Category Archives: Featured Plant

How to Grow Potatoes in Clay Soil

The Snarky Gardener loves growing potatoes even though heavy clay soil dominates his region of Northeastern Ohio.

New potatoes
New potatoes

I recently came across an article on the Internet about growing potatoes in the garden from the Penn State Extension Office. I decided to read through it even though I’ve been successfully growing them for the last 10 years or so. According to this article (much to my chagrin), I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time.

Potatoes mulched with fall leaves
Plants mulched with fall leaves

“Potatoes grow best in soil that is well drained, loose and high in organic matter. Soil that is too sandy, rocky, or clay is not good for potatoes.”

This is true, but we don’t always have perfect conditions. My research found mention of taters being used to break up clay soil back in the day, especially in areas previously covered with grass. I believe the process of hilling up soil and organic materials around the growing plants assists in the soil building process. I’ve used both straw and fall leaves to cover the stems with nice results.

“The soil should be tilled at least 10 inches deep or double shoveled and raked. The PH for growing potatoes is 5.5 to 6.0 which is lower than most vegetables as potatoes favor a more acid soil.”

Um – normally I don’t till and all this shoveling and raking sounds like work to me. Usually I just dig a small hole or run my hoe down east and west to make a furrow. Then I drop seed taters in and cover them up with soil and/or leaf mulch. As for pH, it’s never been a major concern for my little gardening mind.

“Last years potatoes or grocery store potatoes should not be used as seed potatoes, use only certified seed potatoes which are state inspected.”

This rule is usually not broken unless I have spouted stored potatoes and extra ground to bury them in. I’ve been known to plant a potato variety I’ve seen at the farmer’s market if I haven’t seen anywhere else. This being said, my recommendation is to buy certified seed whenever you can.

Potatoes need 1.5  inches of water per week, more during dry spells. Do not water from above but by drip irrigation or soaker hose. Weeding potatoes is essential to disease and pest control, however you can grow potatoes using plastic mulch. The mulch can be cut with a bulb planter every 12 inches and hand planted in rows about 18 inches apart. Drip irrigation works well with this method of planting.

As a rule, I don’t water my garden unless we are in a drought. Spuds I’ve grown in the past seem to have survived just fine without the water. Hoeing and hilling the dirt around the potatoes keeps weeds down naturally. Also, I’m not one to use non-organic materials for mulch, but if you want to, be my guest.

“Potatoes can get early blight which are small circular brown spots with a target like spot in the middle. This will kill plants and is caused by plant debris overwintering in the bed you plant them. Plant rotation is extremely important with potatoes. Do not grow in the same bed for 4 years. Clean up the garden in fall.”

I try to keep from growing members of the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants, and ground cherries) in the same place for 3 years, which is the minimum time suggested by most experts. I’m not always able to accomplish this as I grow A LOT of tomatoes and taters. To keep this all straight, I utilize GrowVeg.com planner software. This platform lets me know if I’ve grown something from the same family in a specific spot in the last 3 years. I don’t always take the advice (especially with legumes like beans and peas) but the Nightshade family does get my respect.

“Common Scab is caused by a bacteria that can be in the soil for a long time, even when potatoes were not planted  in that spot. The main cause is decomposing material such as vegetable matter not cleaned up. Using an acid based fertilizer can sometimes help, or find another place to plant.”

The Snarky Gardener’s tubers were infected with common scab a few season’s back. They tasted just fine, but it was a concern. After reading up on the subject and doing a soil test the following year, I traced the problem down to high pH (7.4). I haven’t planted nightshades in that area since and haven’t seen scab on my taters grown in other places either.

