July 8, 2019

Digging Potatoes and Soil Discoveries

I dug our potatoes over the weekend. These are the grocery store potatoes I decided to try. Seed potatoes have gotten so expensive that I thought, what the heck. So I bought some organic russet potatoes and planted them in two of my hugelkultur swale beds along with cowpeas and my winter potted pansies. I was thrilled with what I discovered.

The first thing I noticed was the moisture in the soil. I haven't watered these beds much even though it's been hot and dry. I wouldn't have been surprised if the soil was bone dry when I dug but that wasn't the case. So that was like a pat on the back for my soil building efforts.

The second thing I noticed was the soil texture. Here's what my soil used to look like. (Ha! And still does in lots of places.)

Here's a chunk I turned up while hunting potatoes.

The combination of soil microorganisms, organic matter, roots, soil, and air all point to improved soil structure, which helps with moisture retention. I was so happy to see that.

My third happy discovery was the abundant mycorrhizal fungi.

Growing symbiotically with the potatoes,

and throughout the bed.

If you recall from my August 2018 blog post, Carbon: What I Didn't Know, mychrrhizae are fungi that form symbiotic relationships with plants. They receive liquid carbon from the plants and in return extend the plant's root system to network and harvest nutrients from other areas. They also produce glomalin, a sticky substance that glues together soil particles, minerals, organic matter, and nutrients to form soil aggregates. Aggregates reduce water and wind erosion, reduce compaction, increase nutrient cycling, and increase water filtration and moisture retention around plant roots. When I compare my soil then and now, that's what I'm seeing. That's why I'm excited.

I also found this.

I assume these are nitrogen fixing nodules from the cowpea plants in the bed. The cowpeas are legumes, and that's what legumes do, fix nitrogen in the soil.

These soil microorganisms are why we no longer till. They can tolerate minor soil disturbance, but extensive mechanical disturbance will disrupt and kill them. So I removed the potatoes with as little disturbance as possible, covered the bare soil with a layer of leaf mulch, and gave the bed a good watering.

And the potatoes?

Harvest and size were fair. Even though there was still moisture in the soil, I think the plants definitely would have benefited from more consistent watering. My last pot of potatoes did much better in terms of size, but I made sure to water it frequently. The old "inch per week" is still a good rule of thumb to go by.

My hugelkultur swale beds were made in April 2017 as an experiment in soil moisture retention (more on that here.) Two years later, I'm seeing wonderful soil improvement and that's exciting to me. This is exactly what I have been working toward and hoping for. I just had to share! 😂


Chris said...

Improving soil structure. Gotta love that! There's no garden with poor soil structure. Your hugelkultur experiment, reaped wonderful rewards. And not just the potatoes. I love those kinds of experiments the most. They give you knowledge, as well as a harvest. Which ensures more harvests to come. :)

Leigh said...

Chris, good soil is wealth beyond measure! I only wish we'd understood some of these soil building techniques when we first bought our place. Yes, we've learned a lot, but we feel that our own ignorance was our worst enemy. It's both exciting and humbling to finally be headed in the right direction!

Kris said...

Fantabulous results, Leigh, on the soil improvement! I'm so happy for ya. The spuds look clean and solid and for a groc store buy (albeit organic) ya done good, girl. I've yet to plant my 4 seed potatoes in pots this year, but there's still time. I don't eat potatoes in summer, so will seek a fall 'crop' of a few pounds of yellow and red. Looking forward to more hugelnews in future. Take care... P.S. Donna is blogging again!

Retired Knitter said...

Leigh - I have never been a farmer, or had sincere interest in farming or (apparently) growing things even in pots. BUT I follow two homestead blogs and I have to say I find the whole lifestyle fascinating. I learn so much and have developed a great respect for those (large and small) that work the land.

This post pointed out to me exactly how much I don't know about 'dirt.' Dirt, For God's Sake. Thank God for all those who develop and care for the earth that WE ALL depend on!

Interesting post.

Ed said...

Love the before and after soil pictures. Congrats on all that hard work paying off dividends!

Leigh said...

Kris, thanks! Fall potatoes sounds like a good idea, especially with pots. I should try that myself.

Like you, I was glad to see Donna back on her blog. Always something interesting going on at her and Keith's place!

RT, I can't tell you how happy it makes me to have you say that. I confess that we were quite unaware of all this ourselves when we started homesteading. I only wish we'd known all this about soil when we first started. We would have saved ourselves a lot of backward progress!

Ed, thanks! After several years of feeling like we've been spinning our wheels in spite of our efforts, it's encouraging to be finally getting it right. :)

Mama Pea said...

The very tangible improvement in your soil must make you feel so good! As you well know, the same methods tried in different climates and different soils can vary quite a bit but it sure seems like you're on the right track with your conditions.

As far as wishing you had known what you know now when you first started, how could you? Where and when are we taught such things? I've found even the county extension departments tend to advise using and relying on what some of us consider chemical or unnatural additions to "improve" our soil. Books available on organic growing (if they talk about improving the soil) tend to be very vague and, of course, can't cover all growing conditions across the United States. So it seems we all have to "rediscover the wheel" and do the experimentation until we find what works. And you have! (Great pictures.)

