The Humble Potato

Brandywine tomatoes and Moon and Stars watermelons are showy heirlooms that grab headlines, but the humble potato has taught us all a lesson or two about the need for preserving and planting genetic variety. Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) as a group are one of the most diverse vegetables. They originated in the high elevations of the Andes mountains in Peru, Columbia and Bolivia and were probably domesticated over 10,000 years ago. Since then, they have become one of the most important food sources throughout the world. Potatoes are especially popular in high altitude areas where many grains will not grow. They found their way to North America via Irish settlers.

Most people never notice the seed pods that form on potato plants. Not all plants set seed, but be on the lookout for round green pods about the size of a dime. Supposedly this is how Luther Burbank got his start in plant breeding. He stumbled on some potato seed pods and replanted them, looking for an improvement over the parent potato. The rest is culinary history.

If you should find some seed pods on your plants and want to do some experimenting on your own, the pods should be picked when they have had about two months to fully mature. They will still be a bit soft at this point, but they will easily pull from the plant and may even begin dropping on their own. Squeeze the seeds out of the pods and cover with water. The good seeds should sink to the bottom. Dry and save those seeds. Potato seeds prefer a warm (60 degrees F) soil to germinate.

However, while potatoes do set seed, they only grow true to type when reproduced vegetatively – by replanting the actual tubers or potions thereof or by taking cuttings. Replanting the tubers is good and bad. It’s great for seed savers. You don’t have to worry about cross pollinating, because you are not interested in seed. But it is also a great way to transmit disease. The Irish Potato Famine was due in part to the carryover of disease from one year’s crop to the next year’s seed potatoes.

The Irish had been planting potatoes for over 200 years before the famine started in 1845. Potatoes ease of planting and storage, high nutrition, and calories per acre planted made them favorites of poor farmers. They also constituted the bulk of their diet.

Gardening for Kids

A grand gardening idea: Projects in gardening for kids. These hands-on vegetable gardening projects help teach kids the lifetime benefits of gardening.

Gardening Idea – Gardening for Kids

Growing pumpkins is a great introduction to gardening for kids. The Connecticut Field Pumpkin variety is usually chosen for making Jack O’Lanterns. They typically grow 10 to 20 pounds each, but can grow up to 50 pounds.

Gardening Idea – Gardening for Kids

Put a sweet potato into a glass of water in your kitchen window. Kids love to watch it sprout.

Gardening Tip

Many people grow sweet potato purely for its ornamental value as ground cover or in hanging baskets. It makes a cheap and attractive plant.

Gardening Idea – Gardening for Kids

Children love sunflowers, and especially, mammoth sunflowers. They will be amazed at how tall this attractive plant grows from such a small seed. After harvesting, you can feed the seeds to the birds, make decorations with them in craft projects, or let the family eat them!

Gardening Idea – Gardening for Kids

Let the kids plant radishes or scallions. These quick-growing vegetables will delight the children because they can see the fruits of their labor faster.

Gardening Idea – Gardening for Kids

Section them off their own little garden plot. Let them choose what they want to plant. You can buy child-sized plastic hoes, rakes, watering cans, and wheelbarrows. Allow them to “play gardener.” Your child’s garden can include flowers (just make sure they’re not toxic) and vegetables.

Texas A&M University website, Kinder Garden

A wonderful website with a wealth of resources for getting kids involved in gardening is Texas A&M University’s webpage for kids, Kinder Garden. I highly recommend it – it has many gardening-related activities children will love!

Kids Growing With Dutch Bulbs School Grant Program

This grant program is sponsored by the Mail Order Gardening Association. The 12th annual grant awards schools with a package of 200 premium Dutch flowering bulbs and related educational activities. Its aim is to teach kids the benefits of gardening first hand. Let your child’s school know about this program!

The NGA’s Adopt A Garden™ Programs

The National Gardening Association has an Adopt a School Garden™ program. This is a great program where sponsors adopt schools and the NGA helps the school set up a garden. Read more about it at the link provided.

Raised Bed Gardening

To construct a raised garden bed and a cold frame, first decide on location, size, number of raised garden beds, and size and type of pathways. Sketch a garden plan. Consider what plants you want for the raised garden beds. Then choose plant locations based upon the needs of each plant.

Beds that are 3 to 4 feet wide are common to enable reaching from either side without stepping into the bed. They can be as long as you choose. Here are the simple steps:

–Measure and mark the ground to outline the bed. Excavate the soil 6-8 inches deep around the outside.

–Throw the soil into the middle of your raised garden bed.

–Level off the soil with a rake. Level the pathway you created by digging.

Gardening Tip: Improve soil by adding organic matter such as grass clippings, manure, hay, shredded leaves, etc. You can make compost with a backyard compost bin purchased online or at garden supply stores (or simply throw it into a pile, turn it occasionally, and in a year or less, you’ll have good compost!) Alternatively, purchase premixed compost. Adding compost increases yields, retains moisture, and helps prevent pests and diseases. Apply 2-3 inches of compost to the top of your raised garden bed and work it in 6 – 8 inches deep.

