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Growing Potatoes

The ‘Grow Your Own’ phenomenon that has sprung up among amateur Gardeners during the last few years has been a great encouragement to both the retail Vegetable Seed industry and to Professional Horticulturist like myself.

We find it fascinating and invigorating to see people, who erstwhile had no interest what-so-ever in Gardening, suddenly queuing-up to learn about the latest varieties of carrots, or the best way to combat Red Spider Mite on their cucumbers.

There are various theories why this new found interest has come about; healthier eating, the need to economise, perhaps a deep seated desire to ‘get back to nature’  my own theory is simply that society has suddenly presented everyone with an excuse to actually Grow Something, without being thought of as a bit old fashioned and boring.

The lead Plant in the ‘Grow Your Own’ movement is undoubtedly the Potato. Apart from the fact that it is one of the most important of our staple foods, it is also a plant with which most of us are familiar. There are not many of us who have not looked at a relatives Potato patch, or seen them growing in fields. We all have some awareness of ’chitting’ and ’earthing-up’ even if we are not very sure what they mean!

Let me enlighten you.

Potatoes are a Root Vegetable that is not actually a ’Root’. The bit we harvest and eat is, in fact, a tuber, which in itself is the subterranean stem of the plant. The Potato belongs to the Solanum species of plants, many of which – including the Potato – have very toxic properties; Deadly Nightshade is of the Solanum family. There are parts of the Potato plant that could make you quite ill, the simple way to guard against being poisoned is to remember that if it is coloured Green or Purple do not eat it!

The domestic Potato, that we grow for food, is divided into seasonal categories: First Early varieties. Second Early varieties. Main Crop varieties. These titles relate to how quickly the particular variety you are growing will mature.

Let us assume that you would like to grow a crop of First Early Potatoes. The procedure will be the same for the other two categories, but for simplicities sake we will concentrate on the First Earlie’s.

Soil preparation is, as always, very important. The Potato is a hungry and a thirsty plant. Many crops of Potatoes are ruined because of a lack of ground moisture. If you look at the vast acreages of Potatoes grown in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire were the climate is relatively dry, you will notice the huge irrigation systems they install to keep their crop in top condition. So when preparing your Potato patch make sure you incorporate lots of organic material like compost or Farm Yard Manure, which will act like a sponge, and keep a good reserve of moisture in the soil.

Crop rotation is very important in all food production, but particularly so with the Potato, which is very susceptible to soil born diseases. If you think that Potatoes have been grown recently where you are thinking of planting them, then choose another site.

The best time to dig the soil is in mid winter, so that the weather can get into the soil and invigorate it and also break down the sod into a friable tilth. Potatoes are often used in virgin areas of a Garden or Allotment, as they help in opening up the soil and making it easier to work.

While your Potato patch is getting nicely weathered, it is time for you to purchase your seed Potatoes. There are a lot of varieties to choose from, even though you are only looking for First Early varieties.


Swift

One of the earliest of the earlies! A nice ‘New Potato’ flavour. It has quite a short Haulm so can be planted quite close together, 25 -30 cm apart. It can be ready for lifting 7 weeks from planting!

Rocket
Delightful flavour and a really good yielding variety.

Arran Pilot
This is a very old and well tried variety – I remember growing it when I was only a boy!

Lady Christl
Produces very good yields of firm, waxy tubers. This variety is very disease resistant.

Before purchasing your Seed Potatoes, make sure that they look plump and are not showing any signs of decay. All Seed Potatoes sold in the UK have to be certified, so there will not be any danger of you receiving diseased stock. This is a very good reason not to either save your own seed, or accept seed potatoes from other gardeners.

The next step along the way is to ’Chit’ the baby tubers. This should be started in early February.

