Grow your own french fries with a simple raised-bed potato garden

With the possibility of homemade french fries after harvest, potatoes are a superior crop choice when vegetable gardening with children -- and this is the month for planting spuds.

Buried treasure and digging in the dirt: What more could a child ask for?

You need a sunny garden spot or a big container, like a half-barrel or any other container that holds at least 15 gallons of soil. Even a wire cage or a couple of old tires can serve as potato-growing containers.

Next, make sure you have loose, rich soil. You don't want your potatoes rotting in our heavy black clay, warns Randy Johnson, director of horticulture at Texas Discovery Gardens. "The main thing is to improve drainage. One way to do that is through a raised bed."

Put a wire cage or tire on garden soil, and you have a quick raised potato bed. Add about 4 inches of loose soil to get things started.

In a standard garden plot, you also can amend your soil with compost and expanded shale to provide better drainage. Most kids love to dig. Let them help turn the soil and mix in the compost and shale.

Garden centers and feed stores sell seed potatoes, which are just potatoes grown to be seed stock. They often are certified as being free from disease. Pick healthy-looking potatoes, and buy a small bag of sulfur while you're at the garden center.

Johnson suggests cutting seed potatoes into chunks that each have at least two eyes. Try to keep planting pieces, or slips, at least the size of a chicken egg. Put a tablespoon of sulfur in a brown paper sack, add seed potatoes and shake well to cover them with sulfur. Let the pieces dry and callous for three days. This dusting and drying treatment should help prevent fungal problems, Johnson says.

Once your seed potatoes are dry on the cut surfaces, there's not much to planting, and these pieces are easy for children to handle. Plant them about 4 inches deep in the garden, with 10 to 12 inches between each piece. If you are planting in a container, cage or tire, lay the seed potatoes on the prepared soil, then cover with another 4 inches of loose, rich soil.

Put the kids on potato patrol. With luck, in a couple of weeks, they'll see a few inches of green foliage protruding from the soil. When the green tops are 6 to 8 inches tall, cover the planting area with more organic matter, such as compost or mulch. Using something light like straw or hay will make for easier harvesting later. Leave at least 2 inches of green foliage showing through the mulch, Johnson says.

Hilling up soil or adding mulch on top of potato plants will cause the plant stems to lengthen. That will increase the length and number of underground stolons, which lead to more potato tubers -- and ultimately, more french fries and mashed potatoes. Keep the developing tubers covered; if exposed to sunlight, potatoes turn green and become mildly toxic.

Expect to heap more organic matter three or four times during the growing period, Johnson says. If gardening in a tire, be ready to stack on another tire as you add to the mulch atop your potato plants.

Stop adding material when the plants start to flower. In fact, when the plants are blossoming, you can pull back the mulch and harvest a few new potatoes.

Potatoes mature in 60 to 130 days, depending on the variety. A few of the types that do well in North Texas are "Red Norland" (a quick-maturing early-season variety), "Red LaSoda" (midseason) and "Kennebec" (late season).

When the foliage begins to die back, you should have full-grown potatoes. Send the kids on a treasure hunt for them. If you've been heaping up light organic matter, they can use their hands to pull away the straw or compost. If you need to dig for treasure, do so carefully with a garden fork.

Rebecca Perry raises vegetables with her five children still at home in Milford.