Tater Tots (as in Potato Thoughts) about Tater Tats (as in Potato Tattoos)

Well, now that the Winter Olympics are over, I can get back to blogging.  It was really wonderful to dig into the amazing athleticism…while lounging on my couch!, but having given my eyes a tremendous workout watching, it’s high time to give the fingers their due and return to typing blog posts.
I came back from the Flower and Garden Show in Seattle two weekends ago with a bag full of seed potatoes from the Ellensburg, WA outfit Irish Eyes, which always has a booth at the show.  One of the things I like best about the show are the floor specials and the lack of shipping.  I bought potato seed at a discount rate and didn’t pay a dime to have them shipped.    From the savings just on potatoes alone, I paid my way into the show that day.  Sweet!

“Seed” potatoes in their cute, mesh bags and ready for some sunbathing au naturel.

The one downside of all that spudly financial savvy is that it’s too early to plant potatoes here in Portland, OR.  Over the past few years I’ve learned the hard way that no matter how much one saves buying potatoes early, it can all be lost while waiting for planting time.  For example, the potatoes I bought come in small, plastic mesh bags.  They’re breathable and airy, and I’m sure that’s just what those taters need for storage, but it turns out the little holes in the mesh are also just the right size to let sprouts grow through if they are stored in the warm dark – as in a room temperature closet, drawer, shelf, or paper bag…the places where you usually store stuff you don’t need at the moment.  Believe me, once they have a thousand sprouts sticking out of the mesh, it’s nigh impossible to get the seed potatoes out without breaking all the sprouts.  Will that ruin the potato seed?  No, but it will result in the proliferation of new sprouts, and according to the Irish Eyes website (http://info.irisheyesgardenseeds.com/index.php/growing-potatoes) this means more vines and smaller potatoes at harvest time.
The remedy?  Take the potatoes out of the bags as soon as you get them home and put some light on them.  A source of light plus the warmth of room temperature prevents the tubers from making those weak sprouts and instead encourages a few stocky sprouts near the top of the tuber.  By doing this one is essentially jump-starting the tuber to turn from a storage organ into production engine.  The “seed” directs its energy into a few vigorous sprouts which virtually spring out of the ground at planting time.  This whole process goes under the rather folksy name of “chittin'”, which sounds more authentic if you say it with a long stalk of grass in your mouth and a straw hat on.

Potatoes receive a months-long interrogation under these harsh, naked bulbs.  Will they break down and later give us all we want?  Hopefully.  Notice the bleak surroundings meant to humiliate them.

Now isn’t it the perversity of life when one problem’s solution generates yet another problem?  To prevent the sprouting problem, which I described above, I empty the potatoes from their mesh bags onto planting trays and put them under my fluorescent lights just as though they were seedlings.  While some potatoes look distinctly different, I discovered that many are remarkably similar, so similar that I am sometimes unable to distinguish them once they get mixed on the tray, even though I was sure I perceived a slight tint of color in the bag that set them apart from the other varieties.  While this confusion does not impair their ability to grow, it may impair my ability to later discern what variety was what and what I had planted where.  To solve that problem (and hopefully not generate another) I borrowed an idea from  garlic growers, who apparently suffer the same confusion when planting multiple varieties, which more or less look alike as heads.  They take a marker and mark a letter or two on the outer skin, so from harvest to next season’s planting, the head maintains its varietal identity.  This year as I released my little “dogies” from their mesh “pens” onto their aluminum planting trays to “pasture” in the fluorescent sun for a while,  I “branded” each one with a permanent marker so I could id them when the “cows come home”.  So I guess besides being a bumpkin potato chitter, I’m also a potato cowboy!  Yeehaw!

Some fairly similar looking, roundish potatoes.  Despite the attempt to keep them separate with their tags nearby, just one jostle of the tray could cause confusion and consternation in the gardener.  Note that each potato has been marked with a one or two letter id in permanent marker.  Now no worries about jostling!

Or maybe it’s a more urban metaphor I need to employ for understanding this activity.  It seems fitting that in Portland, OR, tattoo capital of the world,  even veggies can have tats! So I guess my seed room just became a skin art parlor.
 Country hick, cow poke, urban hipster – I’ll be whatever’s required to grow great potatoes.

When potatoes are distinctly different, like these roundish Yukon Gems and the knobbly Ozettes, one can dispense with the marking system.  After all, there are residents of Portland, like this writer, who don’t have tattoos.