Spuds in a barrel


Photos by Andreae Prozesky.

A few weeks back, I waxed on about the magical world I inhabit in my mind, where our agricultural staples are grown right here in Newfoundland, and taste of the salty, capelin-enriched soil of backyard gardens and community veggie plots and small, diverse farms. I’m not saying we have to live without olive oil and chocolate and coffee and peanut butter. I’m not completely insane. But because I love food, and because I love Newfoundland, I really want to find a way to get as much of my food as possible from somewhere I could get to without having to board a plane or a ferry.

While I was writing that column, having just returned from my interview with the exuberant Andrea Maunder, I received an e-mail from my editor about the Eat Atlantic Challenge. Then, while I was still feverishly typing, I got a phone call from CBC Radio, asking if I would like to talk about local food on Crosstalk the next week.

I could hardly say no, could I?

I listen to Radio Noon a lot, usually while making lunch myself. I love that it’s open to callers from all over the province. Sure, it may be a fairly narrow demographic—people who are near both a radio and a telephone in the middle of the day—but it’s an interesting demographic. Some real characters come out whenever you want to talk about food.

There was the townie contingent, the individuals who work hard on committees and boards to help put community gardening back into the consciousness of the average city dweller. Sadly, but truly, many of us on this side of the overpass are complete novices when it comes to tossing a few seeds in the ground and eating what comes up. We don’t know what’s edible and what’s not along the paths and in the vacant lots, and we’ve shagged our soil up to such a degree with our lead paint and whatnot that it’s not fit to play in, let alone to grow a row of peas. We are, in many ways, stunned.

But the same cannot be said for the rest of the island.

One call I got on Crosstalk was from a man in a community of 180 people, who had a pantry the likes of which I dream about: bottled and frozen vegetables and fruit of all description, potatoes, turnips, beets, bottled moose and rabbit, fresh and salt fish. Another was eating homemade seafood chowder and a shrimp sandwich on his own homemade bread, all from fish he had caught or bought in his own community.

“All you have to do is just go down to the wharf and see what they’ve got down there,” he offered by way of advice.

Sadly, for those of us in town, there’s not much wharf action going on. So if you’re reading this around the bay, eat some mackerel for me, would you?

Here in St. John’s, we’re pretty much limited to what we can grow in bins and greenhouses. Last weekend, I took a little tour of a few gardens on the map published on the FEASt (that’s Food Education Action St. John’s) website. Open garden day? Yessir, even in the chilly drizzle.

My mom, my daughter and I set out on foot to take in five gardens in our neighbourhood, and was it ever-inspiring.

None of these five little gardens were being tended by award-winning veggie growers, and none of them were going to feed a family of four over a long St. John’s winter, but they were chugging along, providing greens and herbs and a few roots for the gardens’ devoted stewards. There was one raised bed in a front yard, and there were two in a back yard that was all but hidden by killer raspberry canes. One garden was in shared space behind a school, and another was a borrowed tangle of roses and gooseberries and tomatoes behind a house owned by a chef.

And one was perched on a deck, in handmade cedar and glass cold frames flanking a square-foot garden made from shipping palettes. What a lovely space that was. The recycled window panes shimmering with mist and the seedlings of the year’s last lettuce crop covering the black, wet soil. The cold frames were newly built over the summer, and the smell of the cedar was so lovely, I would have stayed all afternoon if my daughter hadn’t been threatening to eat all of our host’s otherworldly cookies.

I know this is meant to be a food column and not a gardening one, but when you think locally, you can’t really separate the two. Fall is in full swing, and this is harvest time, but for those of us who didn’t get a garden in this year, it’s time to take inspiration where we find it, and start planning for next time around. There’s a lot of garden downtime ahead, perfect for building window boxes and wooden bins, and dreaming of what you’ll have for dinner this time next year.

As for right now, I’m cramming as many local veggies as I can into my freezer and my pantry, and eating the last of the turnip greens before they’re only a memory.

Spuds in a barrel

I’ve been reading a lot about maximizing your growing space, and one technique that’s come up is growing potatoes in barrels. Apparently, people do this in Britain a fair bit, where the space you have for growing your veggies is fairly limited. I also found a paper online exploring the suitability of this technique for growing potatoes in certain parts of Africa.

What you do is plant your seed potatoes in compost-rich soil at the bottom of a barrel (or large plastic garbage bin, or wooden structure you’ve constructed for this purpose). When they start to grow, you cover them with more soil, and on and on until your plant bursts out the top, and there is no more room for dirt. The theory is that, at every level where you’ve added more soil, the plant will have sent out more tubers. What you end up with, then, is a potato plant on top and about four feet of potatoes below.

Now, I haven’t tried this, but I’m planning to do it next year. Have any of you readers done it, or even heard of it, before? Anyone else want to grow potatoes in a barrel next summer and compare notes? Drop me a line at dreae@thescope.ca

4 comments

  1. fred · May 21, 2010

    maybe my yard? Local is great but we should remember two things–been goin on a long time around the world out of necessity, and not everyone in urban environments can afford to buy or grow local…like anything it becomes over commodified…..

  2. Andreae · May 21, 2010

    Fred, you’re right, it is true – and unfortunate – that not everyone can afford local produce. And even those of us who make a decent living have become so used to cheap imports flooding the market that sometimes it’s hard to accept the actual cost of growing produce. Although not everyone has space to grow veggies, we are lucky in St. John’s to have so much yard space – and green space in general – and also to have organizations like the Community Garden Alliance working to make land accessible to people who might not have their own. Imagine a city where everyone who wanted to grow a row of veggies was given land to do so! Allotment systems work in the UK, and there are community gardens all over Canada (Montreal’s are especially well-run).

    Maybe our new, enthusiastic city council will help by designating more greenspace as community garden land!

  3. gerard · May 21, 2010

    A problem I see with this is that the potato plant starts at the bottom of a barrel. Where there’s no light. Maybe one way to do it would be to start the potatoes in the garden, then one by one add the sections of an ugly plastic compost bin to it. You could even fill them in with compost in progress, as long as it wasn’t very wet. Maybe yard waste, straw, shredded newspaper, some dirt. That would make a lighter medium for the spuds to form in, and make them easier to dig out. One year, some potatoes in my regular compost bin sprouted, so I let them go and got a few very, very good new potatoes out of the deal.
    If anybody out there tries this for real, let us know how it turns out!

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