Garden Spotlight: Planting Potatoes


Front and center, from 2018: two months after planting, the plants reached full size.
After the plants flower, I finger around them in search of new potatoes, taking care not to disturb the plants. Pulling out the treasures I find, I scrape the dirt back in place and the other potatoes keep growing.

Potatoes are among my favorites to grow. The plants grow large and beautiful. They usually are not bothered by bugs or worms. The first potatoes can be harvested by midsummer. New potatoes have a freshness you can only know when you’ve had them. And the last of the spuds store for many weeks—usually into December—simply by placing them in the basement.

Because potatoes grow in the soil, the ground is more important for these plants than for many. Potatoes benefit from lighter, looser soil. My dad always said they did well where I grew up, in West Michigan, because the soil was on the sandy side.

In Indianapolis, the soil in my garden is the opposite of sandy. It leans toward the clayish side. The first year I grew potatoes, I learned the hard truth of the hard earth: all of my potatoes were small. My spuds were duds.

I am working on my soil, rototilling leaves into the garden every autumn. In my fourth year, the organic material has made the soil lighter and healthier, but it will take several years to dramatically alter the ground. Because I love growing my own potatoes, I don’t want to wait. Last year, I tried to give them a boost. It helped.

I dedicated my compost to the potatoes. I placed each seed potato on top of a pile of compost. Compost is arier. Softer. This allowed the spuds to sprout more easily.

While the potatoes that grew to the sides of the plant still grew into harder soil, overall they did better. I saw an increase in both the size and the yield. They didn’t do as well as my Michigan gardens, but they were better than in 2017.

What follows, in photos, is how on April 9 I planted the first of this year’s potatoes. So that they don’t all come at once, I’ll plant more later.

Our leaves and kitchen scraps go from the bin at left into the composter. Three times a year, the stuff decomposes enough for me to use in the garden.
Top right: I place the tarp under my composter, spilling the contents onto it. The tarp drags easily from backyard to front.
Center: I dug the row a bit deeper than usual, to accomodate a layer of compost.

Potatoes act as seeds. Growth stems from the eyes (circled). Each section of potato needs to have at least one eye or, ahem, it can’t see its way to growing.
I shoveled the compost into the trench so that it was a few inches deep, then placed the seed potatoes 12-15 inches apart.
I barely covered the potatoes. As they sprout and grow, I will continually mound the leftover dirt, which is to the left of the row, to keep growing potatoes from popping above the soil. By not dumping all of the soil on top of the seeds, I hope to keep the ground from compacting too much and getting too hard.
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Garden Spotlight: Compost

Six.  That is the number of places I have lived for more than one year.  It’s also the number of places I have kept a compost pile.

Thanks, Dad.

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Pile.  That’s the word for it.  No matter the way one’s kitchen-, garden-, and yard refuse is kept—such as seen, below, as I now toss it inside some fencing—it’s a compost pile.

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Last autumn, after I rototilled back yard leaves into my garden, I tossed the rest onto my compost pile.  By spring, they had reduced by half.  After using them two times in my composter, they were almost gone.  When I empty and refill the composter this autumn, the bin will be empty and ready for this year’s leaves.

Don’t let this short-of-glorious word, pile, give any less than impressive impressions, because what eventually emerges from the pile is worth more than its weight in pizza.

Tending the pile as Dad used to—which was the way I did it until some friends offered the composter, seen in the photos, which they no longer used—occasionally turning it over, introducing air and moisture to what is underneath, produced black, rich, decomposed matter in a year.

Using the composter, I have been getting three loads a year.  I snapped the shot, below, after refilling the composter in August, only the second time I took from it after filling it to the brim last autumn.

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What goes on the pile?

All of our kitchen scraps, including coffee grounds (filter, too) and egg shells, go into the bucket that we keep under the sink.  No meat, fat, dairy, or mixed matter goes into it.

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“Doesn’t it smell?”  I’ve received that question many times.  Because it’s all vegetable matter, it does not create a stink.  Rarely, when working at my compost pile, do I smell anything.

There are other items which I do not compost.  From the garden, I don’t put in full plants when they are done producing.  Yes, they will decompose, but because of their size and composition—many stalks have a woody quality—they take too long to break down.  I also do not compost flower plants.

