native nurseries

How to Plant & Grow Seed Potatoes

THE REWARDS OF GROWING YOUR OWN POTATOES

To me, all homegrown vegetables taste better than store bought. A few, however, taste so much better homegrown that I almost never bother buying them from the store. Tomatoes, eggplant, broccoli and cucumbers all fall into this category. I never thought that potatoes would be included until I finally grew them at home for the first time five years ago. A spud was a spud, I assumed, and they were so inexpensive in the grocery store anyways. The whole process of growing and “hilling” potatoes also intimidated me.

Indeed, I was wrong. I grew Red Pontiacs that first year and have ever since. Garden-fresh potatoes are so creamy and smooth, they truly taste as if they’ve already been buttered-up for you. My favorite recipe for them includes fresh garden sage leaves, and is so simple, easy and delicious, it has become one of my favorite dishes. I love this recipe so much; I tried making it after I ran out of potatoes one year and substituted them with store-bought. Well I learned my lesson. The homegrown potatoes were what made the dish so delicious. Those grocery spuds tasted like wax in comparison. How disappointing.

Potatoes are also pretty easy to grow. Here in Tallahassee they are traditionally planted around Valentine’s Day, and harvested by May. My friends Katie and Aaron, who run Full Earth Farm in Quincy, have a traditional Valentines Potato-date every February.

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growing-potatoes

LILLY'S PLANTING METHOD FOR THE RED PONTIAC

SEED: You’ll start with seed potatoes, which are just small potatoes that are disease-free and ready to plant. I recommend purchasing these seed potatoes from a local nursery; grocery bought potatoes are treated with a growth inhibitor and may carry disease. Cut these whole seed potatoes into pieces with one or two eyes, each cut piece being golf-ball size or larger. Although small potatoes need not be cut. Let these pieces dry overnight before planting to reduce the likelihood of rot.

SOIL: Potatoes like loose soil rich in organic matter, so work finished home compost or mushroom compost into your bed. There are many ways to plant potatoes, but the easiest and most reliable method I’ve found is as follows; Loosen up soil in your bed and remove any weeds. Make a trench 10 inches wide and 4 inches deep on level ground. If you have multiple rows, they should be at least 36 inches apart. If you haven’t already worked compost into the bed, you can add a layer of compost to the bottom of the trench. Use only finished mature compost that has completely broken down.

PLANTING: Drop potato pieces into the trench about 12 inches apart and bury 3-4 inches deep. If you want to increase the size of your harvest, you can “hill up” the potatoes once the foliage has reached 6-8 inches tall. This means you would pull soil up around the base of the plants, leaving 4 inches of the plant above soil level. Be careful not to damage the roots of the plants. Hill a second time 2-3 weeks later if your desire. Mulch with pine or hay straw once you have finished hilling, to prevent weeds. Hilling the soil increases potato production but is not necessary if you can’t find the time or inclination. I still get a good size harvest on years I haven’t had the time to hill.

GROW BAGS: If you don't have the space for a potato bed, the Geopot fabric grow bag is the next best way to grow your own delicious potatoes. The 15 gallon fabric pot with velcro opening makes it easy to plant, grow and harvest your own potatoes. Containers are completely breathable providing great drainage and aeration to the roots giving you abundant harvests.

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By the end of April, the green tops will start yellowing and dying back and that means those little taters are sizing up underground. I use a garden fork to lift up the tubers with the least amount of damage. This is my favorite part of the growing process, because it feels like you’re digging up buried treasure. Now all there's left to do is harvest and set a potato date!

Winter Hummingbirds

Banding a Calliope Hummingbird, Photo by Fred Bassett

Banding a Calliope Hummingbird, Photo by Fred Bassett

Every January Fred Bassett or Fred Dietrich, licensed bird banders and volunteers for the Hummer/Bird Study Group (HBSG), speaks at Native Nurseries. They begin their talks by telling us that only one species of hummingbird – the Ruby-throated – is shown to live east of the Mississippi in older field guides. This is the hummingbird that is most familiar to us; they usually show up in our yards in March after wintering in Central America. They visit our feeders, feast on nectar and insects, and nest here in the summer. By mid-October most have migrated across the Gulf of Mexico to Central America.

However, through winter banding activities, HBSG has documented thirteen other hummingbird species east of the Mississippi. Most common in winter in Tallahassee is the Rufous Hummingbird, but they have also banded Calliope, Buff-bellied, Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, Costa’s, Broad-billed and Allen’s. In one Killearn yard alone, six different species of hummingbirds have been banded over the years.

Much to his surprise, a female Rufous Hummingbird banded by Fred Dietrich in Tallahassee a few years ago in mid-January was recaptured in Alaska on June 28th the same year. This is the longest documented migration of a hummingbird, 3,523 miles. She weighed 4.1 grams in Alaska, signaling that she was putting on weight for the southward migration. A normal weight is approximately 3 grams.

The western hummingbirds have probably been coming here for many years, but were not usually observed because feeders were taken down in September. Also, people are planting their yards with hummingbird plants that they can see from their windows and are noticing the birds more.