A little aside about the hugelkultur method of gardening (and soil building), we have an acquaintance who built her hugelkultur "mound" last fall and planted in it this spring, then soon found it to be CHOCK FULL OF SNAKES! That would cause me to run screaming in the opposite direction and have to sell the whole piece of property!! ;o)

Leigh said...

Mama Pea, oh my! Snakes in the hugelkultur mound would not be a happy discovery! I never tried the mound method because others in climates similar to mine find they don't retain moisture as well as cooler climates with more rain. Hence the swale. Which confirms exactly what you say about different climates, different soils, and different techniques

We've discovered the same with the cooperative extension. In fact, ours focuses mainly on lawns and flower gardens. So you're right, we have had to learn by less well trod pathways. I'm just thankful to finally be getting some good results.

Cockeyed Jo said...

Leigh, Good work on the soil. That's what we all aim for.

The only problem with store bought potatoes, is you don't know if they are determinate or indeterminate when you plant them. Red Bliss and Russets can be both. I wasted a planting building up tires, soil, and straw (hilling)on determinate thinking I'd get more (indeterminate). When I should have set a way thicker base layer.

But you are right. Seed potatoes are very expensive when planting in bulk.Now I save a few back each winter and summer harvest for seed potato. I know which are which.

Mike Yukon said...

Looks like the dirt plan is coming along just fine. The next garden crop should be interesting.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

That is amazing soil Leigh. Well done.

Leigh said...

Jo, it sounds like one needs to know their potatoes! It's likely I left some spuds in the ground, but I only dug so deep.

Mike, hopefully it will only get better and better!

Thanks TB! It's encouraging. :)

Sam I Am...... said...

Congratulations! I'm so happy for you. I remember when you made those swale beds and to know that it is "working as designed" has to make you thrilled. I too thought about using organic potatoes for seeding although I never got that far this year. I'd really like to grow sweet potatoes as I use more of them now. Pat yourself on the back....several times! Your hard labor paid off and will continue too!

Leigh said...

Sam, finally paid off! Seems like a number of our experiments only serve as lessons on what not to do. :)

Susan said...

Your soil looks fabulous! I have been experimenting a bit with a new raised bed I put in - sort of a 'formed' hugelkultur bed, with the addition of some skirted fleece bits. I'm interested to see if it makes a difference. I know what you mean about the price of seed potatoes. My usual local source has gone up in price 200%! I decided to skip planting potatoes this year, as I can buy local spuds - not certified organic, but organically grown - at a very reasonable price.

Debbie - Mountain Mama said...

Those potatoes look fabulous and I'm sure they tasted amazing!! I have tried potatoes a few times and have never had any luck....so sadly I have given up. I hope my local farm stand is growing potatoes, that's how I'll have to get my fix!

Leigh said...

Susan, fleece is slow to decompose which should make for some nice slow soil building. At one time every bit of waste like that was put back into the soil. It's a shame we ever got away from it. Nice that you can get such a good deal on potatoes! Saves growing room too.

Debbie, homegrown always tastes better! I've had a hard time with potatoes too, but don't have a good farm stand. :( Hopefully this is a new potato beginning for me.

wyomingheart said...

Wow..! Does your soil look awesome! I have soil building skills to experiment on yet. I did get a bountiful load of horse and hair sheep manure this spring. My neighbor was so kind to offer it, if I hauled it off. Lets just say, I got every last turd.! I mixed the sheep manure in my beds, and was a little worried with so much of the shed hair in it, but I must tell you that it has produced a very awesome crop of tomatoes and peppers thus far. I want to put it to good use with potatoes next year. My potatoes so far, have been a complete fail, as the clay soil is not potato friendly. Getting ready to plant a second batch of store bought potatoes instead of seed potatoes. I really need to boost that soil for next year. It truly is all about learning what works for our area, and what doesn't. Thanks for sharing your success!

Leigh said...

Wyomingheart, it's true, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to gardening and building soil. Unfortunately, we each have to find our own way! How nice that your neighbor had garden gold to give away! The hair will be slower to decompose, but it's a good source of nitrogen, and slow release nitrogen is always a benefit.

Powell River Books said...

When I cut down my pea plants some of the roots pulled out and I found nodules like yours. That was my same thought so I stuck them back in the soil to decompose on their own. - Margy

Leigh said...

Margy, then that confirms it. At first I thought they had something to do with the fungi, but I couldn't find anything about nodes on the fungi. So I concluded it must be the cowpeas. Funny, I'd never seen them before. But then I rarely dig around in a bed or row full of growing plants. :)

Paula said...

Good info! I want to grow spuds but haven't figured out the optimal way to do it- sounds like I need a Hugelkultur bed!

Leigh said...

Paula! Good to hear from you. If potatoes do well for me next year, then I'll know I'm on to something, :)