I’m not the only one in our family to remember our grandfather’s garden as legendary. My father, a farmer himself and as practical as they come, can wax poetic about the size and quality of produce that he and Grandpa turned out every year. I was too young to see much of the effort needed in this endeavor; to me, it was more like a common miracle. Every spring and summer the goodies just began to appear without much fanfare, but to very appreciative diners. A couple of my favorites were teamed up in the kitchen. Peas picked at just the right point of fully formed, yet juicy, sweetness and new potatoes, harvested in time to appear in cream sauce with the peas, were a springtime treat. Since peas of this freshness (if you can find them at all) are just not to be had in markets, growing your own is a no-brainer. Even so-called “new” potatoes in stores have spent a lot of time between field and table. You will be surprised at the sweetness of a really fresh and perfectly cooked small potato taken straight from garden to kitchen to table. When the days got warm and the pea harvest was over, the remainder of the potatoes were allowed to grow to full size, although they could be harvested at any time for other summer treats like potato salad.
While we can grow peas whenever the days are cool enough and potatoes can also be planted almost year ‘round here, now is a great time to plant both of them for that early spring feast. Peas are easy to grow but have a few requirements. Prepare the soil by digging and incorporating compost to create a rich, fine, and friable mixture. Even the bush-type vines will profit from some kind of support as they grow. Pea vines cling by tendrils, so they need something like string, twine, or wire mesh to curl around. Set stakes, tall enough to accommodate your choice of plant size, into the ground and either stretch ready-made mesh between them or create your own with sturdy string or twine. It will keep the rows tidy and the young pea pods off the wet ground. Plant the seeds one-half inch deep and about one to two inches apart. Since the soil is still warm, they should germinate in one to two weeks. First picking should be in two to two-and-a-half months. If you continue to pick the pods as they mature, the plants will flower and set more for a longer harvest.
Growing potatoes is also very simple if you know that the potatoes form on the stem of the plant below the surface and that the more stem below ground, the more potatoes will form from it. That surface can be garden soil or some other covering. Straw mulch or leaves can also be mounded up around the plants as they grow and the potatoes will be a cinch to pull out. Just shift the mulch aside, gather the young and sweet new potatoes, and put the mulch back in place. Choose seed potatoes from a reputable grower for best results. You will find many more varieties available than on offer at the local supermarket. Large potatoes can be cut into two-inch-or-more pieces as long as each piece has at least one eye. It is best to let the cut surfaces dry before planting to lessen the possibility that they will rot in the moist soil, so cut them at least a week before you want to plant. Plant them as deep as two inches under the surface of the soil or simply lay them on top and cover them with your mulch of choice. Keep pulling soil or mulch up around the plants as they grow, and when they start to bloom (with small white flowers), you can harvest your first crop. Even if you never see the flowers, new potatoes can be dug about three months after the plants push above the ground. Once the plants are dying off on top, it is time to harvest the main crop. Dig carefully so that you don’t slice into the potatoes. A digging fork is often helpful to loosen the soil, and then you can sift through it for your bounty. A quick rinse and they are ready for the pot. And don’t forget the peas.
Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.