Construct a raised garden bed frame

A frame is not required for raised bed gardening, but here is a simple plan:

–To make a 6′ X 4′ wood frame, purchase two 2 X 6’s and two 4 X 4’s. Choose cedar, cypress, black locust, or redwood. Fasten together using spiral nails or galvanized screws. (Other suitable materials to use are concrete blocks, bricks or plastic lumber, or purchase raised bed kits.)

Raised garden beds double as cold frames.

If you want a cold frame to extend your growing season, you can cover a raised garden bed and its frame with a glass sash or plastic.

Tip #1: During cold snaps, cover your cold frame with burlap sacks of leaves or bales of straw to prevent freezing.

Tip #2: When temperatures reach 45 degrees, raise or remove the sash to prevent extreme heat. Before evening, put the sash back to conserve heat for colder nights.

Tip #3: Water plants early mornings so the bed dries out before night.

Gardening Tips: Increase potato yield; Homemade Vegetable Soup Recipe; Vegetable Garden Tips

This article has a gardening tip to increase potato yield and names my two favorite fertilizers. Also, a great homemade vegetable soup recipe to enjoy the fruits of your labors! Vegetable soup on a cold day is one of the best comfort foods. A vegetable soup diet can help you lose weight fast. Vegetable soup is also chock full of vitamins to build strong bodies.

Gardening Tips:

Gardening Tip #1: To increase Irish potato yields 25% or more, practice “hilling.” That means to add compost or soil to the planting bed by drawing it up with a hoe. This creates more space for developing tubers. Continue every few weeks; stop once the plants flower.

Gardening Tip #2: Bushel baskets are great containers to grow potatoes. Just cut out the bottoms of the baskets and set them over the potatoes. Then you place sand and compost on top of the plants every few weeks until the baskets are full.

Gardening Tip #3: Shhh! Don’t tell another soul about these secret weapons:

  1. A) Black Kow®
  2. B) Miracle-Gro®. I recommend both to fertilize soil and produce bigger, healthier vegetables!

Gardening Tip #4: If you sowed garden seeds thickly, you should thin (gently pull out) excess garden plants without disturbing roots of remaining garden plants. This ensures enough moisture and nutrients for those that remain. Use spacing on seed packets or in planting guides.

Gardening Tip #5: Water tomatoes regularly to avoid blossom-end rot (caused by under-watering).

Vegetable Soup Recipe:

Grandma was right! A vegetable soup recipe is not only healthy, but also trims your figure. (The vegetable soup diet must be used in conjunction with a sensible diet.)

  • 1 cup diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup of diced celery
  • 1/2 medium cabbage
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1-1/2 cups sliced carrots
  • 2 cups cut bell peppers
  • 2 cups string beans
  • 1 large jar of tomato juice (or stewed tomatoes)
  • Dash of black pepper and salt
  • 1 packet Lipton onion soup mix

Mix in a large pot; add enough water so vegetables are well covered. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and cook on low around 2 hours.

To make it a vegetable beef soup recipe, brown stew beef and drain fat. Add onions and cook for 3 minutes. Then add 1 cup water and tomatoes and cook until beef is tender. Add in all other ingredients above. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and cook on low around 2 hours.

My mother used to make huge pots of this homemade vegetable soup every summer. After it cooled, she would put it into freezer bags and we had vegetable soup all winter. It’s good for at least three months. If you’re not interested in the vegetable soup for diet purposes, add cut up, peeled Irish potatoes, butter beans and corn cut off the cob to your recipe. It really makes vegetable soup better, the more you put into it. To stack bags evenly in the freezer, just lay them on top of each other in a small cardboard box.

Caution: Adding beef adds calories! Adding potatoes adds carbohydrates, starch and calories.

Asian Vegetable: Take Out From the Garden

Third world counties that haven’t adopted modern farming techniques are often gold mines for discovering heirloom seeds. Many Asian counties have been growing the same vegetables from saved seed since well before it would have been documented. Asian cuisines are increasingly popular in North America. We’ve branched out from take out Chinese to sushi to Vietnamese, Burmese. Oddly, as much as we like eating Asian cuisines, they aren’t often prepared in our homes. Many of us who have tried cooking our favorites, have been disappointed because they don’t taste like in the restaurant. It’s as though they’ve left out the secret ingredient. Of course, most of us have never had true “home cooked” Asian food, so maybe the recipe turned out right and what we got at the restaurant was just what they prepare for American palettes. There’s a thought.

I have the treat of volunteering in a community vegetable garden along with a Chinese woman – who happens to be a cookbook author and cooking instructor. One day she pulled her portable wok right into the garden and steamed some freshly picked soy beans (edamame) for us all. We stood out in the sun amongst the plants and ate them with our hands, right out of the pods. Before then I would never have considered doing something so simple and so delicious.

So maybe we just haven’t had the right ingredients. Although markets are improving daily with their selection of produce, Asian vegetables can very easily be grown in most home gardens. Often the real trick is knowing what a vegetable is called in the country of the cuisine you are attempting. Luckily seed companies are beginning to showcase Asian vegetables in their own sections, with helpful descriptions. Below I’ve listed some great varieties to get you started.


