Winter sneaks up on the potato harvest

Posted Dec. 05, 2013, at 10:25 a.m.
The lingering autumn warmth that lasted into early November lulled many gardeners into postponing their harvests. Greg Westrich, a writer who lives in Glenburn, was among those gardeners alerted by recent cold snaps that “Maine is easing into winter.” He quickly dug the last of his potatoes.
Greg Westrich Photo
The lingering autumn warmth that lasted into early November lulled many gardeners into postponing their harvests. Greg Westrich, a writer who lives in Glenburn, was among those gardeners alerted by recent cold snaps that “Maine is easing into winter.” He quickly dug the last of his potatoes.

By Greg Westrich

Special to The Weekly

 

This morning, as I stood in the front yard on the other end of the dog’s leash as she did her business, my breath hung in the air around me like a crystalline fog. I realized that the potatoes should have already been dug up. The mild weather this fall had lulled me into thinking that the ground would never freeze. But the cold air has begun creeping down out of Canada; Maine is easing into winter.

Over the years, I discovered that most root vegetables keep better in the ground than in the kitchen or basement, so I dig up carrots, onions, and potatoes as I need them. Besides, there’s something gratifying about taking a bucket and pitchfork out to the garden and digging up the evening meal.

Emma, my 7-year-old daughter, likes to come along and “discover” the potatoes as I uncover them. She drops the potatoes into the bucket and reburies all the worms while telling them that it will be okay.

This system works fine until the ground begins to freeze some time in November. All the vegetables need to be collected before they get stuck in the hardening ground.

Only leeks can survive a good freezing. I’ve left leeks in the garden all winter and then used them in the spring. The tops go hard and gray, but the pale green and white inner leaves still give off that earthy tang. I tried the same thing with onions and carrots: They turned to inedible mush.

So this afternoon I dug up the rest of the potatoes. Two 5-gallon buckets overflowed with spuds of various sizes and shapes. Some of them were already frost covered or frozen into lumps of soil. I’ll have to make soup out of those in the next few days or they’ll turn mushy and corrupt the whole bucket.

For the next month, it’s a race to see how many potatoes we can eat and how many different ways I can fix them: oven fries; in the skillet with eggs; french fries; potato leek soup; thrown in a braising dish with a roast; mashed; smashed; boiled; baked; and au gratin.

I resort to cutting french and oven fries into different shapes so it looks like something new. Some days there’s gravy, some days just butter. Every day the darkness comes earlier, the ground grows harder and harder until the grass crackles when you walk on it, and the buckets of potatoes in the basement slowly disappear.

 

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