One of the first things I did when I moved to the Yukon in April 2009 was take a gardening course with legendary Klondike gardener Dawne Mitchell.
Most of my previous veggie-growing experience was on the West Coast, where you can practically throw seeds in the ground and return in a couple of months to harvest the goods.
Well, you do have to weed, but you don’t have to spend weeks conscientiously tending seedlings in tiny pots (in a south-facing window) before carefully planting them.
Mitchell’s hands-on teaching set me in the right direction for matching my garden dreams with Dawson’s average 92-day frost-free period (compared to the Whitehorse average of 87 days, according to the class notes).
Fast forward to this summer, when I signed up for a plot in the community gardens.
It’s my first year growing, and harvesting, potatoes. Beautiful red ones whose name I don’t know, but they’re delicious and I’m digging them up and cooking them within a couple of hours of harvest.
So I’d like to repeat that next year. And I know the answer to this one: what makes a potato a seed potato? A knife. Cutting it up and planting the pieces, as long as each has an eye.
But there’s this quick little six-month period just around the corner called – Yukon winter.
If I leave the spuds in the ground, B.C. coast-style, they’ll freeze and become infertile mush.
In the fridge, they’ll rot with sogginess, and in the kitchen cupboard they’ll sprout. If they sprout, there could be trouble, since potato plants are related to the nightshade family.
Did you know that potato sprouts contain enough of an alkaloid poison called solanine to make you sick if you tried to eat them? It’s the same deal with green potatoes, according to The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms (Timber Press, 2009).
“Most cases of potato poisoning result from eating tubers that have turned green through exposure to light, or which have sprouted,” write authors and botanists Nancy J. Turner and Patrick von Aderkas.
The digestive reactions from eating solanine include abdominal pains, fever, diarrhea, delirium, even coma – I’m reading from their pages here – and can be delayed anywhere from an hour to two days after it’s eaten.
Potato-sprout avoidance: check.
But back to the challenge of storing potatoes for more than six months without having them freeze, rot or sprout.
I bike up to the Jack London interpretive centre where Mitchell works in the summers. I wonder if I’ll come away with an 18-part, 14-week complicated plan on how to keep a bunch of spuds happy. I really want a treasure map like that, in fact.
“I think you have to dry them in the sun for a bit, but other than that, just keep them in a cool, dry place,” Mitchell says.
Is that it? That is what two other Yukoners had already said, too. She’s not an expert on potatoes, Mitchell continues, so I should go four doors down the road to visit Barb Hanulik, a long-time Dawson City resident and gardener.
We stand on Barb’s sunny porch and look over the yard. The Hanuliks, I learned, have lived on their property since 1981 (they were elsewhere in Dawson until the flood of ’79) and it took about 190 loads of gravel to make the pad for their house to rest on.
Then there was a big dip in the back, south-facing corner. They filled it up with truckloads of dirt. Potatoes and other veggies have been thriving there ever since.
“Did you see our big tarps out on the lawn yesterday?” Hanulik asked. I hadn’t, but that’s all there is to it, she says – dry your potatoes a bit in the sun until all the dirt is completely dry, and then store them in a cool place that doesn’t freeze.
The large, long shed on the property, cobbled together from two old shacks and sporting an ancient tin roof, is drafty in the winter, she says, but they heat it a little so it stays just above zero even when it’s minus 40 outside.
I don’t have a shed, or any other cold storage area, I realize. How to get around the long freeze!?”You could try an attic?” she suggests.
So I might be looking around for space in a friend’s heated shed. Or I might cook them all up to serve with some fresh Yukon River salmon from David Curtis and simply enjoy them now, in a feast with some friends.
And buy some seed potatoes next spring.
Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.