Saturday, August 30, 2014

How to Grow Potatoes - Southwest Gardening

Idaho potato advertising goes old school with pinup models in potato sack dresses — from an exhibit at the Prince Edward Island Potato Museum in Canada. This gal looks a bit like Marilyn Monroe to me. Awesomesauce!

Potatoes Are Easy To Grow In Ground or In Containers

There's nothing nicer than eating a fresh potato. Fresh harvested potatoes are nuttier, buttery, and less starch tasting than potatoes that have been harvested, shipped and moved from one packing house to another before it even makes its way to a grocer. 

Potatoes of all varieties grow just about anywhere; though, some don't like too wet of soil or too dry. It's all about trying to find the right variety of potato for taste and easy growing. Potatoes are easy to grow and they pretty much grow themselves. There's no pruning, pinching back or staking as like tomato plants. 

I've found throughout the years that growing potatoes in the desert / arid conditions is easiest when grown either in containers or using the hay method. There's no digging holes, taking up needed space or mixing and amending soil conditions. My biggest battle with growing potatoes in the ground are battling gophers. For some reason gophers in my neighborhood are more attracted to potatoes than sweet potatoes and other root vegetables like beets. I never have a problem with gophers and my Detroit Red beets or Purple Top turnips.

The benefit to growing potatoes in a container is that when it's time to harvest the potatoes, you simply knock over the container on a tarp and pick up your potatoes. You can then reused the soil. The tarp makes it easy to re-purpose the soil.

 I've learned never to reused the container dirt for growing potatoes for growing tomatoes. Both are from the same family called nightshades and if your potatoes have a disease then the tomatoes that you planted in the          same soil will most likely be effected by the disease. 

New fad is people are actually grafting potato and tomato plants together. As the roots of the potato plants are developing potatoes, above ground tomatoes are being produce. Grafting potato and tomato            plants together is easy but, the plants tend to be heavy feeders. 

I was raised with growing potatoes in the ground to growing in potato bags or 10 gallon buckets. When the season was predicted to be too wet, we used containers to grow potatoes. 

Growing potatoes in the southwestern dirt is easy. Simply bury or cover the potato with soil, hay or even shredded paper. As the plant grows (about every four inches), cover the leaves again. Allow a bit of the leaves to peak out for faster growing. Keep the soil moist but, not saturated. 

Potatoes are American - of the Americas

The Potato was first cultivated by the Inca Indians in Peru, in and around the Lake Titicaca region of the Andean Mountains about 200 B.C. 

In 1537. The Spanish Conquistadors discovered the Potatoes while raping and pillaging South America. Besides taking potato varieties back to Spain, they had also taken gold, slaves, cacao and fruits.  

The first documented potato in North America was in the year 1621. What was once a delicacy for the wealthy are now one of the largest and most beloved food crops in the world. According to USDA, about 50 percent of the potato food crop is processed for French fries. God bless farmers!

Growing Requirements for Potatoes

Potatoes require full sun to grow. They're aggressive rooting plants and will produce the best crop when planted in a light, loose, and well drained moist but not wet sandy loam. 

Potatoes prefer a slightly acid soil with a pH of 5.8-6.5 (purchase under $20 pH balance tester) but, don't worry much about pH balance because, potatoes are most adaptable and will usually produce a bountiful crop no matter the soil condition. The better the soil condition the larger the potatoes. 

Potato crops should be rotated every 3 years. This means that you should change the soil or move the bed to another spot; otherwise, disease could set in or all of the nutrients can be depleted.

  Potatoes can be grown indoors. Be sure to keep the soil about 55F or more. I've seen other gardeners living in snow bound regions keep a heating pad set on low underneath a potato bag. Place your container indoors near sunlight. This will urge the plants to grow up and out. 

Planting Potatoes Is Easy

Growing a potato is as easy as digging a hole and dropping in the potato seed or making a bed of hay.

I grow potatoes in USDA Hardiness Zone 8B and 10. I'm lucky to be able to grow potatoes all year long. We have extremely long growing seasons here in southern California. 

Sweet potatoes are a little more delicate to grow year round than potatoes. My favorite varieties are Norgold Russet, Red La Soda, White Rose (Commonly grown in Ireland). The trick is to plant them in intervals. 

I start Norgold Russet in early Spring, Red La Soda in July - August, then I plant White Rose in September. 

Planting In Rows or Mounds?

You can bury potato seeds 6 - 8" deep in rows or mounds but, I've learned from my own experience and from the advise of Master Gardeners and neighbors that potatoes will definitely grow in the southwestern sandy loam but, it's best to grow in containers or beds of hay.