I do not put oak leaves on my pile.  While I have recently learned that they are not as acidic as I had been told years ago, they decompose slowly.  So, the leaves from our front yard oak get bagged and hauled away.  Our back yard has two maples, a beech, and a tulip tree, and those leaves decompose nicely.  In the autumn, I cover the garden with a few inches of them and rototill them in.  When I rototill in the spring, they are almost totally broken down and mixed into the soil.  The rest of the leaves go on the compost pile to get mixed in with the vegetable matter.

Why bother with composting?

When I got my own home, my first garden already existed.  The woman had been known for her lovely yard.  I was the happy inheritor of her good work and the healthy soil she maintained.  Dad suggested where my compost could go, and I was on my way.

Every other place I have lived, I have had to create my garden from the lawn.  The soil has ranged from pretty decent, to quite hard, to a lot of clay.  After rototilling it many times, I was able to garden in it, but it needed a boost.

Decomposed vegetable matter does many good things.  It is lighter in nature, so when it is mixed with dirt it helps loosen it and keep it from getting so hard.  This requires patience; the process takes several years.  I had thirteen years of gardens in Port Hope.  Man, did I have that soil in great condition.

I did a test this year, to prove to myself how much help my composted material provides.  Last year, my potatoes did not do well.  The plants and spuds did not grow large, and many of the potatoes were poorly shaped.  The ground was too hard.  This year, I dug extra large holes for the seed potatoes and plopped in a nice amount of compost—which looked exactly like the stuff, below—and then placed the seed into it.

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Before I ever dug a spud, I was confident that my trick had worked because the plants grew tall and thick, as I was used to them doing.  And, sure enough, each plant gave me a good number of potatoes, many of which were nice and large.

The other important reason for putting decomposed material into one’s garden is the number of nutrients provided.  Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are the three major nutrients.  Thus, compost provides natural fertilizer.

You need not be vegetable gardener to benefit from composting.  Any gardens—and what homeowner doesn’t have flowers and shrubs adoring their yard?—will benefit.  One can keep a small compost pile in an out-of-the-way spot in the yard.  It takes little maintenance and little space.

If you are a conscientious recycler of plastics and such, think of composting as recycling vegetable scraps.  That’s exactly what it is, recycling what came from the earth back to the earth.

Not only do you receive benefit, it’s good for the world.

The last straw

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This spring, Julie and I dined at a restaurant which had joined the as-yet-unknown-to-us movement to get rid of plastic straws.  A sign announced that they would not bring a straw with your drink, but they were available for the asking.

We found it a great idea. I wondered why, for those who prefer a straw, we couldn’t go back to paper ones.  (Remember those?  I had forgotten that for years we used paper straws.)

But do we need a straw, at all?  The next time we dined out, the young lady brought straws.  We mentioned the new movement, indicating that she could take those two straws back with her.

I always used a straw to keep the ice at bay. The couple of times we’ve dined out, since learning of the push to get rid of plastic straws and the bane they are, along with all the other single-use plastic which clogs our landfills and pollutes our water, I’ve sipped my restaurant water directly from the cup. Somehow, I’ve survived.

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We own these metal straws, Julie’s choice for using with her metal (not plastic!) water bottle.

Regarding plastic bags, some cities have enacted ordinances banning those. Debate amongst yourselves the merits of this ban as I tell you that when Julie and I married in 2001 she already was taking cloth bags to stores. I had not been doing that, and immediately—and easily!—made the switch.

The key, of course, is to remember to take them. A decade ago, we switched to the ChicoBag, as pictured here. Julie found these bags and our church school sold them as a fundraiser. We bought the leftover bags. When folks have admired them, we’ve given them a bag, hoping to get them hooked.

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Here’s why you want to invest in ChicoBag. They are super-durable. We’ve yet to cause a tear in one. We cram them full, weigh them down, and try to stress them out. They’ve handled everything.

They take up little room. We stuff five bags into one, and they still take up little room. And, to be sure we always have them with us, we stuff the stuffed bag into the pocket of the passenger-side front seat—the pocket that is attached to the back of the seat. It didn’t take long for it to become routine, when heading to a store, to reach over and pull those out, put them on the front seat, and remember to take them into the store.