What did winter hummingbirds feed on before feeders and perennial gardens? Hummingbirds are frequent visitors to sapsucker wells. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a winter migratory woodpecker that drills into trees to extract sweet sap. Hummingbirds also eat lots of insects.

Some folks in Tallahassee leave their feeders up all winter to attract hummingbirds, but December and January are the most likely months to see them. They will feed on sugar water from feeders, insects, nectar from perennials that overwinter due to recent mild winters, natural winter blooming plants and sap from sap wells. Just remember that if you decide to leave a feeder up over the winter, you will need to clean it regularly, though not as often as a summer feeder.

The Hummer Bird Study Group encourages people to keep their hummingbird feeders up in winter. If you have a hummingbird after November 15th, contact Fred Dietrich at fdietrich@gmail.com and he will try to coordinate a visit to your yard to identify and band “your” bird. This is a fascinating experience. Fred always photographs the homeowner holding and releasing the banded bird. He says some people are moved to tears by the experience of holding such an exquisite creature in their hands. Fred started the winter hummingbird season off this year by observing three Black-chinned Hummingbirds, one in Killearn, one in Betton Hills and another near Raa Avenue in late October.

Fun with Fennel - Useful and Delicious Herb!

Native to the shores of the Mediterranean, fennel has naturalized in many parts of the world. It’s a hardy perennial that grows happiest in a sunny spot with adequate moisture and well-drained soil. It self-sows freely, especially in West Coast states, where itis a weedy garden escapee and even listed invasive. In Tallahassee, however, fennel is not invasive and is very popular with pollinators, as well as a useful culinary herb and vegetable.

Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, has a long and varied history of use. British farmers rubbed a mixture of fennel seeds, soap, and salt on the blade of their plow to strengthen the land and encourage better harvests. Similarly for fertility, fennel was thrown at newlyweds instead of rice. For protection, fennel was hung over the doorway during the Summer Solstice to keep away evil spirits and the seeds put into keyholes to keep out ghosts. Medicinally, the Egyptians and Chinese used it to strengthen eyesight and to settle an upset stomach. Fennel seeds are still praised today for their great nutritional and medicinal value. They contain a number of unique phytonutrients, one of which is known for its powerful inflammatory and cancer fighting properties. Today fennel is most commonly used for its crisp, yet delicate flavor and aroma in cooking.

Fennel is considered both an herb and a vegetable, depending on how it is prepared. The bulb can be fried, pickled, baked and more. The seeds are often used as an herb for flavoring foods. The leaves are sometimes used in salads, and the flower is used as a lacy garnish. Fennel lends a bright anise flavor to potatoes, rice, eggs, cheese spreads, salmon, salad dressings, herb butters, and breads. The stalks are delicious in place of celery in lentil soup or vegetable stew. The fennel seeds make a tasty addition to pickled beets and the bulb is wonderfully paired raw with salads or roasted with root vegetables.

Black Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on fennel, and their caterpillars feed upon it until they are ready for metamorphosis!

Black Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on fennel, and their caterpillars feed upon it until they are ready for metamorphosis!

In addition to its kitchen contributions, planting fennel will attract beneficial insects to the garden. Its leaves are a favorite food source for the caterpillars of Black Swallowtail butterflies. By mid-summer in Tallahassee, the Swallowtails butterflies begin laying their eggs on fennel, and in no time a plant can be covered in hungry caterpillars, soon to be butterflies.

In the garden, fennel can grow up to 4-5 feet tall with finely divided feathery green leaves and bright yellow umbrella-shaped flowers. The verdant green color of 'Florence' fennel adds a soft touch in the herb garden, or choose 'Bronze' fennel, for a darker and deeper point of interest. Both will attract the Black Swallowtail butterflies, but the 'Florence' fennel produces the larger, bulbous base for cooking. This herb makes a good border, or, when intermittently placed among shorter specimens, creates an unusual garden skyline and even more alluring, a wildlife habitat.

Whether grown for its culinary value or for wildlife habitat, growing fennel is an easy and attractive addition to your garden. Cold-hardy fennel can be planted now, and year round here in Tallahassee. I've included a favorite fennel recipe to inspire your kitchen creations below.

Baked Pear And Fennel Stacks

Sliced pears sandwiched with fennel, coated in warm spices and sugar and baked to perfection. Then drenched in a super easy white wine reduction and maybe a scoop of vanilla ice cream; a very flavorful, comforting dessert dish. 

Ingredients:

3 ripe pears
1 stalk fennel
1 tbsp coconut oil (or butter)
Raw honey to drizzle
Cinnamon
Nutmeg
Sea salt
1/2 cup Brown sugar
1 cup white wine
1 tbsp Balsamic Vinegar

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Slice pears horizontally - thickness to your preference.
3. Slice fennel bulb in a similar fashion.
4. Coat your baking skillet or dish with melted coconut oil and honey.
5. Place your slices evenly throughout the dish. Garnish with the fennel stems and cinnamon sticks.
6. Before baking, pour a quick mixture of coconut oil, honey, brown sugar, and spices over the pears and fennel, evenly.
7. While your dish is baking, whisk together your reduction: white wine and vinegar over the stove, with brown sugar until syrup thickens.
8. When your pear and fennel is done baking, create your stacks by alternating between the two.
9. Dress with your reduction.