Gauthier: Eyes on the prize

Deborah E. Gauthier

I'm trying something new in my vegetable garden this year. I'm growing potatoes. I hope.

I'd always thought potatoes were difficult to grow. I'm here in this country, after all, because of ancestors who fled Ireland during the Great Potato Famine. Not that I remember anyone talking about the difficult years in Ireland. The stories I heard were about the difficult years here. The indignity of the "Irish need not apply" attitude. The absurd notion that every Irishman is a drunk.

Those days are gone and almost forgotten. No one blinks at the last name of Ryan or O'Brien. Those monikers are as common as corn beef and cabbage; clam chowder and clam cakes; eggs and ham. And most everyone proudly claims to have a wee bit of the Irish in them on March 17.

Today, the biased are critical of foreigners with last names like Lopez or Rodriguez. They, even those who are American citizens, are branded as illegal immigrants in this country for easy money, and free education and health care.

Just as the Irish were, this new generation of immigrants will one day be assimilated  into the American melting pot, but not without the prejudice and hate that seems, unfortunately, to be a prerequisite to that acceptance.

My grandmother from the Canadian side of my many-faceted ancestry, who immigrated to this country with my grandfather 80 years ago, when she was 18, set me straight about potatoes. She grew up on a working potato farm. It wasn't an easy life, but the potatoes grew just fine.

It's one of her stories that makes me want to grow potatoes, one I heard years ago as a child when she described how one potato plant yields many, many potatoes. One must carefully dig around the plant so as not to damage the hidden tubers.

Getting started, though, has been a challenge.

Several Web sites I visited suggested buying seed potatoes which are treated to reduce the risk of disease. Treated by what? Chemicals, I presume.

I'd like my first foray to potato land to be successful, so I put aside concerns over treated seeds. Seed potatoes, however, are hard to find.

The owner of one of the more prominent nurseries in my neck of the woods said they used to carry them, but demand was such that they rotted in the bin. Another nearby nursery said they stopped carrying them years ago. "Could I interest you in some onions?" she asked.

My daughter insisted seed potatoes were sold at the nursery/gardening supply store in neighboring Rhode Island where she purchases feed for her chickens. None. "I swear they had a barrel of them here last week," she said.

Maybe they did. I got started a little late. Experienced potato growers know that potatoes like the cool spring earth.

Buy them online, said my husband, and that's what I'd planned to do until I explained the seed dilemma to my grandmother.

She gave me an incredulous look. "Don't you have potatoes?" she asked. "Of course I do," I answered. Potatoes are a staple for this mongrel woman raised by an full-fledged Irish woman. It doesn't matter how they're prepared - baked, boiled, mashed, scalloped, fried; hot, cold, raw - I like them all.

"Just use the potatoes you have," said my grandmother. "Cut them into a few pieces; just make sure each piece has an eye."

So that's what I did.

Following her directions, I pushed well-worked loam into hills and planted pieces of potato 2 inches deep into each hill. I've tried to keep the ground moist - rather impossible during the four days of unusually high temperatures we've just experienced.

It's been almost two weeks. My peas are flowering; my green beans, cucumbers, and carrots are sprouting; the tomatoes I started from seed and planted outside when just an inch high are flourishing.

So far, however, not a peep from my potatos.

Deb Gauthier can be reached at