Of course, on occasion, we wind up with plastic bags. We use them in many ways, as most folks do. At times, they go into the recycle bin. In Indianapolis, one has to pay for recycling. We gladly do, finding it an important thing to do.

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I empty the blue recycling basket several times a week, while the garbage can takes two weeks to fill.

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It only seems right that a two car family would also be a two bin family!  I like that the recycling bin is pretty close to my home state University of Michigan’s maize and blue.

We separate so much garbage that we only put out the regular trash bin every-other week. The recycle bin fills up much more quickly. Besides plastic, paper, cardboard, and glass going in there, our kitchen scraps—veggies and coffee grounds and eggshells—go into the bucket, below, then onto our compost heap. At least twice a year, I empty our compost bin. The compost goes into the garden, strengthening and refreshing the soil.

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The bucket is stored under our kitchen sink.  You might be wondering: doesn’t it stink?  Because it contains no meat, it rarely stinks.  I wash the bucket every few loads, to stave off a foul odor.

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The compost is tossed onto the heap, where it mingles with some of last autumn’s leaves.  When I empty the bin, at right, where the compost is doing what Beethoven did with music he didn’t like—decomposing—I refill it from the heap.  Last autumn, the heap was at the top of the fence.

If you are thinking that plastic straws don’t take up much room, I hope you will ponder their cumulative effect.  Then add bags.  And containers.  And the many and various one-use plastic things that go from store, to home, to landfill.

I never considered myself a super-environmentally-friendly person, but, perhaps, I am.  While I am not in the camp which thinks that global warming is destined to kill us off, neither am I with those who insist that it’s not a thing.  My attitude toward the world is biblical; we are to be good stewards of it.  Julie and I are purposeful in these matters.  I hope that you are, too.

We, the average consumer, have more power than we might think in the pursuit of a healthy world.  Now, if you will excuse me, I have potatoes to dig—potatoes which grew larger than last year, as, when planting, I filled each hole with fresh compost, which I made myself.

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I spaced my rows the usual 2 1/2 feet.  The potatoes grew so large that they fell over into the row.  Oh, baby, I can’t wait to dig me some spuds!

Meet my dad

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My dad.  That’s me, next to him.

As my father would have turned ninety this St. Patrick’s Day—typical German, trampling on another country’s pride!—he’s on my mind. Here are some of the things I hold most precious about him.

Reminiscing is an activity of affirmation. Sure, I could recount some of Dad’s weaknesses, but those are easily overcome by his strengths, the things which made him a person who was of value to many. I gladly ignore the lesser things to promote the greater.

Besides, my father gave me so much. In many ways, he gave me exactly what my mother gave—a good work ethic, faithfulness to family and friends and work and community and to the Lord, to value money and things and take care of them, and a friendly spirit which shows respect to all. My folks were people you both wanted to be around and were glad to have around.

Dad taught me both directly—“When you hoe around potatoes, heap the dirt toward the plant to keep the spuds from the sunlight”—and indirectly—listening to him on the phone with Montague citizens (Dad was city manager), his patience and respect were always present.

He was, in a word, practical. He saved scrap metal. When he had enough to trade in for a few bucks, he took it in. His smile shined as he proclaimed, “There. I have some pocket money.” He gardened—usually having more than one, utilizing space at either of his brothers’ farms, and at my brother’s in-laws’—and canned and froze bushel upon bushel. He composted, turning vegetable scraps into soil-enriching material.

When I got married, I immediately put in a garden and started a compost pile. Every stop I’ve made—from Michigan, to Indiana, to Iowa, to Michigan, and back to Indiana—I have put in a garden—in every place, needing to begin from scratch, and knowing how to do it because Dad had taught me—and started a compost pile. I have canned and froze countless pints and quarts of produce.

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My latest mound of compost, which I will till into the garden any day now.  Note how dark it is, compared with the dirt.  It’s wonderfully nutritious!

I am about as bad with a knife as any human, but by watching and helping Dad carve up many deer (I never knew you could take them to a meat processor), I found myself doing that when I got the only one that I bagged when in Iowa, with him not around to take the lead, plopping that buck onto our dining room table and methodically carving out steaks and roasts as I envisioned how he had showed me the way to slice up the venison, and taking the rest and canning it, turning once-chewy portions into the tenderest meat treats.

