What happened was, alas, a fungal infection of some kind. Might have been early blight, might have been a wilt like fusarium. All of a sudden, about a month ago, the lovely healthy leaves got brown-spotted one by one. The brown turned to yellow, and eventually the whole stem got limp and died. The brown turned to yellow, and eventually each cluster of leaves faded and died while the stem below the soil line rotted. And once the leaves were gone, the pizza delivery to the potatoes stopped, so to speak, and so did their growth.
These, then, were my teenage potatoes, kicked out of the nest a little young. I think it was partly my fault, due to some overwatering that probably spurred the blight's progression, since fungal diseases are spread and exacerbated by moisture.
Luckily, though, this happened pretty far along in the tater-growing process, meaning we still got a few good handfuls. And there is something pretty wonderful about harvesting your own dinner--not just picking a few tomatoes or plucking a little basil but plunging your whole arm past the elbow into a bucket of warm dirt, fishing around for what slender gold treasures might be hiding in there. These were true new potatoes, fresh and moist, their skins tattered off merely by washing. Not to mention really, really delicious, if I say so myself.
And just in case you were wondering what a potato looks like when it's still growing, well, it looks like this, only deep in the dirt. You can see that the potato itself isn't a root, like carrots or beets, but rather a stolen, or swollen stem, branching off from the main stem above the roots.
Since most potatoes take about 100 days from sprouting to harvest, there's still time for another crop before the winter wet weather comes on. Will tater bucket #2 be more successful? Stay tuned!