Gophers are notorious in southern California and they seem to be able to smell potatoes a mile away. It's easier to harvest and control water by growing in a container of some sort. You can grow 10 pounds of potatoes in a large growing bag or bucket. 

Each root will produce potatoes. The more roots, the more potatoes. 

For hardy plants; start with good soil. You can use your own dirt and add manure or water with miracle grow every now and again to keep plants fertilized. 

As the plant grows you'll need to keep covering it with dirt or hay. I recommend allowing the plant to peek out at least 4 inches before covering. As you continue to cover the plant, it will produce more roots which equal potatoes. 

Great potato growing containers include kiddie Pools, tires, store fabric bags, buckets, large planters, wood crates, bed of hay, raised bed gardens, storage tubs, burlap bags, baskets etc. 


For the maximum crop, keep your potato plants well watered particularly if planted in a container. The soil or planting material should be kept moist but not saturated particularly during the period when they are in flower and immediately thereafter. That is the time when the plant is creating the new tubers, and water is critical. 

Water early in the day if you can so that the foliage has time to dry completely before evening. Wet foliage can make your plants more susceptible to potato diseases or can damage the leaves. 

If you notice that the potato foliage is turning yellow and starts to dies back, discontinue watering. Your plants are telling you that it's about time to harvest. Slow down on the watering and allow the tubers to mature for a week or two before harvesting.

Once the vines have passed the critical watering stage while in flower, they will tolerate a certain amount of drought. This is called hardening off. According to some studies, non-irrigated potatoes are less watery and more healthful. 

It's best to water by hand and to be on a regular water schedule. Potato plants that aren't watered regularly will produce a much smaller and fewer potatoes.

Harvesting Your Potatoes

You can begin to harvest your potatoes 2 to 3-weeks after the plants have completely finished flowering. At this time you will only find small "baby" potatoes if you were to dig up a plant. 

Potatoes can be harvested any time after this, by gently loosening the soil with a spade or shovel. Using a pitch fork often ends in tragedy. I've lost many potatoes using a pitch fork. 

While harvesting, loosen the soil then reach under the plant, and removing the largest tubers, leaving the smaller ones to continue growing.

If you want late potatoes for storage, wait 2-3 weeks after the foliage has died back then carefully begin digging a foot or so outside of the row or mound. 

Remove the potatoes as you find them. (Be careful not to bruise or cut the tubers with your spade! It's easy to do) If the weather is dry, allow the potatoes to lay on the soil surface, unwashed, for 2-3 days so they can dry. If the weather is wet, or rain is expected, move the harvest to a cool, dry area (like a garage or basement) for the drying period. This drying step is necessary to mature the potato skin, which will protect the potato during storage.

If, by the end of September, the plants have not begun to die back, all of the foliage should be cut off to ensure your crop has ample time to mature before winter. Store your undamaged potatoes in a well-ventilated, dark, cool (about 40 degrees) location. Properly dried and stored potatoes should keep well for three to six months.

It's easy to harvest using a container. Simply overturn the container onto a tarp, sheet or newspaper. Pick out the potatoes for drying. Re-purpose the soil.

Popular Potato Varieties for Home Growers 

Solanum tuberosum

Yukon GoldEarly to Mid seasonLarge, yellow-fleshed variety. They are excellent baked, boiled, or mashed. These potatoes store well.
SuperiorMid seasonGood baked, boiled, or mashed. Resistant to potato scab.
Red PontiacLate maturingHigh yields, large round potatoes, easy to grow, stores well.
KennebecLate maturingExcellent producer, large potatoes, great for baking or frying, stores well.


Russet NorkotahLate maturingExcellent baking potato, excellent producer, large potatoes.
White RoseEarly to Mid seasonGood producer, good for cooking, doesn't
store well.
RussetMid seasonExcellent producer, excellent baking potato, large potatoes, excellent for storage.
NorlandEarly maturingRed skin, white flesh, excellent when boiled, fried, or mashed, stores well.

Have fun with trying different potato varieties. For fun, the next time you have an extra potato, cut it into 4 - 6 pieces. Allow to air dry overnight and plant in one of those fabric store bags using potting soil. The handles make it easy to hang or you can simply put it aside anywhere there is enough sunlight. You'll be amazed as to how many potatoes will grow in a large sized fabric bag from Walmart or your grocery store. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

2014 Summer Night Sky - The Milky Way, Gardening and The Super Moon

Photo: 2015 The Old Farmer's Almanac

                               Life is Good. 
The Super Moon has Moved On and The Milky Way Has Come Back To Greet You

The beautiful Super Moon which is the brightest moon is now gone from our evening sky. Even though I hate to see it go, I now look forward to seeing the Milky Way again. In most regions of America the Milky Way is visible once darkness falls.

