Thursday, March 4, 2010

Potatoes and Eggs

As usual, I got ahead of myself. These are Red Norland and German Butterball potato starts, but technically, they should not be set out for another month or so. In fact, the “lasagna beds” I prepared for them last fall are still covered in snow! According to the master gardener literature, early season varieties should be planted when the soil can be worked, usually around late April in Wisconsin.

The good news is that, beginning tomorrow, we will have highs of 40F or higher for at least a week. All the snow should melt. After that, I’ll cover the future potato beds with plastic for a week or two to help warm them up. Then maybe I’ll be able to plant the potatoes early, under plastic, in a sort of mini-hoop house.

What happened was that all the potatoes I saved from last year’s crop to use as seed potatoes long ago sprouted. They all had vines several feet long! I was afraid that if I waited much longer, the plant material would become unusable. Minimizing purchased inputs is crucial to my notion of a Backyard Nest Egg, so it was important to me to be able to propagate potatoes from last year’s crop.

Most sources advise propagating potatoes from seed potatoes, or by cutting up larger potatoes into pieces, leaving an eye in each piece. But I have also read that producers of seed potatoes grow them from vine cuttings, rather than from other potatoes. In fact, I read somewhere that if you grow potatoes only from seed potatoes saved from the prior year’s crop, after a few generations, the potatoes become “gnarly” and quality declines.

So it occurred to me to try rooting sections of vine as well as the potato. First, I cut off the ends of the vines and planted those in soil. Next, I cut middle sections of the vines – these have cuts at two ends. I stuck these in water to root. Lastly, I planted each potato with part of its vine.

All these pieces of plant material have rooted and leafed out! I’m very pleased, because I ended up with more plants than I would have if I’d just had little seed potatoes to plant. (I have another shelf of seedlings above those in the photo.) It remains to be seen whether these methods of propagation will produce nice potatoes, but I don’t have any reason to believe they won’t. Luckily, potatoes are notoriously easy to grow.

In other news, the chickens started laying again! We got our first egg of the season last Sunday. Clearly, they're not all laying yet, because we are only getting one egg per day from the three of them. I'm fairly certain that Tracy (the Rhode Island Red) is not one of them, although in the past, she has been one of our best layers. But she is still recovering from her molt.

Of the Barred Rocks, Amelia's comb is the reddest and most recovered from winter. Then, their combs were pinkish and waxy looking, with white patches. Now they are starting to look more like they did when they started laying last year.

And Batgirl's comb appears to be growing! Is that possible? We always called her the "tomboy" of the chickens. She has the smallest comb and was the last to start laying. She's more of a loner, too. She doesn't stray far from the group, but usually she is apart from the other hens. She's always been the most adventurous of the group as well.

When she did finally start laying, she was careless with her eggs. The others were very good about going to the nest box to leave their little gems. But she'd occasionally drop an egg on the floor of the coop or pen. One day, she did it while I was out there. I had just stepped out of the pen for a few minutes. When I turned back, there was an egg and two chickens had already pecked it open.

Having read about the difficulty of getting chickens to stop eating their own eggs once they start, I knew I had to take action immediately. "No! No! No!" I cried. I scooped up the egg with some shavings from the pen, carried it to the compost bin behind the coop, and dumped it in.

Then it was Batgirl's turn to get upset. Frantically, she ran up and down the side of the pen squawking loudly, presumably because her egg had been snatched. I went back into the pen and offered her treats - greens, the cracked corn she loves more than any of the others. But there was no distracting her or calming her down. She carried on and refused to eat for at least as long as I was out there doing chores. I don't know when she finally finished her mourning and got back to the usual chicken business of scratching and eating.

I decided it was a good development, though. She never again laid an egg outside the nestbox. Batgirl has grown up, I thought!

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