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Urban Gardener: Not Pot but Potatoes

Saturday, February 01, 2014


Winter is when gardeners of every stripe dream. Our walks through the garden are visionary. Winter is working the soil for us. Despite the cold and sometimes layers of snow the garden is a hotbed of activity. An aura emanates from the mulches and we muse “the butterfly bush has grown way too large.” The fruit trees are never so evident. Branches are distinct. Forms are easily described. Grape vines reveal their true length. Secrets kept so well during the growing seasons are common knowledge.

The sugary crunchy snow under foot has no force against the sun’s longer hesitation on the horizon. With every fiber in our being spirit digs into the past, pauses in the present and launches onward into the future. I star gaze at night and Venus is high in the east. Her lovely brilliance guides me around the garden and I muster ideas for the growing season.

Dreaming of Asparagus

Each year I maintain loyalty to certain evident truths. Color, scent and form are important. Fragrance rules supreme. Taste comes first. Successions are important. Old classics come to mind: early Black seeded Simpson, Cos, Boston Ruffled, Endive, radishes and Japanese turnips in fun blocks of stunning color. Kale, last year’s vegetable star. Then as days lengthen the sugar snap peas are mandatory to fertilize the grounds with nitrogen fixing bacterial synergistic roots to be cleared away for a thick planting of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other hot weather champions. This abundance in one region dictated by day length and temperature is an answered prayer. Snow may crunch under foot but the aura emerges even during starlight.

The urban gardener is always challenged to make the most of their often limited spaces. I decided early on to cultivate crops of any sort that have a high price value beyond their aesthetic. My nature is to pamper and spoil the asparagus bed. I relish asparagus and know a dozen simple ways to prepare it. Never pay high prices again if you manage to dedicate a bed to this reliable perennial vegetable. Their delicate fronds are soothing to the eye, the foliage is a lovely shade of green that is very sensitive to sunshine, requiring as much as possible. A dozen roots can fill your kitchen with weeks of harvest and for fun, can be grown in both green and purple stalks. I could never pay retail for my asparagus appetite.

Novelty for own sake is tintinualbum. A pompa of different colors dancing in procession amongst specimen plants soon loses its diversion. It is however a rigid heart that resists growing a plant just because it is this year’s favored color. For a long while I was too snooty to grow potatoes. My Celtic roots rebelled.

The Joy of (Blue) Potatoes

“Potatoes are for children” is a truism. This was one of the first garden plants entrusted to me, eyes cut out of the endless bags of potatoes my family consumed, peeled in the kitchen sink and taken directly out into the garden for planting. The Kennebecs always did well despite coming all the way from the Aroostook Valley in Maine. Why grow something so abundant and cheap on expensive urban land? Surely children can nurture plants with freedom in the city. Maybe this isn’t so common in a paved zone.

My technique addresses all of these concerns and is elegance itself. Novelty? Go ahead and order blue potatoes, “just like the Incas”. Actually the potato family is a large one, including tomatoes, and these Native American plants offer colored spuds in a huge range of shapes, sizes, colors, tastes, and growing seasons. Don’t stop with blue. Go for it!
Red potatoes, golden yellow, orange, and pearly white are all offered from seed companies or may be bought directly from the produce section of the market. The foliage is the same from variety to variety. Potatoes love rich soil. They must have good sunlight. They are vigorous and must be to defend themselves from a succession of predatory insects.

The constant mulch in my garden is ideal for growing potatoes. I planted blue potatoes in mid spring of ’13 with a minimum of tillage. Rather, I scratched a bit of the wintered mulch aside and lay the eyes and small “seed” potatoes right on the surface with a dusting of bone meal. Then I covered all with the old mulch. Keep an eye on the planting and as the mulch yields to spring and summer, renew the cover. Don’t fuss too much about this. If you’re introducing children to the joys of gardening here is a winning plant that is large enough to be seen and handled roughly as a seed yet doesn’t require dedicated care when the beach is surely more attractive.

Try to break up the potato plantings into parcels with the same soil, water and available sunshine but apart. I like to grow in prime numbers of plants. The Fabrinacci number series is ideal for visual appeal. The division of the potatoes, let’s say by color, baffles the occasional potato bug and discourages the infestation of an entire crop. Bio diversity strengthens plantings. With protective moats of other more distasteful plants those insects that infest any particular crop must journey through a hazardous territory full of their predators.

