I learned a new word last week, chitting.
No, this isn't a sneaky way to curse in print. This is actually a term used when pre-starting seed potatoes before they go into the ground.
Let me explain.
One of my favorite gardeners, teacher and writer Barbara Damrosh, has a weekly column on Thursdays in the Washington Post. The column can be found on the Internet by going to the Web site www.fourseasonfarm.com and clicking on the link on the left side of the page ''Barbara's column.'' It's called ''A Cook's Garden.''
Gardeners and garden writers are inspired by each other, and I was inspired by her recent column about starting seed potatoes, so I ordered a few pounds for my vegetable garden. I also was inspired to try this method of chitting, which basically accomplishes two things; it gets an early start on potato production, and it tests the seed potatoes for viability. In addition, it's pretty easy.
I'm sure I'm not the only person to have planted two or three rows of potatoes, only to find them emerge from the ground sporadically here and there. Some of the tubers will rot under the soil and some wouldn't have grown regardless, which brings me to another one of Barbara's recent columns on soil temperature. Did I tell you she was my new hero?
Potatoes are so important to our lives that not only have they kept entire civilizations from starvation, but their failure also has caused starvation. Remember the Irish potato famine of 1845? Potatoes are so important that they even have their own national day, Oct. 27.
Potatoes usually are planted about two weeks prior to our last frost date. That's the end of the first week of May around here. Any earlier and the seed potatoes could rot in the still too wet, cold ground. Any later and you might not get a good harvest since most potato varieties need about 90 to 110 days to mature. But according to Damrosh, you can get a head start on potatoes by spreading the young seed potatoes in a single layer on a pan and leaving them in a place where the air circulates freely and the light is bright, but filtered. A nice warm window should do the trick where the sun warms up the seeds to at least 70 degrees, which brings up the whole temperature thing again. According to Damrosh, in another column, soil temperatures of around 45 degrees are fine for planting potatoes in the garden. This doesn't mean the outside air temperature is 45 degrees, because soil is much cooler than the air. To be sure, get a soil thermometer if you are that particular.
When I was a child, my parents and grandparents would sit on the porch on a warm spring day and cut their seed potatoes into sections. My grandmother would say, ''Be sure to leave at least two eyes on each piece.'' The eyes are the little buds on the tuber from which stems will grow and eventually push their way out of the soil. No eyes means no potato plant above ground and ultimately no potatoes.
Damrosh, however, wrote in her column that she plants her seed potatoes whole, about 12 inches apart and only as deep as her fist. I can picture her grasping a small round potato in her hand and thrusting it into the soft, loamy soil.
We've planted potatoes many different ways. Our grandparents dug trenches and as the potato plants grew, they hilled the soil up around the plants. There's a good reason for this, as potato tubers should be beneath the soil. Tubers that are exposed to sunlight turn green. The green is simply chlorophyll, but green on a potato means that spot contains a concentrated amount of the toxin, solanine, which can be harmful in large amounts. I've purchased potatoes from the grocery store that have a tinge of green on their skins, but simply cut away the green part and the rest is entirely edible. Besides, it's bitter tasting.
One season, my husband simply placed the seed potatoes on top of the soil and covered them with several layers of straw and the plants grew up through. To harvest, he simply pulled the straw away and all the wonderful potatoes were lying there on top of the ground. A friend of ours planted her potatoes in a new, galvanized trash can. Another planted potatoes directly in a 40-pound bag of compost. I enjoy hearing of all the tried and sometimes true methods of potato planting.
According to Damrosh, chitting enables us to see which potatoes are going to sprout. By tossing out those that don't or those that produce weak sprouts, we can avoid having those gaps in our rows. I like that idea. So much so that I ordered my potatoes from Wood Prairie Farm on her recommendation, including two varieties she mentioned for early new potatoes, Rose Gold and Prairie Blush. I also ordered Yukon Gold because they are one of my favorite varieties, which I'm happy to say is now available in grocery stores.
My mother used to tell me if I didn't clean my ears, I would grow potatoes in there. I'm not sure where that came from, but I am sure that potatoes are on my list of great garden vegetables this season.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.