Ordinarily, taters should be a pretty easy container crop. If you get good seed, use organic soil in a Smart Bag and pay reasonable attention to watering and hilling up, pretty soon you’ve got yourself several pounds of the tastiest tubers you’ll ever mash, bake, roast or fry.
Unless you’ve got an intrepid Cayuga duck, that is.
As it happens, we’d already had a few issues getting those “easy” container potatoes up-and-running this season. Irrationally exuberant from my first-timer success, I had decided to double my return (ha!) and expand production to four bags. But since I don’t like to plant veggies directly into our suburban soil or even on top of it (Smart Bags are porous; I’m hyper-cautious), I’d been acquiring a supply of American-made, untreated cedar containers for all my food-safe growing. Now in our fifth New York summer, we were up to four tall deck planters and two low-level lawn planters, not one of which was big enough for that much future frite.
So, of course I had to order a new one. Which then went on back order. Which when it eventually came UPS turned out to be in two heavy boxes, UNASSEMBLED. (Tarnation!) Which meant—since I’ve never mastered a power screwdriver—many sweltering, thunderstorm-threatening, blistering hours, hand-assembling said planter that which to this very day is still a bit crooked in places that only I myself know.*
Weeks later, after the blisters healed and the baby potato plants were quickly gaining teenage-hood, I took a stroll around the yard on the morning we were scheduled to leave town for an extended mother/daughter vacation. I flitted here and there, pollinating the garden with last-minute adjustments, sunnily trying to imagine how big and tall** everything would be when we got back. Since I’d just added some new drips to the deck beds, I decided to run all the sprinkler zones to make sure they worked properly. Those connector thingies come loose rather easily and if you don’t do it right, you’ll get a planter full of itty bitty fire hoses drenching everything (and you!) but, unfortunately, not the veggies.
That’s when I thought I’d take a second look at the spuds. Hmm, a tad…dry? Stuck my finger in, checking deeper. No, strike that. Very dry. Jeez, the new growth must really be sucking it up—they need more water, pronto! I glanced at my watch—we were leaving for the airport in about an hour. If I didn’t figure this out fast enough, no carbo comfort this winter. I called for reinforcements: my eleven-year-old.
Pamela, get down here! We need to move the potatoes! Quick!!! We’re gonna lose the whole crop!!! (Haven’t you always wanted to sound like a character in a cheap prairie western?!) With visions of pioneer women dancing in our heads, my daughter and I hoisted and hauled four massive bags of hilled-up pommes de terre (lots more terre than pomme, as my back will attest) and rearranged the planter to better suit their watering needs. I even remembered to stick trellises around the edges to give the plants something to lean on while as they grew and to deter the ducks from nipping at the possibly poisonous greens.
I did not count on Cayugas.
Fast forward to the end of our lengthy vacay and a cheery “everything’s OK” email*** from my husband who, with key help from our trusty duck sitter, had been running the Department of Poultry while we girls were off gallivanting. Along with the blithe update, he attached a low-res photo of a curious new addition to the potato planters: A duck. Oh, there’s a duck in the potatoes. A duck!!! Oh, no!!!
Undeterred by bushiness and unhampered by height, there was Bonnie, huddled in a forest of broken Butte plants, happy as a clam, that is, if a clam can be happy in 90-something temps and far away from the sea. She’d braved the trellis battlements and forced her way through the copious vegetation—not to eat the plants but to lay her eggs. Under that toasty, feathered breast, at least half a dozen now resided, which if we call it one-egg-a-day, meant, zounds! She’d been nesting there for almost a week! Worse yet (as I soon discovered), she’d trampled three out of the four planter bags in her Goldilocks-like efforts to choose the “best” site of all.
Andrew said “cute”; I cried “uncle!” and my mom thought maybe the plants would grow back if we let them be for a while. (Right.) So, unless that wily Cayuga resists crafting some new egg-hiding scheme to scramble our plans, we may get lucky and the taters may grow back. We may even get as many potatoes as we got last year although I fear we’re unlikely to double the harvest as I’d loftily planned. So bye-bye fries! Adios buttery mashed bliss! Sayonara roasted with olive oil, sea salt and rosemary!
And, I guess I learned yet another backyard farming lesson:
Don’t count your potatoes before they are hatched.
**Or dead or eaten.
***Always a cause for concern.
For more on container potato gardening:
Copyright 2013, Lori Fontanes