In my rural area of southern California, Metropolitan lights from Los Angeles to the suburbs of Riverside can really affect the evening sky and how well the stars appear. After 10 PM or so, when folks start to settle in for the night, it seems like the blanket of the night sky begins to become more vivid allowing me to see parts of the Milky Way.

It’s hard to explain how the glow of southern California's city lights can affect your view of the nights sky even if you’re 40 miles easterly of Los Angeles. The earth's glow that astronauts often see Earth's atmosphere while above populated regions does affect the stars view from ground level and the city lights often dim a bit when people go to bed.

My area in which I do most of my vegetable gardening from doesn't have very many street lights or even curbs for that matter. It’s a ranchero community where horses and other hooved animals often outnumber people. I notice when school is back in session, the night sky darkens a bit more around 10 PM. During holidays people tend to stay up longer or there is more traffic which contributes to the light pollution.

Since the Super Moon had left the Milky Way is now more viewable even in cities across America from the northeast to southwest. I always recommend stepping outside and looking up a few nights a week if not every night.

Since there is an increase in light pollution over the past 40 years or so years, many of the younger generations probably has never seen the night sky in all its grandeur. Summer time is the best time to take an evening ride just to see the stars! Yes the stars!

Printable Summer Sky Map

Don’t you remember as a kid when we used to lay on our backs at night and love looking up into the night’s sky? Wasn't it exciting to see a shooting star or seeing the stars twinkle? Somehow we've all gotten away from laying on our backs in our own lawns.

The Milky Way is often the most brightest from the Northern Hemisphere but, it can be viewed in regions within the Southwest when the sky falls dark enough. That’s usually after folks and industry go to bed for the night.

The brightest part of the Milky Way is in the constellation Sagittarius. The glow of the Milky Way is actually the Sagittarius Star Cloud and its gases with mini stars and cosmos litter clustered about.

The Milky Way is just as important to me as summer gardening. It’s a time to relax and to acknowledge the Universe and to reap all of your hard work.

Most of us garden for fun, our health and for our families, friends and community. Summer gardening is hard work and it's often taken for granted by others. The Milky Way is there to reward you for just being you.

The next time you feed your dog at night, shut off the porch light and look up. Before going to bed, open up the door or pull the drapes aside and look up. It’s the small things in life like the summer sky, green grass, ripe backyard tomatoes or fresh cut flowers that makes us feel alive and are enjoy life’s little wonders.  

Mel Bartholomew Square Foot Garden - Small Space and Urban Garden Made Easy

Square foot gardening is the ultimate urban or small space garden solution.

I read a book a few years ago by Mel Bartholomew and it completely changed the way I designed many of my garden beds. I needed a solution to living in a house in Los Angeles that had a small backyard which only gave me about 10x12 foot space to garden in.

Now that I have a much large property to grow flowers and vegetables, I still use Mel's idea of square foot gardening method. I keep an above ground patio garden just outside of my kitchen door. I still grow plenty of produce in rows particularly if I want a large abundance of onions, melons, carrots, beets etc. but, my small patio garden enables me to grow all of my herbs, mesclun lettuce, a few tomatoe, pepper and a good amount of bunching onion and radish. I also like to grow unusual varieties of radish or lettuce in small amounts to see if I even like them instead of wasting time and energy in planting an entire row.

The original book that I read and still own was published in 1981. Mel has updated that book and it's now available on It's called All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. I'm excited to have purchased The Square Foot Gardening Answer Book. 


The Square foot gardener and author Mel Bartholomew also once hosted a television series on PBS public television. He created the idea of gardening in a 4′ x 4′ square area that is subdivided into a grid of sixteen 1′ squares. 

Mel’s system can be used in a raised bed or in ground garden. Square foot gardening also incorporates plants like cucumbers that grow vertical on trellises. You can easily accommodate vine vegetables as like tomatoes, beans, melons, pumpkins and squash in a square foot garden. Down below is a square foot garden chart to give you a better idea of how Mel Bartholomew's method works. His book is copyrighted and I'm not able to post his actual graphics.

His method is easy to understand and most ideal for the urban gardener who only has a small space to work with. You can grow so many vegetables, herbs and flowers within one square foot and eliminate wasted space between rows.   

