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Homegrown potatoes are fun to select, easy to plant and delicious to eat

Like everything grown in the backyard, homegrown potatoes are the best - fresh and crispy. For the garden chef, growing your own offers a continual supply, from the midspring harvest of baby new potatoes to the end-of-the-season summer harvest of plump spuds. Harvesting potatoes is like collecting eggs from the nest box or pulling a carrot or garlic from the earth - it's a delightful surprise every time.

Growing potatoes is easy using the mulch method, in which seed potatoes (organic potatoes or certified seed potatoes) are set on top of the soil and covered with straw. Roots from the potatoes grow down into the earth to receive nourishment, foliage grows up through the straw to receive the sun's energy, and the potatoes grow freely and cleanly between the soil and the mulch.

This method is especially good if the planting area is shallow, rocky or compacted. The mulch actually conditions the soil beneath it while the potatoes grow.

To find good potatoes to plant, you need only look to your local natural food store for organic potatoes. If you find a potato that tastes especially delicious, purchase extras to plant. If you find potatoes sprouting in your pantry, plant those too! Plant them in a bed or tuck them here and there in the garden.

Grocery-store potatoes, unless they are organic, are not a good bet. Most of them have been treated with a growth inhibitor so they won't sprout in the store. They won't grow either. These are dead potatoes and if used in cooking, must be peeled very well to remove the treated potato skin.

Many prefer to plant certified seed potatoes. These are disease-free potatoes selected to give the best results and the highest yields. They are for sale through March in local nurseries.

There are red potatoes, and purple and blue potatoes that have pink, purple and blue flowers instead of the traditional white. Among the many varieties available, the must-haves include:

• Yukon Gold's rich and buttery, yellow flesh is perfect for scalloping, mashing, frittatas and potato salads.

• Russian Banana Fingerlings become chewy on the outside and creamy on the inside after roasting.

• Russets, lovely dry and floury potatoes, have a special sweetness when homegrown and are wonderful for baking and cottage potatoes.

Choose potatoes now and begin to sprout them indoors until it is warm enough to plant them outdoors. Set them in a basket or on a plate in front of a warm, sunny window. You may be lucky and find sprouts growing from the potatoes before it is time to plant them.

Some say to plant potatoes on St. Patrick's Day, others say to plant when the dandelions bloom. A good way to decide is to grab a handful of soil. If it is cold and wet, the potatoes may rot. Wait until early spring when the soil is cool or warm and it holds together when squeezed but crumbles apart when your hand is opened. The potatoes will take off and grow quickly.

Potatoes are in and out of the ground so quickly there isn't really time for a pest or disease problem to develop. Organically grown vegetables have fewer pest problems because the plants are strong and healthy. A backyard crop interplanted with flowers and other vegetables won't attract pests as easily as a large field of potatoes.

If you discover slugs or snails among your sprouts, lift the straw mulch in areas around plants and sprinkle with organic Sluggo, or go on Snail Patrol a couple of nights in a row at 11 p.m. Both methods work great. You can plant a second crop of potatoes as late as mid-June for a winter harvest.

Jody Main is a local organic food and garden writer, educator and consultant. Her class "Homegrown Organic Salads" is scheduled 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. March 31 at Common Ground in Palo Alto.

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