In May 2011, after four years of life on McNutt's Island, we moved to Montreal. This blog remains, though, as a (sort of) daily record of our time on the island, and a winding path for anyone who would like to meander about among its magical places. For additional perspectives and insights I recommend Greg's book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (2010), and my Bowl of Light (2012). I'll continue to post once in a while. If you do want to read this blog, one option would be to begin at the beginning of it (which is, as we all know, in blog-world, at the end), and read forward, concluding with the most recent entry. It's a journal, really, so it does makes more sense if you read it that way. But, you know, read it any way you like.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lazy potato beds

I kept hearing about growing potatoes in lazy beds. This was a practice developed by poor crofters in Scotland. It was used where the ground was too boggy for cultivation. It wasn't actually lazy, but it was a way to grow food on marginal land. The technique came over to the boggy Maritimes with those immigrants from the old boggy places. (You can read more about it in an excellent article here.)

You lay the potato seed on a bed of seaweed straight on the ground, dig trenches down either side of the bed, and then cover the seed with the peaty sod dug from the trenches. It sounded good, especially since so many people around here swore by it. But I didn't think I would have room for potato beds inside the vegetable garden.

Then Margot told me about using old fish bait boxes. Here's her recipe: fill an old fish bait box about half-way with a mixture of soil and seaweed. Put the potato seed in, about six or eight seeds to a box. Cover them up with more seaweed. And there you go.

Even though we are not lobstermen, we inherited a few old fish bait boxes, and I had found more washed up along the shore. So I gathered seaweed from the cove to fill them. I went to the store to buy seed potatoes. But then somebody told me that any old potato would do, as long as you let its eyes sprout. Having to be reminded how to sprout potato seed can make you feel stupid. Like yesterday when I asked Greg whether he thought I could actually fish from my rowboat. It sounded like an exotic proposition at the time: a great conceptual leap. And I suppose it is, in a way, for me at least.

Once again I am reminded of how quickly and easily all sorts of knowledge is lost, from one generation to the next. Neither of us grew up in a teaching family. No useful skills were handed on to us. ( And I believe we have passed no useful skills to our own children: maintaining the tradition, as it were, though they are absolutely terrific human beings.) I think our grandparents might have taught us things, but both our famillies had moved far away from our grandparents, searching for new horizons, new worlds, happily leaving the old behind. embracing the new wonders of frozen food and time-saver meals and all the rest.

I do know that my grandparents grabbled for potatoes, because once my grandmother used the word and then had to explain it to me: it's when you go out to the potato field and dig up a few at a time with your hands, and you must do that carefully lest you destroy the rest. But me, personally? I have never in my life gotten closer to the life cycle of a potato than those childhood experiences of setting one in a jar of water to grow the vines, for no real reason that I can recall.

This is about to change.

Yesterday while we were on the mainland we dropped by Uncle Sid's Market and got a few potatoes each of an early red, Yukon Gold, Kennebec, Red Pontiac, and Green Mountain. (Too bad there weren't any blue potatoes at Uncle Sid's. I want some.) I added to this collection a few Russets that had helpfully sprouted already, at home. After they've all sprouted I'll plant them in the fish bait boxes and sometime in late summer we will begin to harvest our very own potatoes.

For anybody who has done this before -- and that includes most people we are connected with now, it turns out -- I guess it's no big deal. But for me it's very satisfying. I am continually surprised that you don't have to be an expert to actually get your own food. Slowly we are recovering enough confidence and knowledge to be as competent as the average American before the 1950s.

And with luck eventually we will be able to hold up our heads among the vegetable gardeners and fruit preservers and rabbit snarers and fishermen and deer hunters who live along the shore of Shelburne Harbour, whose parents and grandparents taught them how to do these things, who take all this practical knowledge for granted and maybe don't always realize how truly wonderful a gift they have been given, and who are passing it on their children and grandchildren, because that's what you do.

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