If something is no longer welcome in my pantry, it falls to me to remove it. This task can be harrowing, amusing, gross, annoying, but last year, it also led me to my spirit vegetable. I discovered potatoes tucked away for so long ago that they’d sprouted not just budding eyes, but long, pale, crooked root fingers.
It’s hard to find yourself in the dark with a well-sprouted potato and not run. Things that are designed to grow underground seem to write their own morbid jokes.
When I was brave enough to return to the pantry, I brought the potatoes out into the light. They were alarmingly shriveled, but the skeletal sprouts hadn’t given up. They’d obviously crept one way, in search of light, then changed course, inadvertently lacing themselves together.
For the novice tuber farmer, the potato’s progress is impossible to gauge.
I cut the potatoes apart, leaving a chunk of interior attached to the base of each eye and finger. They weren’t like the usual starting points for my garden. They weren’t seeds, and those ugly root fingers didn’t exactly qualify them as plants either. I didn’t know what to expect.
My garden empire covers distinct plant communities at varying distances from the hose spigot. “Under the Tree” is one region. “Under the Other Tree,” another. “Where There Used to be Asphalt” is a third, and “Where There Still Is,” a fourth. “Close to the House” is the fifth. Each is inhabited by multiple plant species that I’m forcing to either learn to compromise over sunlight and water or die negotiating.
I chose close in for the potato experiment, burying bits and sprouts where I could keep an eye on them from my chair. They got turtle water from the aquarium, which I believe is a delicacy among plants. Some even got an initial sprinkle of fertilizer meant as encouragement, until I ran out.
After planting came the powerless wait, when magic and Google come into play. Do potatoes even grow in Southern California? Can they be tricked into thinking this is the Idaho of the West Coast? Did my potato bits just go into the soil and rot? There’s a tricky line between planting and composting.
If there hadn’t been distractions elsewhere in the garden and the world, the wait would have been agony. Even so, when it’s easy to cheat, it’s hard not to. So early on, I dug in to peek. My justification was that the growing season had begun and the potatoes were in prime real estate. If they weren’t going to make a serious go of this, I’d get someone else in there. Cucumbers, maybe.
I uncovered a few signs that the potato remnants were working on something green. So I tucked everything back in and sneaked away, assuring myself that there’s hope until there’s not.
When green tips finally appeared, they weren’t precisely where I planted them, and they didn’t all show up at once. It was clear some of the potatoes felt at home and others didn’t, but eventually the potato bed was gorgeous with strong, determined plants, their heads high and arms raised in celebration.
Still, I wondered what was going on, out of sight, underground. I hoped that as the top goes, so go the roots. But the underworld has its terrors and challenges. Gophers sometimes zigzag across my yard. Slugs, grubs, roly-polys, earwigs and mysterious minuscule life forms were down there living their inexplicable lives. Perhaps, like me, with a taste for spuds.
Up here in the light, we can watch tomatoes and berries ripen and squeeze tangerines while they’re still on the tree. But for the novice tuber farmer, the potato’s progress is impossible to gauge. I’d grown carrots, so I knew a little about produce with a punchline. But the main thing I’d grown that was essentially invisible till the end was children.
The waterer (me) got preoccupied; a migraine, a funeral, deadlines. When the first heat hit, several potato plants fainted. But tiny lavender flowers with yellow centers appeared one morning, then twisted closed at night. Then hungry creatures shredded leaves. And, with subsequent heat waves, even the heartiest stalks keeled over, pale and defeated.
It was a ghastly scene. I didn’t know if the carnage was premature or on schedule, particularly brutal or as expected. I suspected I’d been wrong to try to make potatoes live their sweet lives in my hot dry yard.
When I could approach the havoc, I discovered a potato crowning! I worked it loose. A perfect, potato-shaped potato, with a potato-y heft and texture and scent! I dug deeper, and beautiful potatoes tumbled out of the ground into my hands.
Even now, the ones that insinuated themselves deeply enough underground have sent up a bright new generation of clones. Theirs is a story with no beginning and no ending, and that gives me courage, faith in the future. Potatoes and potatoes forevermore.
Amy Koss is a contributing writer to Opinion.
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