A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Digging potatoes is magical. At least that’s what these 6-year-old girls decked out in colorful Wellies and oversize gardening gloves have been led to believe. Which, I admit, might be

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Digging potatoes is magical. At least that’s what these 6-year-old girls decked out in colorful Wellies and oversize gardening gloves have been led to believe. Which, I admit, might be

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Digging potatoes is magical. At least that’s what these 6-year-old girls decked out in colorful Wellies and oversize gardening gloves have been led to believe. Which, I admit, might be

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Digging potatoes is magical. At least that’s what these 6-year-old girls decked out in colorful Wellies and oversize gardening gloves have been led to believe. Which, I admit, might be my doing.

Back in March, we planted bits and pieces of different varieties of potatoes in our little garden in Asheboro, and we’ve been playing the “just wait” card with the girls ever since. The girls, our daughter Oona’s besties, are at least somewhat familiar with gardening since they’ve all been over for past harvest playdates — green beans, tomatoes, berries. But potatoes are special.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been playing up the unimaginable wonder that awaits the girls just beneath the mounds of dirt that are now unceremoniously draped with wilted, half-dead potato plants. It’s an unknowable and unseen harvest that could be a bumper crop or might just yield half a bucket of spuds.

Employing a team of 6-year-old gardeners at harvest time may not be the most efficient way to dig potatoes, but it’s the most memorable. From left: Sydney Bowman, Norah Muir, Oona Dulaney, and Estella McClosky. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

On this Saturday afternoon, one in a string of hot, sunny days in the Piedmont, the girls have assembled to finally see what all the fuss has been about — and, to be honest, to play in the dirt. Which is fine: Gardening really shouldn’t be about the labor anyway. Gardening should be about awe. Every year, I’m amazed that a tiny seed or chunk of potato, stuck in the ground and tended to occasionally, will grow and yield something beautiful and, hopefully, edible.

Of course, I’d never just come out and tell the girls that. For one, nothing kills the joy of anything like a lecture from your best friend’s dad. And besides, gardening, especially growing potatoes, is also about discovery. You can’t know how many or what size or, in our garden, what color, shape, or type of potatoes you have until you get dirty and dig.

• • •

We grow a mix of potatoes: Purple Majesty, Viking Red, Yukon Gold. We grow fingerlings and bakers and some destined for potato chips. And since we dig the potatoes just before Independence Day, you can usually find a patriotic red, white, and blue potato salad on the picnic table come July 4.

Lately, our North Carolina summers have been heating up the soil earlier and earlier, which means that Digging Day has varied over the years. But we’ve managed to maintain our tradition around Planting Day — which is always on or near St. Patrick’s Day. Friends visit from out of town, and we crack open a Guinness, or two, for luck as our crew tills trenches, carefully places pieces of potatoes into the ground, and records where everything ended up in our gardening journal.

Now that the digging team is laser-focused — more or less — on the task at hand, it’s time to dig!

Oona’s first Planting Day was just weeks after she was born in 2014 — just days after one of our classic late-winter ice storms. The ground was sloppy, and we ended up mudding in most of the seed potatoes. We waited patiently and, after nearly giving up on the crop, we finally saw hardy leaves popping through the soil around Easter. Every year since, Oona has taken on a bigger role in the process (not the Guinness part, of course). Naturally, like today, I always do my best to share my planting wisdom with my guest gardeners, regardless of their age. And, like today, folks are always less interested in listening to me talk about gardening and more interested in actually gardening.

• • •

Piedmont dirt is hard and proud, I tell the girls. It doesn’t back down from a tiller or a hoe. Our soil needs to be gradually coaxed into cooperating. During the summer, we feed our garden lots of grass clippings, and in the fall, plenty of leaves. And we rotate crops every year, like beans that add nitrogen and root veggies that break up the compacted soil. (I swear that at this point, one of the girls actually yawned.)

Getting the dirt just right for potatoes takes years of tending before Planting Day, and hours of tilling and trenching when it’s time to plant. Planting potatoes is especially tricky because they don’t grow down into the soil like carrots. Instead, potato plants set their tubers above the seed potato, near the surface. So, throughout the year, we have to continually bury the plants’ stems to be sure that the potatoes have enough dirt to grow in. That’s part of the process that the girls, unfortunately, miss out on, but at least they get to hear all about it today.

When harvesting potatoes, neither the stem nor the leaves offer a hint at what’s growing underground. The identity of these Red Norland potatoes was a mystery until Digging Day. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Like most gardeners, I find everything about the gardening process fascinating, but for the girls, the mini ag science lesson is just more jibber-jabber from Oona’s dad. It seems the more potato minutiae I throw at the girls, the more interested they are in picking everything else in the garden — purple beans, yellow beets, white radishes — ready or not.

Focus, girls!

Now that the digging team has been prepped and corralled, the assortment of baskets and bags readied, and all girls are laser-focused — more or less — on the task at hand, it’s time to dig! I drive a gardening fork deep into the soil and lift out the first potatoes from the mound of dirt. Dumping the prize onto the ground, the mysterious bounty is finally revealed.

“Look, an earthworm!” one of the girls squeals in delight. “Hi, Mr. Earthworm!” another girl chimes in as they pick up and pass around the hapless worm before taking it for a walk in the yard. Their discovery is nothing short of … magical.

This story was published on Apr 27, 2021

Todd Dulaney

Todd Dulaney

Todd Dulaney is the executive editor at Our State.