Mel's books give you grids and graphs of what particular vegetables work well together in one square foot. I've used them so often that I've actually xeroxed the photos and laminated them. So when I go out to my gardens I have them on hand. 

It's amazing how he even thought about how to  incorporate root vegetables like beets into his square foot garden method. They fit nicely with lettuce that tends to grow shallow roots. He explains plants that are compatible because, they share either the same water,shade or sunshine needs.

There is another square foot garden book available written by another author named James Givens and It's only priced at $2.99 on Amazon. It has the same principles as Mel's book and shows some really good photos as well.


I recommend reading and owning Mel's or James Givens' books because of the grids and graphs listed. They're easy to read and have lot of great ideas. I keep a copy of Mel's book in my garden shed. You'll ask yourself why you didn't read this before. It's amazing how many vegetables can be produced in one square foot.

Mel Bartholomew and James Givens both have good books but, Mel writes best for beginner or novice gardener.  He's very interested in helping people who live in urban areas particularly apartments or small homes which only have a few feet available to grow anything. 

People even use Mel's square foot garden method to grow flowers, herbs and vegetables in roof top gardens. There's restaurants across the country that are using Mel's garden method on their own rooftops. 

Here's a list of restaurants using Mel's square foot garden method:

Mel also has a modest website that sort of looks like it was created back in the 90s by a part-time, high-school intern, but it offers a good overview of the square gardening system. I haven't read his new cookbook yet. If anyone has, be sure to let me know if it's worth purchasing or not. 

Square Foot Garden Planting Guide Vegetables

Square Foot Garden Planting Guide
Here's a chart to give you an idea of how many vegetables fit into a one square foot space. 

Start an Earthworm Composting Bin

Got Worms?

For an absolutely wonderful and nutrient garden soil for all of your flowers and vegetables, try giving worm composting a try. It's easy and fun. Your daily organic leftovers and a few worms will make the best compost. If you reuse or re-purpose garbage cans, storage containers or wood pallets, the only investment may be earthworms. If you're feeling adventurous, you can actually dig for free earthworms. Though, you'll need about 200 of them. 

Earthworms digest organic matter and turn it into rich castings that plans absolutely love. It's easy to start a a worm composting system. Fill a worm bin half-full with bedding such as shredded paper, leaves or leftover vegetables and mix it with some soil or even sand. Then Moisten it. 


Bury vegetable scraps, cut flowers, used coffee grounds, newspaper, cardboard, rinsed and crushed eggshells, grass clippings or other foods like expired produce in the worm bin. Add about a pound of earthworms per pound of food matter. Keep the pile moist and replenish the food every week. In a few months the compost will be ready to use. 

It's easy for a pound of worms to consume many pounds of vegetation. Earthworms can eat a few pounds of organic material overnight. You can feed your worms after you mow your grass, scraps from meals, shredded junk mail etc.

 Avoid putting citrus, dairy, meat, bones, onions and garlic, new coffee beans. These foods can actually either harm the worms or attract flies (maggots). 

Some folks don't like to put either potato or tomato plants or actual potato or tomatoes. They think if the plants were diseased it may cross contaminate the soil. 

You can worm compost all year long even if you live snow bound regions. If your garage or basement is kept at a moderate temperature 50-65F.

Be Sure to add air holes in the rubber container for air circulation.
My First Bid was made from an old Rubbermaid rubbish bin. I didn't find it large enough for my needs. I also didn't like to have to sort through it for worms either.

Drill large holes in the divider between both sides so that the worms can easily crawl through. It's easy to re-purpose and old wood pallet. You can even make 3 or 4 bins if you wanted to.  
You'll only need about 200 worms for a bin this size.

Worm composting bins can be made out of anything from garbage cans to wood pallets. 

Some folks like to use rubber garbage cans and be able to empty out the containers after most of the matter has been broken down. You'll have to sort through the compost by hand and gather the worms to begin again. Be sure to drill holes in the container for air.

I find it easier to have two compartment container. You can re-purpose an old wood pallet to make a worm bin. The divider between the two compartments should have large holes in it for worms to be able to crawl though it. 

Start by putting your organic matter or paper and soil one side. When most of the matter has been broken down by the worms. Start putting matter into the second side. The worms will actually crawl over to the fresh side. 

Wait for a few days before emptying out the first side after starting the new side. That will ensure that most of the worms crawled over to the second side with the fresh matter.

You don't have to age compost after worms have broke down all of the leaves, paper, vegetables or what ever you put into the bins. The compost is ready to use. 

It's OK if a stray worm has been left behind and it went directly into your garden. 