Mulching potatoes with straw
Mulching potatoes with straw

My takeaways from the Penn State Extension Office article:

I’ve been growing potatoes in our Northeastern Ohio clay for the past decade. Besides a small common scab issue, I’ve had little to no problems. I do appreciate advice given by people who have WAY more experience and knowledge than the Snarky Gardener. The article was written from the “maximizing potato output” point-of-view. My gardening designs lean towards minimizing labor, soil disturbance (“low-till”) and “outside my property” inputs. This means I might not get the biggest or best harvests, but I will always get something. And isn’t that the goal of every gardener?

I’ve also learned that I don’t follow instructions well (never have, never will). For me, gardening is as much art as it science. If we aren’t allowed to try our own systems and practices, the fun of the garden is removed. And I’m all about having a great time out in my yard, even if it’s hard work sometimes. Nothing beats growing plants, harvesting produce, and eating meals created with food that you grew (even if you are not following the directions).

By the way, here’s a really cool Ruth Stout interview including her planting potatoes. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

Burpee’s Sure Thing Zucchini Review

The Snarky Gardener really loves Burpee’s Sure Thing Hybrid Zucchini but only in a platonic way.

The Snarky Gardener's 1st place award winning Zucchini at the 2014 Portage County Ohio fair
The Snarky Gardener’s 1st place award winning Zucchini at the 2014 Portage County Ohio fair

I don’t usually get all goo goo over a specific vegetable variety (unless it’s my own like the Snarky Orange Cherry Tomato). As an avid seed saver and swapper, I go with whatever seeds I have at hand. This year, I wanted to grow the rainbow type of Swiss chard, but only had a random red variety. Oh well, it all tastes the same once cooked. I can’t even tell you what kind of cucumbers I grew this year.  Had some seeds, stuck them in the ground, waited for them to grow, ate cucumbers.  But when it comes to zucchini, I’m very particular.

Squash, Summer, Sure Thing Zucchini Hybrid 1 Pkt. (25 seeds) Fruits early even in cool, cloudy conditions. Click here to purchase.
Squash, Summer, Sure Thing Zucchini Hybrid 1 Pkt. (25 seeds) Fruits early even in cool, cloudy conditions. Click here to purchase.

As I first came into my own as a gardener, I didn’t take failure well. (Actually, now that I think about it, I still don’t). For me, there’s nothing more depressing early in the season than watching tiny little zucchinis start out with the flower on the end, get a bit bigger, and then just shrivel up and die (so sad). The primary reason for this lost is female flowers need insects to pollinate them. No pollination equals no zucchini to eat. Early in the season, a lack of pollination can be problematic especially if it’s rainy, cloudy, windy or below 50 degrees as honey bees don’t go out of the hive on those days (slackers!). If you ever go out and watch your cucurbits (cucumbers, squash, zucchini, pumpkins, watermelons, and the like) on a nice sunny warm morning, it will feel like an airport of bee activity (buzz buzz buzz).

Q: Why do my zucchini fruits just shrivel up and die?

A: Zucchini flowers need to be pollinated. No pollination equals no zucchini to eat.

Here in Northeastern Ohio, with our lake-effect clouds and cruddy spring weather, it seems like this issue is even more pronounced (though that could just be the Seasonal Affective Disorder talking). Fortunately, I did a little, research and came across Burpee’s Sure Thing Hybrid ZucchiniBurpee's Sure Thing Hybrid Zucchini.  It’s a seedless variety specifically bred for this situation.  Seedless means it doesn’t need fertilized. Problem solved!

Normally, I have a no hybrid rule in my garden but I do make exceptions for times like these. I enjoy saving seeds and while you technically can save hybrids, the “experts” don’t recommended it because you don’t know what you are going to get when you plant them (could be a puppy – who really knows?). Of course with this seedless hybrid variety, you can’t save these (thanks Captain Obvious). A few years back I did serendipitously save and grow out some hybrid SunGold cherry tomatoes and ended up with my very own variety (the Snarky Orange Cherry tomato). Little known fact: you can name them whatever you want (I prefer Fred).

