Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hope Springs Eternal

or The Little Potato That Could Couldn't Hasn't So Far

Sometimes potatoes just go overboard with optimism.  Take this one, for example:

Nov. 24, 2011

I planted it five years ago, in the bed that now holds the Sad Sand Cherry but at the time was home to a Truly Miserable Golden Currant (Ribes aureum x Tristissimus).  The idea—brilliant, so far as it went—was to grow the potatoes just inside what would become the currant's drip line once it matured.  In the meantime the spuds would fill a large space in the infant garden with swaths of greenery, practically for free.  Since I would be giving the new plantings extra water anyway, the potatoes would get all they needed to flourish.  Gently unearthing the tubers with a small garden fork at season's end would loosen the compacted soil again, and the currant's roots would have an easy time spreading into that area their second year.  And then there would be potatoes to eat. 

The delicate bubble of genius, alas, was no match for the freshly sharpened tungsten carbide circular sawblade of reality.  The potato leafhoppers moved in for the kill, drat them, and none of the potatoes survived for more than a month or two.  That fall I planted other things in their place and then forgot about the potatoes altogether.  Great was my surprise the following spring, when one little spud sent up a hopeful shoot amid the tulips and yarrow.  It grew in a small (3- or 4-inch) way until June, when the heat and aridity (and leafhoppers) proved too much for it.  Then it withered sadly away, to hoard its resources for the following spring.

Every year since then, it has done the same thing.  I have begun to look forward to seeing the potato raise its little hand every spring, in the way that normal other people look forward to the first lily or allium leaves.  I cheer it on but don't give it any extra water, which by now its xeric neighbors would resent.  The leaves always die away again in a few weeks.

Lately the tenacious tuber has changed tactics.  If summer is too hot and dry, it seems to be thinking, then why not come up in the fall?  A few weeks ago, in a bed that by now is in deep shade, this frost-sensitive, sun-loving plant began sending up a hopeful shoot.  I showed it the calendar, with the average first frost date marked in red; I showed it the blackened basil and marigold leaves in the garden's less protected places, to no avail.  Sometimes a potato just will not recognize the difference between hope and denial.  It will not be discouraged.

Nov. 29, 2011

At least, not until it's too late.


  1. I wiped away a tear at the cruelty of a world that does not allow for the survival of a lone tenacious tuber. (It was better than Cats.)

  2. SO funny! Love the tenacity. Isn't that potato just like us die hard gardeners though? We KNOW that the deer love the ninebarks (Physocarpus), yet we still grow them in deer-happy country assuming that perhaps they won't notice this one.

  3. I think your tattle plant gets an "A" for effort. Isn't nature amazing in the way it grasps every opportunity just in case this is the time and the place?

  4. These kind of stories are my favorite thing about gardening. The hope and creativity and tenacity of plants!

  5. Stacy - I assume that you checked for potatoes beneath ? Could it be possible that it saved its energy to produce potatoes instead of leaves ?

  6. We had a volunteer potato. I saw the leaves. But never did look to see what lurks beneath ... Your poor little embattled potato, sob.

  7. Plants are much like people - they fight death, and want to live. I have a mandevilla that I dug out several years ago (besides, it shouldn't be winter hardy here), and I noticed this week that it has sent up a shoot and is blooming! I haven't the heart to kill it again!

  8. Hope does spring eternal...a lesson in tenacity...did it ever have potatoes?

  9. "freshly sharpened tungsten carbide circular sawblade of reality"


    Enough said...


  10. It's sad, Kathy, the way potatoes' hopes and dreams get crushed. You almost don't want to bring young potatoes into the world at all. ::sniff::

    Baffled, this potato has had more than its share of hard knocks. Maybe they're building its character.

    Karen, it is just like us—the little part that is sure that this time will be the exception. Of course, if you plant enough of the ninebarks, maybe the deer will just lose track of which ones they have or haven't bothered... My own favorite way to tempt fate is to plant things too close together—surely 12” is close enough to being 18?

    I will put a little sign out for it, Janet, with a big “A” to encourage it to even greater efforts next year. It's hard to believe that a plant can change its whole growing cycle to respond to different conditions.

    Sheila, just that plants come up with new “strategies” when the first one didn't work is astonishing—it's the kind of thing you expect in an animal, but not so much in a spud.

  11. b-a-g, I haven't checked in the last three years or so—by now other plants' roots have spread into the potato patch and I'm just concerned that they'll get damaged. There might well be a whole colony of potatoes setting up shop...

    With your frost-free winters, Diana, you really might end up with a colony of potatoes! (I don't actually have any idea whether that matters in the long run to potatoes or not.) On behalf of the embattled potato, I thank you kindly for your sympathy.

    Holley, when something (that isn't a weed) struggles as hard against the odds as your mandevilla must have, it has earned the right to live! It's hard not to love an underdog that triumphs (no matter how inconveniently...).

    Donna, it hadn't the last time I checked, but that's been several years ago. The next time the yarrow growing next to it needs divided and I'm digging around anyway, I'll see what all it's accomplished.

    Mark, the description might be a little over the top for potato leafhoppers...

  12. I guess we shout root it on, poor little guy. Funny story though.

  13. However careful I am, however much time I spend searching for tiny little tubers, I always leave some little spuds behind when harvesting. The following year I have a potato plant or two sidling up against a leek, a courgette or a sweet corn plant. Leave one or two behind and they won't be denied their moment in the sun (or frost).

  14. Oh, Donna, that one hurt. Why I didn't see that pun coming I don't know...

    Dave, I didn't realize potatoes could overwinter like that--they didn't in Vermont, but winters there were a whole different ballgame. If only I'd had the sense to plant them in a vegetable bed, like you seem to have done... Must make crop rotation tricky; on the other hand, you have everything you need for leek and potato soup all in one convenient place!