You can easily buy worms and worm bins directly from the manufacturers at for about $80.00. They're light weight and easy to assemble. They also look much nicer than looking at a garbage can with holes in it or home made wood pallet bins. Here's a few links for you to look at. 


Here's a really good tutorial on Youtube. You'll learn more about what to feed your worms, where to get some free coffee grounds, worm digestive system etc.


You can absolutely purchase earthworms all year round online. 200 live earthworms for under $9.00 or 900 - 1000 earthworms for $20.00


Composting using worms is easy and fun. It's a great learning experience for kids plus it's down right cool to them. There's nothing more exciting than ordering live earthworms. The anticipation of opening the box is downright fun whether you're an adult or a 12 year old kid. 

The ultimate benefit to using a worm compost bin is that it's a much quicker solution than having to keep churning and turning over organic matter in a traditional compost bin. 

Traditional composting can be quite heavy for those who don't have much arm strength. With traditional composting you're always having to turn over the matter. When composting using a worm bin, the worms do the work for you. 

Give worm composting a try. If you don't like it, you can always return your worms to the wild by putting them into your garden beds.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

President George Washington Mt. Vernon and an old Tulip Poplar Tree

Ok, we all know the story about young George Washington cutting down the cherry tree but, did You Know that still standing at President George Washington's Mt. Vernon Estate is one of his favorite trees? 

Our beloved President Washington truly enjoyed the tulip poplar tree. It's affectionately named for its tulip shaped, greenish-yellow to orange flowers. 

This is one of two Tulip Poplar trees George planted in 1785 in his front yard (President Washington died in 1799). The long front yard was designed to create a grand entrance to the mansion as travelers came up. The yard was called a bowling green, where games could be played. It was lined with trees, including these two tulip poplars, on either side of the green to gradually narrow towards the house from both sides to direct attention to the grand house.

The tulip poplar is easily recognized by its beautiful late spring flower show and its almost equally vibrant fall colors. This tree is the tallest of North American hardwoods. It often grows up to 100 feet or more and it's used in making furniture, cabinetry, musical instruments, and wood veneer. 

In the early history of the United States, tulip poplar trees grew to be giants up to 200 feet tall or more! It's most known on the Eastern sea board and is most loved for its large, yellow and orange tulip shaped flowers. The flowers often bloom in May and early June. The trees are absolutely stunning. You can see them from afar. 

Tulip poplar trees grow in a pyramidal shape when young and oval at maturity. They absolutely maintains their beauty throughout the year. Summer leaves are shimmering green, fall foliage is bright gold, and they attract wildlife galore! They also have a small fruit which remains on the trees long into the winter. 
The natural location of this hardy, long-lived tree is throughout the Eastern US, from southern New England, and Michigan, southward between the coast and the Mississippi River to Louisiana and the northern half of Florida. Tulip poplar are also called Tuliptree. They're so attractive, easy to grow and are great in large landscapes and parks. when enough space is available for so grand a tree. (Grows in hardiness zones 4 to 9.)

President George Washington's  Mt. Vernon, Virginia Home
Mt. Vernon lower garden

If you've never seen one in person, do a Google search. They're very beautiful and to see one in person is awesome and truly moving. Tulip poplar are of American history. They're part of the American quilt. They're also an honored tree in some prestigious gardens of Europe. 
The lumber industry often calls them yellow-poplar. They're perfect for making furniture or even boats. In Tennessee they're called canoe wood because Native Americans and early settlers carved canoes from its light, buoyant trunks.
A cool fact is that woodsman and frontiersman Daniel Boone chose such a canoe to carry his own family from Kentucky to the western frontier. Whether you call them tulip poplar, tulip tree, canoe wood they're historically known for having a wide range of medicinal uses. They're leaves, sap, bark, seeds and pollen are made into teas, ointments, salves, compresses, powders, liquid solutions etc.

George Washington admired this tree because of it's beauty, it's tall stature, medicinal properties and the advantage to attracting wildlife at Mt. Vernon. The still living giant tulip poplar that he and his family planted in 1785 is being selected as Mount Vernon’s official Bicentennial Tree. 
Trees and shrubs can are just as much of a historical icon as a person or place in America. Other trees still in existence planted by then General Washington are pecan, walnut and chinquapin oak trees. 
Each year over one million people visit Mt. Vernon for its gardens, agriculture and horticulture before wanting to see the actual house tour. For more information about Mt. Vernon, President George Washington, historical collections and education research visit:

Consider this all-American classic tree if you reside in hardiness zone 4 - 9 and you have enough space for one of these grand trees.