April 30, 2017

An Essay: A Farewell to Spuds

Editor’s Note: Michael Zuck wrote several letters to his niece Lillie shortly before he died on March 7, 2015. His wife Gail shared them with Garden Maine. The five letters end with this essay — which he titled ‘A Farewell to Spuds’ — and then a poem. Read the accompanying letter, the fifth, here.)

• By Michael Zuck •

Since the days of my youth, the Earth has called to me, saying, Michael, what can we grow together? I have answered this call in a great many ways, ranging across a vast assortment of fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, trees, and shrubs.

Now at the end of life, I am hearing a different call from mother Earth. It is a call to return to her. And while I am in no particular hurry to answer the call, still it is a deeply comforting call.

Now at the end of February, I lie here doubting that I will see another growing season, yet longing to go a-gardening once more. And of all the crops I’d like to grow, the lowly spud is the one I will miss the most. No other plant rewards my modest investment of time, money, and effort quite as handsomely as the common or Irish potato.

Our unheated cellar is just about the ideal place to store potatoes. We have several barrels of different varieties down there. Just knowing they’re down there is so very comforting and gives such a sense of security and self-sufficiency. A person can live on a diet of just potatoes, which are vitamin- and mineral-rich while providing 10 percent of their dry weight as complete protein. I’m glad I don’t have to, but a person could easily make it through the winter eating spuds alone.

My techniques for growing potatoes have evolved over the years. The twin goals are to always achieve the best quality and quantity, and it’s tricky to meet these goals. There is a whole lot of science that has been devoted to growing potatoes, almost all of it centered on conventional production techniques. Not interested! Sorry! Throwing a bunch of granular chemical fertilizer and nasty pesticides at a crop just doesn’t rise to the level of respect that I reserve for real farming. If ever there was a crop that suffers from monoculture, the potato is that crop. Diseases and insects that are relatively easy to control organically on a small scale, assume biblical proportions when given the opportunity of an acre or more of the same variety of spud planted row by row, side by side.

The truth is you should never plant more than one row of any variety and then ideally switch to another unrelated crop, kale for example. Potatoes are an energy-rich crop for pests and diseases, so once an infection or infestation gets going, there’s a lot of fuel for the fire, so to speak. If possible, you should plant your potatoes in soil that hasn’t known any solanaceous crops for the past 10 years. This sounds like a long time, but there are soil-borne diseases that persist for such periods, notably Rhizoctonia, aka black scurf or “dirt that won’t wash off.”

Next: [an untitled poem]