addition to the edible garden.

Have limited space or no yard? Peas are an ideal crop for you. Because they grow vertically, you'll have room for other cool weather crops, like lettuce or Swiss chard. A large container and a tomato cage provide an easy method for balcony gardeners to enjoy peas, and the dwarf 'Tom Thumb' variety can easily reside in a window box.

There's really no excuse not to eat your peas.

Keep pea vines well-harvested. The more you pick, the more peas the vine will produce. If you plan to eat the pods of 'Golden Sweet' or similar varieties, harvest the pods young. If you prefer shelling peas, make certain the pod is mature—you can see the swell of the peas within the pod.

Be careful when harvesting peas, though. Gently remove the pods with two hands. Trust me. I've been known to break vines in my haste to harvest peas. 

Unlike the nasty peas we faced as children, homegrown peas are an easy sell. Sweet and tender, they don't need much embellishment. Still, here's a delicious recipe for you to try with your lovely crop of homegrown peas:

(From Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters)

Snap Pea, Asparagus, and Turnip Ragout

2 cups snap peas
3 spring onions
20 asparagus spears
10 baby turnips
2 carrots
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Salt and pepper
1-1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 cup vegetable stock or water
½ lemon

Remove the strings from the snap peas. Trim and peel the vegetables. Slice the vegetables so that they are all about the same size—about ¼ inch thick. The asparagus, snap peas, and carrots can be sliced on the diagonal. Parboil the carrots for 1 minute in salted water.

Heat a large sauté pan and add the olive oil and ½ tablespoon of the butter. When the oil is hot, add the vegetables, tossing often—first the turnips, then snap peas, onions, and asparagus, then the carrots. Cook each vegetable briefly before adding the next. Add salt and pepper. Taste for doneness—the vegetables should be tender. Add the garlic. Continue tossing until, as Ms. Waters writes, “...when the scent of garlic hits your nose, remove the vegetables from the pan.” (Yum!)

Deglaze the pan with the vegetable stock or water and add the remaining butter and a squeeze of lemon juice. Let the sauce reduce by one third and pour it over the vegetables. Serves 4.

Is it spring yet? I'm so ready for delicious peas and asparagus.

Now, out you go, into the garden with pea seeds in hand! Just think—in a few months, you will thank me for forcing you out into the cold to plant your peas.

And we'll both thank Alice Waters as we feast on her delicious recipe.

Happy gardening!



Join Garden Writers on the 4th day of each month to find out how You Can Grow That!

And the winner of Lawn Gone is...

...Susan! Susan is taking steps to minimize her lawn and mentioned she hoped to expand herb plantings to replace the lawn. 

Can you imagine how lovely a front yard filled with German Chamomile would be? 

Thanks to everyone for entering the drawing, and I hope you will check out Pam Penick's book, Lawn Gone! (Susan, please e-mail your address to me at julie@gardendelights-sc.com, and I'll send your book to you ASAP.)

And, to brighten your Monday morning, here's an update of the forsythia branches I cut and forced to bloom:

Aren't they cheerful? I highly recommend adding a few flowering branches inside--they add a touch of spring and brighten any room.

Happy Monday to you!

XO ~