Anticipating the Harvest

I also plant among the potatoes. Zinnias will shoot skyward over old potato plants and a place once covered with sprawling potato plants is a sea of vivid pastel shades. There is such abundance within this gardening scheme and it lasts over time. Fresh new potatoes can be coaxed from the mulch, the roots delved deep into the soil feed the spud kept dark under the permanent cover. A glance at the spuds during the growing season will argue for more mulch or not, any greening of the potato tuber indicates too much sunshine and requests a blanket of summer mulch.

The potato harvest is a long one. No need to dig them all up at once. They can be left in the garden under mulch. I pull aside the now much older mulches and find champion robust spuds. As winter gales blow and sugary snow crunches underfoot we sense the life that endures within the garden. Breath deep and watch Venus make her tour of the eastern skies. Orion is brilliant. Ponder the future garden. The kids are probably a little bigger now and it’s fun to find good food to eat in the garden. Snow and frost prevail on the surface of the mulch. Beneath, the ground is alive with sluggish earthworms and sleepy salamanders. And yes, the potatoes, in glorious blue, ready for a Mulligan stew and ready to answer every query, novelty is the spice of life. Come on, gardeners, young and old, live a little. “Pass the potatoes, please."

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees. 


Related Slideshow: 25 Olympians from Rhode Island

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Marissa Castelli

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Born in Cranston, Castelli will be competing with her partner Simon Shnapir at the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Despite initially beginning her skating career as a single skater, Castelli partnered with Shnapir in 2006. Since then, the pair has won numerous accolades, including the gold at the 2012 Ice Challenge and the Grand Prix medal at the 2012 NHK Trophy international competition.

Castelli and Shnapir have also won two U.S. national championships (2013 & 2014). In fact, the duo won their second national championship earlier this month at the TD Garden, which earned them a spot in the 2014 Olympics.

Castelli currently studies at the Community College of Rhode Island.

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Ellison “Tarzan” Brown

Men's Marathon

Brown, known as “Deerfoot” among his native Narragansett tribe, was a popular and highly-accomplished distance runner during the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Brown competed in the marathon in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and would have competed in the 1940 Olympics in Helsinki were it not cancelled due to World War II. But his greatest exploits were during the Boston Marathon. In the 1936 marathon, Brown took off so fast that the press chose instead to follow the number two runner, John Kelley. Eventually the two ended up neck-in-neck, but Brown “broke Kelley’s heart” to take the final lead on the last hill in Newton, inspiring reporter Jerry Nason to coin the term “heartbreak hill.”

Brown was raised in poverty on a Narragansett reservation in Charlestown. He worked as a stonemason and shell fisherman until he was run over and killed by a van in 1975. There is a road race named after him in Mystic, Connecticut.   

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Doris Brennan (Weir)

Women's Swimming

A native of Providence, Brennan dominated the swimming scene in the late 1930’s and 1940’s, holding twenty national and world records. Unfortunately, though, she would never get to realize her Olympic dream. After just missing the U.S. team in 1936, she earned a spot to compete in the Helsinki Olympics in 1940, but they were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II.

Brennan graduated from Boston University’s Sargent College in 1942, later earning a spot in the University’s Hall of Fame in 1989.

After college, she went on to work with multiple youth clubs, and was instrumental in the construction of swimming facilities in Warwick.

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Michael Barrowman

Men’s Swimming

Although he was born in Paraguay, Barrowman began his swim career as a youngster at the Cumberland-Lincoln Boys Club. For Olympic fans, he will always be remembered for his gold medal winning performance at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games in the 200-meter breaststroke. In fact, Barrowman set the world record in that event and was named American and World Swimmer of the Year in 1989.

In addition to learning to swim in RI, Barrowman set numerous state and New England records as a youth. He was inducted into the Rhode Island Aquatic Hall of Fame in 2000.

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Elizabeth Beisel

Women's Swimming

A native of Saunderstown, Beisel is a two-time Olympian competing in both the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing and the 2012 Games in London. Beidel did not medal in 2008, but she managed to earn a silver medal in the 400-meter individual medley and a bronze in the 200-meter backstroke in 2012.