There seemed to be no project which Dad, whom I loved to call Pop, could not tackle. Depression Era farm boys grew into men whose first thought was, “How will I do this,” not, “Who can I hire to do it?”  With that attitude, we tore a house down to the studs and rebuilt it for my brother and his family, who has now lived in it for four decades, and then did it for my family and me.

The one thing that brings Pop to mind the most is when I am doing a chore which I might not be able to complete that day. We used to cut firewood together—another lesson: use wood that you can get for free, cut and split it yourself, and save loads of cash heating your house—and as we stacked it, he said, “When you think you are done, you’re pooped, say to yourself, ‘I can do one more load.’” (This earned him our playfully mocking him as we would say, “Just peckin’ away.”) A few weeks ago, as I raked my front yard, my arms wearing out from a job they are not used to, I found myself saying, “I can do one more section. Just keep peckin’ away.” Thanks, Pop.

For all of the important, similar traits my folks had, they were starkly different, too. Mom was easily flustered; Dad was unflappable. Mom’s frustration came out verbally; Dad never gave away if he were feeling any angst. Mom suffered more physical maladies than a person ever should; Dad made it to his final month nearly ailment-free.

As many things which form us are learned, just as many come from how we are built. For example, my older brother, Tom, resembles Mom in suffering many physical ills, and he is, um, shall we say, just a bit impetuous when he feels foiled.

I find myself having inherited Dad’s nature. I love telling anyone who will listen that at his funeral many remarked how, of all of us kids, I was most like Dad. And, if you are wondering, now that I am transgender, do I feel differently about this? Nope. Not a bit. Transitioning aside, I remain John Eilers’ son, and most gratefully so.

One thing that all of us kids got from both of our parents is the gift for gab. I suspect this, too, is both a thing of nature and nurture, how one is built and is influenced.

My sister, Sue, got married when I was eighteen. At the reception—Montague folks can picture the VFW hall jam-packed—as folks finished eating, I observed my parents, with Mom going one way and Dad the other, visiting each table.

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Dad and Mom enjoying a celebratory drink at Sue’s wedding reception.  That’s my younger brother, Dave, looking on—and perhaps hoping they leave an unfinished portion behind!

 

The next day, I asked Mom about it. She said, “They were kind enough to come. It was important that we thank them.” As my years rolled on, I saw in myself the need to honor and respect folks in the same manner.

It’s even more than this. The ability to make conversation with anyone, anywhere, about anything, is such a gift. I have so valued it that I have deliberately cultivated it, using it to my advantage in every sphere of my life. With it, I hope that I glorified my Lord Jesus when I was a minister, as I was comfortable in every situation, with people of all ages, in all of life’s stages. Nowadays, wherever I go, this capacity to chat, to make a joke, to put people at ease, is as important an attribute as I possess, and is doubly important for my new situation in life.  Thank you, Mom and Dad, for this cherished gift.

Another lesson both my parents taught was to appreciate what you have. Thankfulness is a powerfully important attitude. It shapes so many aspects of our everyday life, from the smallest things to the biggest, the easiest to the hardest, the most common to the unusual.

And this takes me to one final way to appreciate being John and Floye Eilers’ child. They brought up us kids in the Christian faith. More than in the faith, faithfulness was key. We were in worship every Sunday. We were taught to pray. This faithfulness to the Lord spilled over to family and friends and community. I observed it in my folks. It profoundly impacted me as I matured.

In his later years, after Mom had died and I had moved away and became a pastor, Dad and I would talk about what we were reading. Often, he commented about where he was in the Bible. Faithfulness. There’s always more to learn.

Often in our conversation, Dad commented about the bounty he had just picked from his garden. Thankfulness.

Often, Dad spoke of his post-retirement charity work at the food bank. Hard-working. Giving spirit.  Community.

Often, Dad remarked about one of my siblings or a grandchild, reveling in the latest neat thing. Family. Unity. Joy.

Always, Dad closed with “Love you guys.” Love. A father’s love. MY dad’s love for ME.

Precious.  Priceless.  Imperishable.