Urban Homesteading: Patio Potato Farming

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potatoes

It’s true: these are some ugly-looking potatoes. Back in December, though, they were sleek, alluring even, a pound or two of organic fingerlings that came as part of a mystery box of roots, tubers, and greens from Mariquita Farms. Somehow, though, they got muscled to the back of the pantry by the 20 pounds of russets bought for holiday latke-making at the same time. By the time I could even think about eating potatoes again, my taters had only baby-making in mind.

These were potatoes hellbent on reproduction. Snaky white shoots were twining out of the eyes, and the shriveled potato meat was just a backpack of snacks for the next generation of tubers-to-be.

Now, I love my city-mandated green-waste bin. But could I really let such determination end up in a compost pile in Vacaville?

During my six months as an apprentice at the Farm & Garden Program at UC Santa Cruz, I had planted dozens of fancy seed potatoes that looked a lot like these. They had produced prodigiously, feeding 50 hungry farmers nearly every day, along with the customers at a 120-member CSA and a twice-weekly farmstand.

Would a handful of sprouters grow just as well in a bucket in Bernal Heights? After all, if Love Apple Farm’s potato buckets were good enough for David Kinch, wouldn’t a plastic pot do just fine for me? (Cynthia Sandberg must know her stuff; her tiny Love Apple Farm is a kitchen garden whose kitchen just happens to be Kinch’s restaurant Manresa.) The process is simple: in a large, deep bucket, lay the sprouting potatoes (each piece, or potatoes, containing at least a couple of eyes) on a layer of soil about four to six inches deep. Cover with another couple of inches of soil. Water in until soil is moist but not soggy. Sit back and wait. When the potatoes have pushed a leafy stem up about 4 inches above the soil, fill in with more soil, covering the stem to just below the top leaves. Continue the grow-and-cover process until you reach the top of the bucket.

And what better time to plant than right around St. Patrick’s Day? It’s easy to remember, after all, and the closeness to the spring equinox in our climate pretty much ensures frost-free nights from now on. A beautifully informative essay on the role of potatoes in rural Irish life can be found in John Thorne’s Pot on the Fire; at the end of the chapter he has recipes for both champ and colcannon, two easy dishes of greens (which could be foraged) and potatoes (homegrown), both of which make delicious vegetarian alternatives to the typical corned beef & cabbage.

For champ, peeled potatoes are boiled, drained, and pummeled to smoothness. While the potatoes are boiling, tender spring greens–nettles, spinach, turnip or radish tops–are gently simmered in milk. The greens (and the milk) are tipped into the potatoes and vigorously stirred together. A bowlful with a pat of butter makes a meal.

Colcannon uses slightly tougher greens, like kale and cabbage, and the mixture is stiffer, made firm enough to pat into a flat, thick pancake in a skillet and fry in butter until both sides are crisped up and lightly browned. (You can find boxty, an equally filling Irish potato cake, on the menu at The Liberties at 22nd and Guerrero Sts in the Mission, even if they do California it up with roasted red peppers and feta cheese.)

No plans for a champ-cam trained on the potato bucket yet; after all, most of the action during the next few months will be happening underground. But until then, you can browse the greens reappearing from the earth and dream of harvesting your very own patio potatoes.

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Category: farmers markets, gardening and urban farming, holidays and traditions

About the Author ()

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is a longtime local food writer, author, and cook. Her books include The Art of Vintage Cocktails (Egg & Dart Press), World of Doughnuts (Egg & Dart Press); Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams Sonoma); Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press). She has studied organic farming at UCSC and holds a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. She does frequent cooking demonstrations at local farmers’ markets and has taught food writing at Media Alliance in San Francisco and the Continuing Education program at Stanford University. She has been the lead restaurant critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian as well as for San Francisco magazine. She has been an assistant chef at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artists' residency program located in the Marin Headlands, and a production cook at the Marin Sun Farms Cafe in Pt Reyes Station. After some 20 years in San Francisco interspersed with stints in Oakland, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, she recently moved to Sonoma county but still writes in San Francisco several days a week.
  • http://inerikaskitchen.blogspot.com Erika Kerekes

    That’s exactly how the potatoes in my garden ended up in my garden – I bought them, put them in the pantry, forgot about them, found them, and planted them. The leaves look very healthy just now and I expect to be able to harvest potatoes in a few months (we can grow them year-round here in LA). Hooray for the spud!

  • Eddie

    Um….actually, The Liberties is still there. I drove past it today.

  • kim

    I’m liking the idea of planting potatoes in the backyard! Particularly since my tomatoes-in-Noe experiment went horribly wrong last summer (white fly massacre; but don’t worry, I seek revenge on those vermin). Oh and The Liberties is still around slinging beer and grub @ 22nd and G-ro.

  • Stephanie Rosenbaum

    Thanks for the update! My mistake for not confirming–for some reason, I had it in my head that they had closed last year, but I’m very happy to hear that The Liberties is still around. I used to live less than half a block away from there, and their colcannon got us through many no-food-in-the-fridge nights.

    One thing I didn’t mention in this posting is that, if you’re planting on a larger scale than a bucket or a small backyard garden, many gardening books will tell you not to plant old pantry potatoes, because they’re not certified disease-free as “seed” potatoes. The blights and fungal diseases that potatoes are heir to (the Irish potato famines were caused by various fast-acting fungal diseases that destroyed entire subsistence crops, often in a matter of days) can linger in the soil for a long time. To get certified disease-free seed potatoes, you’ll probably have to place a mail order with a reputable seed company, since seed potatoes don’t usually show up in typical city nurseries.

    However, in this case, since I’m planting on such a limited scale and in containers, it seemed a reasonable risk, especially since my potatoes were so organically well-grown to begin with, and also weren’t treated with any anti-sprouting agents that could stymie growth.

    I’ll be posting periodically about the progress of my potatoes–let me know how yours grow!

  • Christina

    Oh fergodsakes the green mashed potatoes sound perfect. Greens cooked in milk no less. Why didn’t I think of that? I didn’t know you could eat radish tops. And here is a question… being southern, I usually counter bitterness with vinegar. Can I do that when simmering in milk, or does the sweetness from the milk cooking mitigate the need?

    I do a green soup, (greens, roasted garlic, onions cooked til sweet, and soft tofu, whirled up in the Vitamix) that even veggie hating health-o-phobes love. I see a whole green meal here, and since St Patties has come and gone, we could do it for Earth Day. So what would desert be?

    And a technical question? How big does the bucket have to be? Seems like a standard household bucket wouldn’t be big enough to yield much. And could this work in a very bright window, or is this only for the lucky bastards who have actual outdoor space at their robbery-free disposal?