The days are getting shorter and the nights cooler. It's potato harvest time. Once the potato tops start yellowing and dying back, it's a sign they've sent all their energy to the tubers underground.
Wait for the best weather conditions to harvest your spuds. Choose a warm, dry day after a period of little or no rain. Cloudy days are even better, since too much light turns newly dug potatoes green, changing their flavor. Solanine, the substance that turns potatoes green, is slightly toxic when eaten. It's possible to get sick if you have a large helping of green potatoes. However, peeling or cutting away green sections before cooking usually eliminates the problem, as most of the solanine is located in the spud's skin.
After you dig a few hills, you'll discover that most of the potatoes in a hill are at the same level in the soil. That will help you figure out how deep to place your fork or spade so you don't injure many potatoes. Of course, there will always be a few spiked or sliced spuds. Just put them aside for that evening's meal; they won't keep. Be gentle with your spuds. Try not to rough up or bump the potatoes. Each bruise lowers the storage quality and the appearance of the tuber.
Once unearthed, the potatoes should be left outdoors in the shade for 1 to 2 hours to dry. During that time most of the soil stuck on them should drop off. If some soil is still attached, gently brush the tubers with a very soft brush to remove soil clumps. Don't wash the potatoes; it's hard to get them really dry afterward.
You can eat your spuds right away or save some for storage. Storage potatoes should have a drying or "curing" period of one to two weeks after harvest. Curing allows any slight cuts or bruises on the potatoes to heal rapidly. Keep tubers in a dark place with temperatures around 55° to 60° F and humidity of 85 to 95 percent.
After a curing period, move the potatoes to a cool, dark place for winter storage. The best location is a 35° to 40° F room with moderate humidity and good ventilation. To insure adequate air circulation, store potatoes in bins with slatted sides and bottoms. However, don't pile them higher than 6 to 8 inches high. Place the bins in a basement or root cellar. Under the right conditions you can expect mature potatoes to store for up to eight months. Higher temperatures will cause quicker sprouting and shriveling.
For more on harvesting and storing potatoes, go to the Virtual Vegetable Guides: (www.willhiteseed.com/store/asp/guides.asp)
Q. I'm interested in growing a fall/winter vegetable garden in my Texas backyard. I built a cold frame to extend the season. Can you give me some suggestions on what vegetables to plant in the cold frame?
A. With a cold frame, you can grow many different cool-season vegetables to maturity this fall and winter. During the fall, concentrate on planting root crops, such as carrots and turnips; cole crops, such as broccoli and cabbage; and green leafy veggies, such as lettuce and spinach. Root and cole crops should be planted now, while leafy greens can be succession planted right into November. All these plants grow well during the low light and cooler temperatures of fall and winter. Certain varieties, such as 'Claudia' broccoli and 'Hybrid 7' spinach, are specifically bred for fall planting. For more varieties for fall planting, go to the Willhite Seed Company Web Site: (www.willhiteseed.com/store/asp/default.asp)
Keep the cold frame well ventilated during warm fall days but shut during the cool nights. Depending on your location and the severity of the winter, you may have fresh vegetables right until spring.