What I like about these Sure Things is I don’t get the “My Zucchini Won’t Pollinate Blues”. I can plant them right after the last frost and they will grow well from there. (Hold it, how do you know it’s actually going to be the LAST frost of the year? Don’t worry, if you get another frost, you can just plant again.) These are a bush variety, so they pretty much stay put instead of crawling all over the garden like pumpkins do.  The downside of any bush plant (zucchini, bean, pea, tomato) is that they have a limited growth timeline meaning they won’t necessarily fruit all season. That’s the trade off from the pole or indeterminate types though I will say the Sure Things from last season’s cool rainy weather did go from June into September. So how do you fight the lesser production? Simple – plant some once every month until 2 months before the average normal first frost (so for Ohio plant in May, June, July, and August). What to do with all that zucchini? That’s for a different time (hint: zucchini pickles).

Cold Weather Corn Salad

The Snarky Gardener shows you that some food plants love the cold.
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Corn Salad or Mache

I first heard of corn salad (aka mache) while reading Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long, 2nd Edition by Eliot Coleman.  He discusses how some food vegetables can handle cool and cold weather.  Many of these are greens, like spinach, Swiss chard, arugula, and parsley.  The one that stuck out to me was corn salad.  This green was originally cultivated by European peasants who would forage for them in their spent wheat fields (corn is a common term for staple crops).  It seems to me this plant thrives in the cold, which is counter how many people see garden vegetables.

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Corn salad – 12/22/2013

Two years ago I naturalized corn salad in my garden so now it grows as a self seeding “weed”.  It starts to grow from previously dropped seed in August or September when we get a bout of cooler weather.  Once it grows up to a decent size, its edible in salads right up until the temperatures drop below freezing for highs (usually after Christmas in Ohio).  Then instead of dying, the corn salad will hold its own (without any cover).  Once the weather warms up in March, growth begins again and by May it’s sending out flowers and going to seed.  Of course, with protection (be it row covers or cold frames), the corn salad would be even more productive with the ability to reap any time over the winter.

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Corn salad going to seed – 5/14/2014

All (Sun)choked Up

Sunchokes are great if you can stomach them.

Sunchokes, Jerusalem artichokes, sunroots, fartichokes – all names for a North American native related to the sunflower.  This is a perennial plant that produces edible knobby tubers.  And by perennial, I mean they could be invasive if not properly managed.  I obtained several at the Foods Not Lawns seed swap this last January.  Planting them in the back of my garden in March, I just let them go without much assistance.  I did have to fence them in inside my fence as one groundhog acquired a taste for them, but once the sunchokes got tall enough (4 feet or so), the critters couldn’t get to them. The sunchokes ended up getting 10 feet or so tall with pretty sunflower-like flowers on them. On 11/17/2013, I dug them up, bringing in several buckets full – way more than I would have imagined. Also, it seems like they don’t store all that well (some shriveling up within a week), but was able to keep them in the buckets with some dirt on top through the spring.

Sunchokes in bloom
Sunchokes in bloom

My understanding is that it’s hard to get rid of sunchokes once they are planted. The roots are very long and grow everywhere. If you miss any while digging, you will have more sunchokes next year. Also, the flowers produce seeds, which will produce even more sunchokes. I believe I’m in trouble next year as I had both roots and seeds I’m sure I missed. The only saving grace is that the leaves and stems make good mulch (read that in a permaculture book recently), so I’ll just be cutting any unwanted stalks down. I’m definitely a mulch believer – the more the better.

Sunchoke from my garden before cleaning 11/17/2013
Sunchoke from my garden before cleaning 11/17/2013

The reason for people calling them fartichokes is that some people can’t digest sunchokes, much like lactose intolerance. I didn’t have that issue at first as we only had a small amount. I pushed it the next day and apparently ate too many (oh, my aching stomach). The Turnip, Apple, and Sunchoke soup I made next was much better and didn’t affect me at all.  I think the secret is moderation (which is not my strong suit).