Beisel currently swims for the University of Florida in Gainsville, Florida. As a Gator, she has received nine All-American honors and earned first-team Academic All-America recognition. Beisel was honored as SEC Female Swimmer of the Year in 2012. She is currently in her senior year.

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Bob Bennett

Men’s Athletics

Bennett won a bronze medal in the hammer-throw at the 1948 London Olympics. A native of Providence and a 1948 graduate of Brown University, Bennett set the Brown track record of 179'8" in the hammer and earned All-American honors.

Bennett went on to coach at West Point and later at Brown University as an assistant track coach.

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Henry Dreyer

Men’s Athletics

Dreyer, a Providence native, participated in the 1936 and 1948 Olympics, and was the only American to make both squads. He finished in ninth place each time.

Between 1934 and 1952, Dreyer held twenty-one national championships in the weight throws. Dreyer, who competed for URI, was an AAU hammer-throw champion four times, 35-pound weight champion ten times, and 56-pound weight titleholder six times. He was also the NCAA hammer champion in 1934.

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Demetrius Andrade

Men’s Boxing

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Janet Moreau

Women's Athletics

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A consummate athlete, Moreau even excelled at swimming. In 1948 she became the junior national swimming champion in the 100-yard freestyle. She was inducted into the Boston University Hall of Fame in 1978.

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Dave Gavitt

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A native of Westerly, Gavitt was also the first commissioner of the Bog East Conference and a member of the committee that created the 1992 Olympics Basketball “Dream Team.” He was also the CEO of the Boston Celtics from 1990 to 1994. In 2006, he was inducted into the Baketball Hall of Fame.

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David C. Hall

Men's Athletics

A bronze medalist in the 800-meter run at the 1900 Paris Olympics, Hall was Rhode Island’s first Olympic medalist. During his trial heat in Paris, Hall set an Olympic 800-meter record time of 1:56.2, but he ended up missing the gold in finals when a competitor stepped on his heel, causing him to lose a shoe. He finished third, despite the handicap. The winning time in the final heat was a full five seconds slower than Hall’s qualifying time.

After graduating from Brown University in 1901, Hall earned a doctorate in medicine at the University of Chicago, going on to teach as a professor at the University of Washington. He would interrupt his teaching career to serve as Lt. Colonel in World War I, where he was highly decorated by the nation of Italy for his service. Hall died in Seattle in 1972, at the age of 97.

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Dudley Richards

Figure Skating

A Pawtucket native, Richards was a nationally prominent figure skater who competed in the 1960 Winter Games in California. Richards and his partner Maribel Owen won the bronze at Nationals in 1958 and 1959, and silver in 1960.

In 1961, at age 29, Richards and other members of the U.S. figure skating team, died in a plane crash. The plane was en route to the 1961 World Championships. Owen, who was just 20, was also on board.

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Harriet Metcalf

Women’s Rowing

This Rhode Island native won a gold medal in rowing at the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles. In addition to her Olympic gold, she won three silver and one bronze world championship medals between 1981 and 1987. As a coach, Metcalf won a silver medal at the 1990 world championships.

Metcalf founded We Can Row (formerly Row As One Institute) in 1993 – an organization designed to allow breast cancer survivors to reorient themselves with their bodies, giving survivors a healthy expression of control and putting them in contact with other women of similar circumstances.

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Chris Terreri

Men’s Hockey

Born in Warwick, Terreri was the goaltender for the U.S. Hockey Team at the 1988 Winter Olympics. He also played for the U.S. at the Worlds Championships from 1985-1987 and again in 1997.

Terreri also served as goaltender for Providence College from 1982-1986 – winning the 1985 NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Championship MVP. He would go on to play 14 years in the NHL and win two Stanley Cups.

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Jason Estrada

Men’s Boxing

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Estrada currently owns Big Six Boxing Academy in Providence and is part owner of the promotional company Big Six Entertainment, LLC.

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John Collier

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A Providence native and Brown University graduate, Collier won a bronze medal in the 110-meter high hurdles in the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.

