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On digging potatoes

A heavy job made light

by : Nov 1, 2015

This article is about digging potatoes. For other articles on why grow potatoes, how to plant potatoes, how to deal with potato bugs and so on please see those other articles. The scale of operations in my garden is hand tools only, suitable for a small garden or allotment. This article is about digging potatoes on a small scale, enough to feed a family. My process is very traditional, but produces good tubers and as much exercise as I need. The process is much less laborious if a mechanized riddle is available, but hand digging is pleasant work if you have the time. Gardeners with back issues should take care not to lift any more than is reasonable.

Clothes

For clothing I prefer loose fitting shirt, good hat against the sun, shorts, rubber boots and no socks. No socks is convenient since sometimes garden soil will fall into the open boots. It is easier to wash feet than it is to buy socks or wash them. Another alternative is to wear long pants and put the pants outside the boots to prevent soil falling inside, I have tried both methods, but when digging in late September shorts are more comfortable.

Tools

My experience shows me that both the spade and the garden fork are useful tools. I have used one or the other or both, but prefer both, and I will explain why in detail later, but it comes down to whether it is better to slice a potato or spear it. Spearing a potato does a lot of damage and can render a tuber unfit for the pot.

Timing

With regard to timing, my schedule indicates that mid- to late- September is about right. The fierce heat is past and the tubers have been able to size up. The green tops have completely died away even on the late varieties. Some weeds have become established, but that's okay, I was busy focusing on getting beans into storage.

A counter argument arises when there is a high population of destructive effects at work, such as white grubs (they hollow out cavities in otherwise healthy tubers), voles (chew on tubers in the ground), actively growing quackgrass (rhizomes can pierce and grow through tubers). Monitor possible pests and if necessary move up harvesting. See On Potato Harvest Delay.

Step 1 - Clear weeds

We have to be systematic about things. Digging potatoes is long and tedious work, so I prefer to break it down into steps. First step is to clear all the dead haulms and weeds. Know your weeds. Assess where the deep rooted weeds are and deal with those first. In my garden crab grass and couch grass are sometimes a problem. Annual weeds such as pigweed and lamb's quarters are easily handled afterwards. If you prefer the other way round, no problem. No digging happens, except to loosen weeds, until all weeds are on the compost pile and gently rotting down. The potato patch is completely clear. This can take me two days of on and off work as and when I feel like it.

After hilling operations to control weeds and keep tubers covered, the centres and therefore the edges of the rows will be plainly visible even with all the haulms and weeds removed. Since the crop is buried, we don't know exactly where the tubers are; they will be within certain limits defined by the row edges, but frequently tubers will spread just a bit outside the rows. We take this egregious and inconvenient behaviour into account in the second step.

Step 2 - Break rows

The second step is to go along all the rows inserting a spade to full depth at the row edges and levering the soil to break the row open. There is a reason for this. I want the soil to dry out. There is no deliberate attempt to get potatoes at this point, but some will voluntarily pop to the surface. If I can see a potato in the soil then so can the sun, which is not good for the tuber which can turn green and poisonous after prolonged exposure. So after breaking all the rows, or as many rows as I intend to to that day, I collect all visible tubers. I use a spade for this operation because sometimes potato tubers will grow out into the pathways between rows. Despite efforts not to hit tubers with the digging tool I always hit a few. My own view is that it is better to hit them with a spade and not spear them with a fork. The spade has a slicing effect which leaves a reasonably clean cut edge. I collect all the sliced potatoes and use them up in the kitchen the same day. Speared potatoes are a lot more wasteful of the crop since more of the tuber has to be cut away before cooking. The rows have been broken open and are now drying out. If it rains, then the soil will drain more quickly.

Take two buckets to the garden for this stage and later stages: one for the odd potato that pops out, and the other to collect stones. Work slowly on ridding the garden of stones and digging will be easier in future years. It seems we have been given the materials for a good garden but some of those materials are in the wrong place. Stones should be on pathways, not in the garden.

Dry soil is helpful since when the soil is damp it will stick to the tubers making the potatoes hard to distinguish from a clump of earth. This means as you dig for tubers you will miss some due to invisibility. The drier the soil, the more patches of tuber will be free of its invisibility cloak and reveal themselves to your greedy grasp.

Step 3 - First dig

After a day or so to begin drying, a first serious dig can start. I use a garden fork for this step, and insert the fork exactly where the spade went in (step 2 above), lever back, and turn the forkful of soil so that the drier top goes under and the moister top stays upside. This exposes the moister layer of soil to drying winds and effects of the sun. As tubers become visible, I throw them onto the previous row of dry soil - it's a nice soft blanket for them to fall onto. Stones can go onto the same row; as they dry they become more visible. Complete the row on both sides, turning the soil over to dry.

I don't spend much time breaking apart the heavy clods of soil, in my soil they will break apart by themselves as they dry. In this first dig I might get half of the tubers that are in the soil. The other half will still be in the ground, hiding under a layer of dirt. We get them later. Sometimes, if the soil is light and dry enough, I can use the fork as a coarse riddle to help expose tubers. It is also tempting to swish the fork back and forth in the light top layer but this can result in a lightly speared tuber.

Once the turning of the soil is finished, with the tubers exposed on the previous row, I now go along that row with the bucket, examining each tuber to see if it is undamaged and warrants selection for long term storage. These I quickly clean of big clumps of soil and put in the bucket. Once the row is finished I then go back along the row and put the broken tubers in the bucket on top; carry tubers inside, put the damaged ones immediately in the kitchen area and take the good ones to storage.

Then I focus on stones, collecting them separately and taking them to a location for use on a pathway. During the digging, weeds go to the paths along the edge of the garden where their roots can dry out in the sun before collection for the compost heap.

Step 4 - Later digs

The digging will be repeated a number of times, turning the soil each time to help it dry. More tubers will appear as the soil dries, along with more weed roots and stones. With each subsequent turn the digging gets easier and easier and takes very little time. Exposed tubers are again thrown onto a previous row, sorted and stored.

It's not until about the fourth or fifth dig through that I begin to feel that maybe I have them all. By that time the soil is fine and crumbly and reasonably stone- and weed-free. But that is not a problem, each dig of the fork or spade holds the chance if not the promise of good eating.

Many of our senses are used in digging potatoes: tactile sense of touching an otherwise buried tuber with fork or spade, recognizing a flash of tuber skin through the soil attached, the dull thud and ringing in a fork when it hits a solid tuber sideways, and the sharp clear ping when hitting a stone.

Step 5 - Dig pathways

Now that the pathways between rows have done their job by providing a convenient hard passageway, I finally dig them over with a spade and remove weeds and stones. The result is a patch of ground that is very clean of weeds and thoroughly dug for subsequent crops.

Aftereffects

I always thought that the severe winters would kill any tubers remaining in the ground so they would not reappear next spring if I missed any during harvesting. I was wrong. Some tubers will miss my thorough digging and come back next year. When I can, I schedule a crop like squash to follow; that way the ground remains clear late into the spring and early summer, the tubers sprout and show where they are and they can be removed before the ground is covered by another crop.

"Why bother? people say. Potatoes are cheap in the stores." Yes, but growing your own has benefits - no lugging heavy sacks back from the store, knowledge of what was used in the growing of the crop, excellent exercise, and a patch of clear ground to use next year for something other than potatoes.

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