Finally, the rains stopped long enough for a look-see. I plunged my forked spade into the soil and...out came two big, purple potatoes. There were, in fact, a few others going soft. I tossed those in the compost pile. Still, I found it astounding that even now there were a couple of beauties waiting to be unearthed, nearly a year after they were first planted.
The concept of year-old potatoes is something new for me, but I can only speculate that leaving them in the ground is akin to storing them in a cold root cellar. Turns out burying vegetables in place is nothing new. There's a whole chapter on preserving vegetables underground in a new book I recently purchased, Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation.
How's that for a title?
The book is translated from the original French work compiled by gardeners associated with the Centre Terre Vivante (The Center for Living Soil), an ecological research and education center in Southeastern France. Eliot Coleman, the esteemed organic gardener and author, had a hand in bringing the book to the U.S. and writes one of the book's forwards. Another foreward is written by Deborah Madison, author of The Greens Cookbook. Being a big fan of fermenting vegetables, I was curious to see what this was all about.
The long title might as well be the table of contents. It spells out most of the chapters. Since I had potatoes still in the ground, I was most curious to see what traditional French methods had to say about that. "Some vegetables may remain in the ground all winter," the book advises, " but measures must be taken to protect them, particularly from frost and excess moisture."
There's a whole list of vegetables that theoretically keep underground: Brussels sprouts and curly kale, cabbage and cauliflower, carrots, chicory and escarole, endive, Jerusalem artichoke, mache, leek, parsnip, radish, salsify. (Notice, there's no mention of potatoes.) The book has illustrations for "trenching in" cabbage and building various kinds of underground silos. It reminds me of the lessons we learned in grade school about how American Indians preserved their food.
Another chapter discusses root cellars, preserving foods in buckets, in barrels, in sand, in straw, in newspaper. I find this not just fun, but practical. We have a lot of gardening space in our yard. One of our issues has been that we can't eat all of the food we grow. Or, maybe we can, if we learn better ways of keeping it.
What never ceases to amaze is how our vegetable garden here in the District of Columbia, just a mile from the White House, continues to connect us with the soil, with the seasons, with ancient traditions practiced by food growers around the world. Growing our own food has turned into a great journey of discovery. Or should I say, rediscovery.