I have written about Michael Kappel in this column on several occasions and I am about to do so again.
Kappel, who gardens in Westwood despite a disabling spinal cord injury, offers unique solutions to horticultural problems and maximizes every inch of his average sized front and backyards, showcasing ornamental plants and vegetable crops. Nothing in Kappel’s garden is predictable or run-of-the-mill.
During a visit to Kappel’s residence last month, I noticed two large bins of potatoes in his kitchen and wondered out loud about their origin. “I just finished my annual potato harvest,” Kappel informed me. For more than twenty years, Kappel has been growing and harvesting potatoes, year in and year out, from raised beds situated in the sunniest portion of his backyard. His soil is improved twice a year with several inches of finished composted and light applications of blood and bone meal.
Potatoes are not difficult to grow as long as you have fast draining soil and a sunny exposure. During his South American travels in the 1830’s, Charles Darwin wrote of the potato as follows: “It is remarkable that the same plant should be found on the sterile mountains of Central Chile, where a drop of rain does not fall for more than six months, and within the damp forests of the southern islands.”
There is a popular misconception that potatoes require cold weather to produce since commercial potato growing areas in the US include Idaho and the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest, and Maine. Yet the first shipment of potatoes to the American colonies came from tropical Bermuda in 1621, where they had been growing for a number of years after a shipment from England arrived there.
Potatoes had first reached Europe in the 1570’s as a result of Spanish expeditions to Peru and the Andes Mountains, which is the potato’s habitat. On their return voyage to Spain, the sailors were pleasantly surprised by their good health. Typically, long ocean voyages were accompanied by outbreaks of scurvy, a skin disease brought on by Vitamin C deficiency, no longer an issue due to the presence of Vitamin C in potatoes.
Initially, though, potatoes were regarded in Europe with suspicion. As members of the poisonous nightshade family, and coming from a land of so-called heathens, they were thought to be dangerous both physically and spiritually, only fit for animal fodder. Potato tubers’ misshapen and unpredictable appearance was another strike against them.
But famines in Europe were quite common, wheat crops would fail regularly, and this provided an opening for potatoes. In addition, near constant war meant that fields of wheat and other above ground crops were regularly trampled by warring troops. It was in the interest of the elites to keep the masses fed and potatoes were a protected underground crop that easily filled a peasant’s stomach. Still, the masses refused to eat potatoes until finally, in 1651, the ruler of Prussia mandated that any of his subjects who did not plant potatoes would be subject to having ears and nose cut off. An attempt to popularize potatoes in France led Louis XIV to affix a purple potato blossom to his label and Marie Antoinette and her entourage to wear potato blossoms in their hair. Who knows? If Marie Antoinette had proclaimed “Let them eat spuds!” perhaps she would have kept her head.
Eventually, potato farming caught on and was largely responsible for the population explosion experienced in Europe and during the 19th century. With potatoes, you could produce food that was more nutritious than wheat on much smaller parcels of land. In Ireland, the population ultimately relied entirely on the potato for sustenance so that when potato blight (Phytophthora fungus disease) destroyed much of the crop, one million people starved to death.
Serious potato growing in America began in New Hampshire in 1719, thanks to the efforts of Scotch-Irish immigrants. Mormons brought potatoes to Idaho in 1836 but potato growing as an industry did not begin to flourish there until the advent of the Russet Burbank potato in 1872, which was resistant to potato blight.
To this day, potatoes are known for their susceptibility to fungus and insect pests and it is therefore wise to utilize certified (disease and pest free) seed potatoes for growing. A seed potato is any potato you put into the ground from which other potatoes will grow. You can utilize supermarket potatoes as seed potatoes but, in addition to being disease prone, they generally produce lighter crops than certified fare. You can order certified seed potatoes for fall shipping from many online vendors but do so as soon as possible since supplies are limited. Kappel orders five pounds of seed potatoes from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, they arrive around Thanksgiving, and he stores them in his garage.
You can cut your seed potatoes in half or in thirds, as long as each piece has at least two sprouted eyes, before planting them. This year Kappel experimented, planted his seed potatoes whole, and had a bigger crop than when he cut them into smaller pieces in previous years. He also planted later than usual, in early April, and started his harvest on the 4th of July.
In preparation for planting, Kappel dug two 20 foot long trenches, 10 inches deep, in a four foot wide bed. He planted the potatoes 4” below the bottom of the trench with 12″ between them. Understand that when potatoes were removed from the garage 12” long shoots were coming from each eye. Thus, when he planted the potatoes, these shoots were splayed out and lying flat in the trench, to be covered with soil from the 4” holes that he had just dug. The shoots soon started to grow again. Once they reached a height of 6”, he covered up 3” inches of these shoots with backfill (soil that was placed above on either side of the trench when it was dug). Then, each time the shoots were again showing 6” inches of growth, he covered half of it with backfill, an so on, until he finally reached the top of the trench. At this point, visible shoots were entirely covered with earth so that the trenches looked like freshly dug graves.
New growth that developed at this point soon produced flowers and, as flowers faded, he cut back on watering and then, once he began to dig up his potato crop, which was done in stages, no more water was applied.
Tip of the Week: Kappel has solved that always thorny what-to-plant-in-the-parkway conundrum with a luxurious planting of semi-dwarf and distinctively thorny natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa ‘Tuttle’), which produces fragrant white flowers and edible, if bland, pinkish fruit when left untrimmed. Indigenous to South Africa, Natal plum is highly drought tolerant and fire resistant, but it could suffer, if not die, in a frost. Although it can grow to three feet, Kappel shears his occasionally, keeping it neat and tidy within his parkway strip.