The reasoning behind this procedure is very simple. The chemistry within the tuber will instigate a need for it to start growing long before it gets planted out. If it starts this development while still in it’s packaging, it will send out long white shoots that will greatly weaken the tuber and reduce its ability to produce a good yield. To ’Chit’ the tubers you will need a frost-proof, airy, well lit space; somewhere like a window shelf in a garage, or a  conservatory protected from frost.

Place the tubers on a tray, or in an egg box, making sure that they are not touching each other . After a while you will notice little green shoots beginning to appear. These shoots are the beginnings of the Potatoes life cycle – and your future crop.

‘ Chitting’ is a very important part of producing a  successful crop of Spuds. You will hear that some people recommend that the little green shoots should be selected and thinned-out leaving only the strongest looking sprouts; I am in two minds about this. Unless you are a seasoned Gardener and have had much experience of growing Potatoes then I would not attempt this thinning procedure. If the tuber has only a reasonable number of shoots – say 5 or 6 – then leave well alone; nature will take care of business!

Late March or early April is the time to plant. It always used to be that you Planted your Potatoes after Church on Easter Sunday. This is not a bad guide!

I always plant my Spuds in a shallow trench. The reasons are simple, all the tubers will be at same depth and you can see how far apart they are. The trenches should be spaced 90-100 centimetres apart and about 20 centimetres deep; the tubers should be 45 centimetres apart. As you can see from this, a few Seed Potatoes go a long way.

Before back-filling the trench I always sprinkle in a high nitrogen fertilizer like Fish Blood and Bone. This will feed the young haulms and these will, in turn, give back their nutrients to the developing tubers.

Earthing-up is the next step along the way. I just can’t wait to spot the little green shoots of my Potatoes bursting up through the ground. This usually happens 3 to 4 weeks after planting. I know it  probably sound quite sad, but this annual event really does make me very happy; I guess it’s that old primeval thing of a ’New Beginning’.

Back to reality. Earthing-up has two functions: firstly it will protect the new young growth from any late frosts, secondly, it ’Lifts’ the plant up out of the ground and gives it more root area which will hopefully produce more tubers.

I always use a Draw Hoe to earth-up my spuds. Working from both sides of the row, pull enough loose soil to just cover the new young shoots. You will probably have to repeat this process two or three times until you are sure that all danger of frosts has past. You should finish up with the typical ‘Ridged Potato Plot’.

The next bit is very easy. Watch them grow! Apart from watering , if you are able to, there is nothing much else to do.

If the soil is disease free and the weather is reasonable then you should finish up at the end of June or beginning of July with a tangle of haulms showing little purple flowers and a few yellowing leaves – now is the time to get digging!

I always use a border fork – a small narrow fork- for this job, mainly because you need to be very careful not to spear too many precious tubers! The other important thing to remember is NOT put the old haulms on the compost heap. These tops can carry the dreaded ’Potato Blight’ spores, and you do not want to spread this around the Garden. Best thing to do is burn them, but failing this, bury them in a part of the Garden that you can be sure will never be used for Potato growing.

The same procedures as above also apply to Second Earlies and Main Crop Potatoes, except you may want to store some of your Main Crop. These days you can purchase Potato Storage Bags which will do the job really well.

I would like just to suggest a few varieties of Second Early and Main Crop Potatoes that I have always found most reliable:

Kestrel
A really good, old fashioned variety with a lovely flavour.

Nadine
This variety was bred for it’s disease resistance. A good one to start you off.

Charlotte
Delicious flavour, can be used as a salad Potato.

Main Crop Varieties

King Edward
What else would you use for the Sunday Roast ?

Maris Piper
What else would you use to make Chips!

Desiree
For a really high yield of good keeping ‘spuds’ .

Setanta
A ‘New Boy on the Block’ but very good disease resistant and high yielding variety, particularly in a dry soil.

Finally a quick word on Potato Blight. There are chemicals that you can still use to combat this horrible disease, but for the amateur gardener, I would recommend that you  put your faith in only buying clean ,certified seed Potatoes and always plant in ground not previously used for Potato growing for at least the past three years.

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