If you like green beans, you have to try Asparagus or Yard Long Beans. Pick them before they get to be yard long, for the most tender, fresh eating. They are pencil thin and the flavor is not entirely like green snap beans and not entirely like asparagus.

Soy beans have never gotten the respect they deserve in America, but they are a staple of many Asian cuisines and have been grown since before recorded history. They are used like a shell bean and, as I mentioned above, can be steamed in the pod for a quick snack. You’ll often find them simply listed as edamame.

Testing the Soil: What Type is It?

There are many different ways that someone can have his soil tested to see what type it is. Many gardeners need to know so that they can pick out appropriate plants. There are also changes in every landscape so that the soil type that is in one section of the yard may change totally in another section. It is best really to check everywhere that you want a garden so that you can get the best plants for the area. Remember it is easier to change the plants that are planted than to alter the soil to make the plants happy.

The Scientific Way

There are ways to find soil type by soil particle size. Since there are three different types of soil (Sand, Silt, and Clay) then each has its own size particles to test. For clay soils the particles are less than .002 millimeters and are why it has so much surface area. For silt soils the particles are each over .002 mm and under .05 mm in diameter. And finally there are five grades of the soil we call sandy, or just sand. Loamy soils are just a mix of the sand, silt, and clay.

  • Very coarse: 1.0-2.0mm
  • Coarse: .50-1.0mm
  • Medium: .25-.50mm
  • Fine: .10-.25mm
  • Very fine: .05-.10mm

The Non-Scientific Way

This method involves no fancy testing and no lab work, just earth and water. While one may have to wait a bit for the results, it is free and can help if the area that is being tested tends to change from time to time. When conditions are right, this is a near fail proof method, and one seen in practice more than the particle size testing and other testing.

To do this test, wait until it has been two days past a rain. Pick up a scoop of the dirt that is needed to be tested and roll it around until it is the size of an average golf ball. Squeeze. Now how does it feel? Is it slippery? Then it is clay. Is it smooth earth? This means it is silt. Is it gritty? That is sandy.

Now take that ball while it is still there in a hand and open. Does it fall apart? That is sandy soil. Does it take a few minutes to fall apart? That is loamy soil. Does it stay as a ball? That is clay soil.

Differences between Soil Types

Soil types range widely and there are differences between them for the gardener. Silt soils tend to retain their water and nutrients. Sandy soils will be a good water drainer but will do so quickly. It is the quickest to warm. Clay soils are heavy and hold water for longer times, drying very hard. It takes the longest to warm. Loam is nothing but a mix of the three, and is the better environment for nearly all plants.

Organic Soil: The Best Garden Soil Recipe Includes Lots of Organic Matter

In a manner of speaking, soil is soil. But what makes great garden soil? Most soils contain 5% or less organic matter. The best garden soils are rich in organic matter and biological activity.

Organic matter makes garden soils workable, a good texture, and full of plant nutrients. Organic matter is where most of the biological activity takes place.

Biological activity within soil provides ways for organic matter to replaced or increased. As well, it is activity at the microscopic level which allows nutrients to be taken up by plant roots.

Adding Organic Matter to Soil

The best ways to add organic matter to soil are through mulch and compost. Add both generously throughout the year. Adding a layer of leaves or straw at the end of the growing season can give your garden soil a boost of organic matter in the spring.

Compost comes with active bacteria included and sometimes worms and other beneficial insects.

Compost Tea and Charcoal

Ways to increase biological activity in garden soil:

  • Compost tea or worm tea – Adding compost increases garden soil biological activity. Compost tea or worm tea can do the same. Compost tea and worm tea are made by oxygenating the compost to increase the populations of good bacteria. Spray worm or compost tea directly on plants.
  • Charcoal – Charcoal provides great habitat for soil microorganisms. These microorganisms help create the chemistry that allows plant roots to uptake nutrients.
  • Worms – Whether the red wiggler, composting variety or average garden variety, worms aerate the soil. Looser, more oxygenated soil plus worm castings equals good environment for biologically active soil.

The Best Soil Recipe

If your soil is very compacted, rocky, clayey, sandy or low in organic matter, you may want to consider raised beds for your garden. Using a raised bed allows you to create great garden soil right from the start.

Any soil mix can be used in a raised bed garden. The best soil recipe will contain lots of organic matter and a good environment for soil microorganisms.

The square foot method for garden soil for raised beds is 1/3 compost, 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat. Another garden soil recipe is 1/3 soil, 1/3 peat, coir, or bark mulch, 1/3 compost.

To any of the above recipes or any garden soil mix the following can be added:

  • Charcoal – as discussed above.
  • Manure – it’s best to compost it a little first, especially chicken manure.
  • Ashes – add sparingly, like a fertilizer. Ashes provide phosphorus.

Even the best garden soils will become depleted with time. Be sure to add compost, mulch and organic fertilizers throughout the growing season.