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Mud and Potatoes

April 14, 2011

It may not look like much now, just wait; seven rows of potatoes. 4/6/11

Sarah Gillespie Huftalen writes in her journal on Tuesday April 3, 1877, that, “it is very muddy.”[1] She goes on to comment, “Mud, Mud, Mud.”[2] The Gillespie family lived in central Iowa a little over 130 years ago and we know that not much has changed about Iowa in April.  Here at the farm we have mud everywhere, from the livestock lots to the kitchen floor.  The staff tends to welcome the mud though, as it signifies the end of winter and gets everyone excited about spring.  We trudge through the mud planting gardens and fields, anxiously awaiting the first sprouts through the black Iowa topsoil.

We took advantage of last week’s beautiful Wednesday to get the potatoes in the ground. Everyone I’ve talked to about it has a different theory on when potatoes should be planted, and one school chaperone last week was shocked our 7 rows were in already.  More than one person I’ve run into says Good Friday is the day, but we put them the last week of March last year and they did splendidly.  We planted 7 rows of Irish cobbler potatoes, not nearly the amounts of the turn of the century farms, but they were relying on cellared potatoes to feed them through the winter.  Our 2 small gardens are not the acres that would be tended in 1900.

I like growing potatoes.  They are kind of a hassle to prepare to plant, but have a relatively high success rate.  Here at the 1900 farm I sat on the porch one afternoon and cut what seemed an entire bushel of potatoes (it was really only like 13 pounds) into small pieces of eyes for planting, but that was the easy part.  Planting is a bother as you have to dig a hole for each potato eye.  That being said, with the right crowd, it can be a fun time.  In fact, several years in a row now I have been the person who scoots along and buries the pieces of potato while others dig the holes.  I imagine this would be a kids’ job in 1900, as it requires you to be low to the ground and get really dirty.  That’s why I like it.

You don’t want to plant your potatoes too close together because they need room to grow.  Cultivate potatoes early on, nearly burying the plants so there is lots of space for the tuber to develop.  Potatoes tend to be a thirsty plant, something to keep in mind with the fickle Iowa weather.  Keeping the roots weed free will promote growth because the potatoes won’t have to compete for soil nutrients.  Keep cultivating those plants and look forward to July when it won’t be so muddy and you can start digging the potatoes out of the ground.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to plant 5 acres or even 5 rows, a few potatoes might be enough to plant 5 plants and grow your own mashed potatoes for supper.  For more information on how to grow your own potatoes (in Iowa or elsewhere) click here, or call your local extension office.

Have fun getting dirty in the garden, and let us know if you have any great potato planting stories of your own!


[1] Bunkers, Suzanne. All Will Yet Be Well; The diary of Sarah Gillespie Huftalen(1873 – 1952). University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. 1993.

[2] ibid.

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