July 5, 2020

Letters to My Niece: A Bit of Unexpected Fun

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. This is the last of five, ending with an essay and a poem. (Read the previous letter here.)

Dear Lillie,

The focus of these letters may have grown somewhat diffuse as I ramble on about this and that. I apologize. Let’s move from the general to the specific, shall we?

Let’s say that you have made the commitment to go back-to-the-land. You’ve purchased an acre or two with some sort of a dwelling on it. You’ve managed to open up some ground so that it is relatively free of grasses and other perennial weeds. Now what? What will you grow? And how will you grow it?

There are lots of possible answers, of course, as many as there are people going back-to-the-land. Potatoes get my vote as the best crop to start with. Relatively easy to produce, highly productive, and very nutritious, spuds top the list of satisfying plants to grow. Oh yes, there is also the added attraction that digging potatoes is a bit of unexpected fun, a sort of subterranean Easter egg hunt that never fails to delight.

Potatoes afford the home gardener the chance to become self-sufficient on an important crop. That feeling of self-sufficiency is what the back-to-the-lander is seeking after all.

Gail and I haven’t purchased a potato in decades. We enjoy a variety of unique and delicious spuds, and by growing more than we can possibly eat, we also enjoy a feeling of food security. Two or three barrels of potatoes in a cool cellar amounts to a very basic guarantee that you won’t starve to death.

Conventionally (non-organic) grown potatoes are heavily sprayed throughout the growing season using pesticides that are quite toxic and often systemic, meaning that the plant absorbs and translocates the active ingredient in the pesticide. Not to put too fine a point on it, you really don’t want to eat potatoes grown conventionally.

So, think about potatoes as a starting point on your journey back to the land. If you want to make money, potatoes command a decent price at farmers markets. Grow half a dozen or more varieties with different shapes and skin colors, and you can make an attractive display at the market. People will happily pay $2.00 a pound for chemical-free unique varieties.

Potatoes differ from almost all the other veggies you might grow in that you use a small potato or piece of a potato in place of a seed. Every eye on a spud is actually a dormant bud or growing point capable of rapidly developing into a new plant by tapping the energy in the starchy tuber. It’s a neat way of propagating the new crop but not without its drawbacks. A variety of bacterial, fungal, and especially viral diseases are transmitted on or in the so-called seed pieces.

(The fifth letter continues with this essay: A Farewell to Spuds)