Potato – po-tah-toh, Taters n’ Taties, Poutine & Fries! If you’re a starch-obsessed chippy that can down a bucket of wedges just for dinner, this spud’s for you.
Ellenberger Organic Farm is a ride-or-die organic farm in Coe Hill, Ontario. If you don’t know where that is, it is a 3hrs drive northeast of Toronto, east of the Kawartha Highlands Park. This location is secluded and offers what organic growers call, “the perfect buffer zone between farms”. Buffer zones are wooded areas that separate farmlands. Woodlands play an integral role in absorbing and sequestering environmental pollution and carbon into the soil, preventing leaching between neighbouring farm areas. Henry Ellenberger and his wife, Janet own and run Ellenberger Organic Farm and have done so in their current location (they have farmed on a few locations over the 20+ years as farmers) for about 16 years. Their journey as farmers is beautifully described on their about page. There’s no way to paraphrase without plagiarizing – you’re better off reading it yourself!
Henry comes from generations of farmers that immigrated from Europe to Canada post war and have been farming since their arrival. Henry and his family were traditional chemical-based farmers (GMO, roundup-ready, etc.), while he too, was formally educated at Kempville College with the same principles. That all changed when his sister became suspiciously ill some 40 years ago and passed away from her illness.
They since moved away from chemical-based commercial farming to organic and never looked back. Along the way, he has also helped many neighbouring farmers convert to organic. (The transition period from conventional to organic is 3 years). Henry says that there is a lot of patience involved in the process, but once the soil and its ecology has been re-established, it takes care of itself for years to come. “Instead of fighting to compensate microbiologically stripped soil, you’re replenishing what’s already there with compost once a year and continuously monitoring the soil life”.
“Even after the first year, you can see there is life in the soil and that means the ecology is on the mend”, he says. In addition, you’re crops will thank you with an abundant harvest due to all that organic matter that feeds the plants. They are currently certified organic through Pro-Cert Organic and Organic Canada, and active members of the National Farmers Union and the Ecological Farmers of Ontario.
Their main crop is the humble potato, which they sell commercially and locally. YES! You can purchase their seed potatoes and have them mailed to you. They offer 14 different varieties, from mid summer/early fall crops to late fall-storage varieties and fingerlings (basically fry-sized). If you live close to their location, they also have a road-side vegetable stall and sell (seasonally) fresh vegetables and eggs, maple syrup, while you can also order grass-fed beef and pork. They have recently established a pick-your-own crop of raspberries and strawberries – yum!
I have had the pleasure of ordering his potatoes in the past, and loved the creamy sweetness of tender backyard potatoes. My husband, a pessimist of potato growing, is now a backyard potato convert.
So now I give you the good stuff: Henry’s how-to-grow essentials for successful potatoes!
- Leave the seed potatoes out in room temperature to get the ‘eyes’ sprouting. This is called “chitting” and will take a week or two. They’re good to go once the sprouts are 1/2″ to 3/4″ long. You can knock off any wispy sprouts – keep the stocky ones!
- Start with good soil (this is going to be an ongoing theme here with me). Lots of well-aged manure, and/or compost. This stops them from getting desperate and robbing your other crops of good nutrition. You can plant as soon as the weather is a steady 10+ degrees.
- If you’re growing in the ground, start with burying them 2-4″ deep. Once the leaves have emerged, hill them up with more soil. Keep them well covered so the tubers don’t catch any sun and turn green. That will make them toxic and inedible. If you’ve buried them without sprouting them (chitting), don’t waste a good night’s rest – they’ll be fine!
- Plant together with peas or beans. They are good companions that help to put nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil as the potato grows. (Fun fact: In Louise Riotte’s Carrots Love Tomatoes, beans and taters help each other repel their individual nemesis beetles!)
- If you’re in a small space, you can put them into containers, about 1 1/2 ft. deep with good compost and manure, mixed with another amendment to make it porous (potting soil). Don’t bury them at the bottom of a full container of soil! Start with a layer of soil at the bottom of the container. then add 4-5 ” of soil to cover the spud. As the stem grows, top up the container to keep covering the stem. Don’t pack it in. (I buried mine in my container last year. It was not a shortcut – the tubers actually grow as side-shoot roots off the main stem that is buried; kind of like how trees grow roots from off the the trunk due to those nasty mulch volcanoes. No volcanoes = no side-shoots = no potatoes.)
- Once it starts to flower, LEAVE IT ALONE. This is the time that all the energy gathered is going to get stored into the roots – the potatoes! Once the flowers have died back and foliage is dead, it’s harvest time! You can pinch some tubers for new potatoes, but leave the rest in the soil so they can “skin up”. This toughens the skin and firms up the potato so you can store them without damage. You’ll know you did it right, because they have a nice shape and you won’t see any rotten spots.
- Don’t overwater. Potatoes can handle up to 1″ of rain per week. This is ideal.
How to buy from Henry: You can call him or send him an email and Henry will call your back to confirm your order. Bonus! You can query him on growing tips if this article does not suffice. He accepts cash, cheque, and money order. Sorry – No e-transfers.
A repeating observation that many other growers, including Henry have made, is that the lockdowns have shed a light on how important local growers are to us. Henry was blessed with great amount of small orders last year. Whether that trend continues moving forward is dependant on the new home grower – YOU!
A lot of us are on the fence on growing potatoes because of the time, and space required. Of course the readily available abundance in the grocery store doesn’t make much of an argument for trying – unless you consider how little say you have over its quality control. If the prospects of light, fresh, creamy backyard potatoes are tempting enough for you to take the plunge, I highly encourage ordering from Ellenberger Organic Farms or buying seed potatoes from your local garden centre. As Henry has put it: “It’s your own food that you have grown, and you don’t have to wonder if it’s in the store [and what condition it’s in].
Next time, I share with you Melissa Cameron, Permaculture, and her online growing program that takes you from brown-thumbed to green and lush in no time flat.