A son of noted Brown historian Theodore Collier, he was the long-time Brown record holder in several hurdles events. Collier, who was equally impressive academically, was a Phi Beta Kappa student while at Brown.

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David Emma

Men’s Hockey

A graduate of Bishop Hendricken High School, Emma played for the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team at the 1992 Winter Olympics. He also represented the U.S. at the World Championships in 1991 and 1999. Emma went on to play five seasons in the NHL for the New Jersey Devils, Florida Panthers, and Boston Bruins.

Emma, a native of Cranston, is currently the Managing Director, Partner at Masterson, Emma and Associates at HighTower.

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Michael Parkhurst

Men’s Soccer

Parkhurst played right back for the U.S. Men’s Soccer team in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. In addition to his Olympic appearance, this Providence native also plated the New England Revolution from 2005-2008. Parkhurst was named the 2005 MLS Rookie of the Year and 2007 MLS Defender of the Year. He currently plays for the Columbus Crew.

Highly regarded off the field as well, Parkhurst was twice named the MLS Humanitarian of the Year in 2006 and 2008.

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Alex Ottiano

Men’s Judo

Ottiano represented the United States in two consecutive Summer Olympics beginning in 2000. A native of Providence, he twice won the bronze medal at the Pan American Games in 1999 and 2003.

Ottiano currently works in the business sector and lives in East Greenwich.

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Aileen Riggin

Women’s Swimming

Born in Newport, Riggin won a gold medal in three-meter springboard diving at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp and a silver in the same event four years later in Paris. She also took home the bronze at the Paris Games of 1924 in the 100-meter backstroke. Riggin was just 14-years-old when she made the 1920 Olympic team.

Amazingly, Riggin continued was an avid swimming into her 90s. In fact, she swam three miles per week in the ocean off Honolulu where she lived. At the age of 85, she broke six world swimming records in the worlds masters championships.

Aside from being an accomplished athlete, Riggin appeared in five films and wrote a sports column for the New York Evening Post. She passed away in 2002 at the age of 96.

Note: Riggin is pictured on the left.

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Jill Craybas

Women’s Tennis

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During her professional career, Craybas won one WTA title and four ITF titles. She achieved her highest professional ranking of No. 39 in the world in 2006. Upon retiring in 2013, Craybas had won approximately $2.5 million in prize money.

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Keith Carney

Men’s Hockey

Born in Providence, this 17-year NHL veteran was a defenseman for the 1998 Men’s Olympic team that competed in Nagano.  One of just 29 players to appear in 1,000 NHL games, Carney retired in 2008 as a member of the Minnesota Wild.

As a college athlete, Carney was named to the NCAA East First All-Star Team for the 1990-1991 season and the NCAA East Second All-American Team for the 1989-1990 season.

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Martha Rockwell

Women’s Skiing

A pioneer in the sport of women’s downhill skiing, Rockwell competed for the U.S. at the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Winter Games. Although she did not medal in the Olympics, she won multiple titles from 1969-1975 and was inducted in to the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame in 1986.

Born in Providence, Rockwell would later coach women’s skiing at Dartmouth. Rockwell, and her partner Laurie Levenger, were one of the first gay couple to marry in Vermont after civil unions were approved in 2000.

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Geoffrey Mason

Men’s Bobsled

A gold medalist in the five-man bobsled race in the 1928 Winter Olympics. Mason was a Philadelphia native but a long-time Rhode Island resident. He was a graduate of Bowdoin College where he starred in several winter sports. 

Mason was the personnel manager for the Newman Crosby Steel Company of Pawtucket for many years.  He was a volunteer for the Rhode Island Institute for the Blind where he made many audio cassettes of books.  He passed away in1987 at the age of eighty-four.

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Sara DeCosta

Women’s Hockey

Born in Warwick, DeCosta won a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics and a silver at the 2002 Winter Games. A graduate of Toll Gate High School and Providence College, DeCosta posted impressive statistics in the ’98 Olympics recording a 1.59 goals against average and a .875 save percentage as goaltender.

Decosta was named the USA Hockey Women’s Player of the Year in 2000 and 2002. In 2002, she was named a Sports Ethics Fellow by the Institute for International Sport. DeCosta currently lives in Warwick with her husband and three children.


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