The secret to growing halibut tub spuds

Jan Chatto weeds around daffodils in the garden at the entrance to the Kodiak Public Library during Saturday’s Garden Work Party. 

When I drove by Mission Beach last Thursday, dozens of bald eagles were standing in the sand like fence posts. I pulled over to watch the action. There wasn’t much, save a little posturing between adults and “brown heads.”

“I wonder what was going on,” I queried a friend the next day as we toured Spruce Cape, looking for signs of emerging wildflowers.

“I saw them, too, and counted at least 40 of them,” she replied. “Some were eating tiny fish.”

Another acquaintance thought he saw the eagles feeding on halibut carcasses, apparently tossed on the beach. Eagles love feeding stations — so much so, that they paid no mind to the group of humans harvesting kelp 100 yards down the beach.

The folks wielding pitchforks to pack 5-gallon buckets of kelp were probably gardeners. Seaweed — think of it as ocean plants — is one of the best, mineral-rich soil amendments in the world. And a wonderful medium for growing potatoes, especially in containers such as halibut tubs.

It’s rare that root crops thrive in containers, but potatoes are one of them. 

And that’s a good thing because potatoes take up a lot of growing space. So I was relieved to learn, years ago, from former resident Alan Theilen, the secret to halibut tub spuds.

Alan grew his annual crop of potatoes (peanut, red and blue) in halibut tubs to free up space in his large hoophouse. 

Here’s Alan’s recipe:

1. Cover the bottom of the tub with 4 to 6 inches of soil (he improved his soil with greensand, a potassium-rich sand that is mined off the New Jersey coast), compost, leaf mulch and other organics.

2. Place six or seven seed potatoes on top of the soil.

3. Fill the tub to the brim with seaweed collected from the high tide mark at local beaches. “Not the big, bull kelp,” he said. “Go for the finer stuff.”

Then he left the potatoes to fend for themselves.

“I don’t fuss with them much. They’re on their own,” he’d say.

Alan, a former public defender in Kodiak, toiled, studied and worked hard to successfully grow demanding plants such as watermelon, tomatoes, cantaloupe, acorn squash and peppers. One year it was corn. Another time, basil was king.

Over the growing season, the potato vines grow up, up, up through the seaweed, sending potato-producing side shoots off the main stem. When it was time to harvest (the tops had all but died back) Alan simply dumped the tub and gathered the potatoes.

That’s not all. The harvest produced another bumper crop: a crumbly mix of soil and seaweed, broken down by worms, bacteria and fungus. Brown gold.

 

PLANTING BY THE MOON

Are you planting potatoes, turnips, carrots, beets or radishes this season? If so, consider planting by the moon. Simply put, planting by the moon (also called gardening by the moon or moon phase gardening) is the idea that the lunar cycle affects plant growth.

Just as the moon’s gravitational pull creates the tides of the oceans, it also creates more moisture in the soil, which encourages growth.

Here’s how it works:

Plant your annual flowers and fruit and vegetables that bear crops above ground (kale, tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, etc.) during the light, or waxing, of the moon — that is, from the day the moon is new to the day it is full.

Plant flowering bulbs, biennial and perennial flowers, and vegetables that bear crops below ground (potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips) during the dark, or waning, of the Moon. In this case, from the day after it is full to the day before it is new again.

May 22 is the new moon —  the ideal time to plant potatoes.

Whether you grow potatoes in containers or raised beds, remember that potatoes are a stem, not a root crop, growing from the underground “branches.” Thus, the deeper the soil, or the more you hill up around the stems as they grow, the more potatoes you get.

 

ON ANOTHER NOTE …

On Saturday morning, I grabbed my bucket of garden tools and joined a group of worker bees at the library to help tidy up the landscape. Bulbs are beginning to bloom, annual flowers greet patrons and iris leaves are poking through the soil with promises of beauty.

Some people might wonder if a garden is necessary at a public place such as a library or government building. During times like these, the value of gardens and green spaces rises to a whole new meaning.

Study after study show that people feel healthier in natural surroundings, including a study from the Dutch health institute, NIVEL. 

The conclusion is that people who live in areas with a lot of greenery feel physically and mentally better than people in environments without trees, backyards, parks or fields. (The researchers say this cannot solely be explained by the fact that city dwellers often have less-healthy lifestyles than their rural counterparts).

In addition, a green environment stimulates people to exercise. Need proof? Count the number of people walking, jogging or pushing strollers along the bike path. Remember, as little as a 30-minute walk helps promote good health.

And, hello? People surrounded by green trees, shrubs, even evergreen moss find it easier to shake off stress and thus relax. Try it for yourself. When you feel anger, disappointment or anxiety kicking in, go for a brisk walk. Soon your heart rate will quiet down, allowing you to look at your problems from a refreshed point of view.

A final note: Several people have told me privately (almost like a confession) that they are not mowing dandelions. Not yet, at least. Thank you. Extending the blooming period allows bumblebees and other pollinators access to sources of food while salmonberries and other spring bloomers come into flower.

Together, we’ll get through this.

 

NEW ONLINE CLASS

“Ask Marion” Garden Class, Tuesday, May 19 — Get your gardening questions ready! I’ll be hosting a live, one-hour Q&A class on Tuesday at 7 p.m. We’ll focus on spring gardening tasks — from soil preparation and raised beds to sowing seeds and transplanting seedlings, and everything in between. To receive a Zoom invite for the class, email me at mygarden@alaska.net.

 

Get Marion’s free Photo Tips PDF, a collection of her favorite photography tips, on her blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com. Connect with Marion: Facebook and Instagram or send an email to Marion at mygarden@alaska.net.

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