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Groundwork: Timing the tubers

Cindy Brown conducts the volunteers at the heat battered veggie plot at Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Vegetable gardening is about timing. The season waits for no one. You have a window but not a full-blown fenestration, so if you didn't get your potatoes in last month, you have another couple of weeks to order, receive and plant your spuds. (Organically grown varieties from the supermarket will work just as well as expensive seed potatoes if you pot them up and water them, and wait for sprouts before planting.) If you have room for just one variety, make it a fingerling. Waxy, buttery, sweet, the fingerling potato is the epitome of the fresh gourmet article. Russian Banana is a classic fingerling variety.

Recipe Included

Fertile, deeply dug soil is the order of the day, but potatoes should be set low enough that you can add soil to the stems as the plants grow. You might need to hill your potato rows two or three times as the tubers grow. The object is to prevent potatoes from breaking the soil surface, where the sunlight will turn them green and inedible.

If you plant them in a raised bed (perhaps framed in planks) you can leave room to raise the entire soil surface as the potatoes grow. Potatoes are easy and willing; just keep their bed weeded and regularly watered. Potato plants become stressed when the watering is uneven, and the potato beetle problems will inevitably worsen if the plants are allowed to dry out. A light mulch of straw will help. Do, though, police the patch for this striped beetle. They are controlled by hand picking the adult beetles and squashing the eggs, which are small, yellow and clustered on the underside of the leaves.

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With the lower leaves removed and the stem covered, the potato will grow roots and tubers along the length of its buried stalk. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The spud here is probably Red Bliss, part of a batch that was put into winter storage and then forgotten. When it was found, it had begun to soften and sprout, so Cindy Brown potted it up and grew it on in the greenhouse at Green Spring Gardens.

It goes in too lanky, at 18 inches, but is buried six inches with the lower leaves removed. You would normally set the spuds directly into the ground, being careful not to damage the fresh sprouts when handling, or allow a little growth before planting in March and April. You want to see some active growth before putting them in the ground to reduce the risk of rotting. You can get two or three seed potatoes out of one, by slicing them to leave sprouts, but I don't like to do this, I think it increases the risk of rot, and I try to get small potatoes and plant them intact.

The gardener has been cheated of the spring. Last week's heat wave was most unwelcome, to say the least, and has condensed everything. Gardeners are out of sorts, and if you look at its consequences at Green Spring, you can understand why. Overwintering greens have bolted, but so too have certain cool-season cabbage family plants put in last month, namely some Asian greens and broccoli raab. Harlequin bugs have arrived already, and last year's leeks were screaming to be harvested, which they were.

Brown has not even had a chance to remove some of the suckers from the hop vines before the heat induced excessive growth. "We have been hit by both ends," she laments. "We couldn't get out here early because of the cold and now we are dealing with the heat."

I brought along my soil thermometer to see where we stood, and even buried six to eight inches, it showed the soil had warmed almost to 60 degrees.

Trusty soil thermometer measures almost 60 degrees, six inches deep. That will coax peas and radishes into rapid germination. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The silver lining is that this has induced rapid germination of the peas, and the relative warmth will be liked by the newly transplanted cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower.

It's still a little early to put out tomato plants, as well as peppers and basil. Knowing our luck this year, we'll be getting a frost by week's end. This all adds to the roller-coaster ride. We wouldn't miss it.

-- Adrian Higgins
(Follow me on Twitter.)

(Cynthia A. Brown)

Potatoes With Greens and Dill Cream Sauce
6 servings

This simple, elegant recipe combines some of a gardener's favorite spring vegetables.

MAKE AHEAD: It can be cooled, covered and refrigerated a day in advance. Reheat in a 350-degree oven with a light topping of white cheddar cheese. Bake until the cheese melts and turns golden.

From Cynthia A. Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

2 pounds unpeeled Red Bliss or Yukon Gold potatoes
8 ounces fresh spinach, stemmed, rinsed and drained
4 ounces arugula, stemmed, rinsed and drained
Fronds from several stems of dill, chopped (1/4 cup)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
About 3 large shallots, coarsely chopped (1/2 cup)
1 cup half-and-half (may substitute 1/2 cup half-and-half and 1/2 cup milk)
Freshly ground black pepper

Place whole potatoes in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook about 18 minutes, until just tender. Drain. When cool enough to handle, cut into quarters (or smaller, if using large potatoes).

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook for 3 minutes, stirring, until softened, then add the spinach and arugula. Cover and cook until the bulk of the greens has started to wilt. Uncover and add the chopped dill; stir to incorporate and cook for about 3 minutes, until the greens are completely wilted. Reduce the heat to medium-low; add the cream and mix well. Cook for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the greens are tender. Remove from the heat.

Transfer the mixture to a food processor, working in batches if necessary. Puree to form a sauce. Return to the skillet over medium-low heat; season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add the drained potatoes and mix well, cook just until warmed through. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Serve warm.

Per serving: 250 calories, 7 g protein, 33 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 110 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  April 12, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, potatoes, recipes  
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Hi Adrian- My neighbor Alice, a brilliant gardener, is growing potatoes in large tubs (recycled from previouslyplanted shrubs). She starts the plant low in the pot, and adds soil as it grows- then to harvest she plans to just dump out the pot and pick up the spuds. The little plants look great right now, and seems like a neat way to try potatoes without a lot of acreage.

Posted by: cberk1 | April 12, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

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