Nothing beats the taste of freshly dug potatoes and growing your own couldn’t be easier. Well, that is except for choosing which varieties to grow, as there are so many to choose for salads, roasting, boiling, baking and mash.
Plan ahead and start planting after the danger of frost is past and you could enjoy them from plot to plate from June through to October. It’s even possible to enjoy fresh new potatoes with your Christmas dinner.
Potatoes are divided into four categories. The First Earlies are ready to harvest about 100 days after planting followed by the Second Earlies, which remain productive until the Maincrops are ready. The Late Maincrop can be dug from September onwards.
If you want fresh new potatoes for Christmas, all you need do, is buy a Second Early variety such as Charlotte and plant them in pots in late June or save a few small, tubers from a crop of Carlingford, which produces firm, waxy spuds with excellent flavour and plant them before the end of August.
All potatoes prefer an open sunny position away from frost pockets and need high nitrogen, so are best planted in soil that peas and beans, which have nitrogen-fixing roots, have been grown. Unfortunately, you can’t grow brassicas and potatoes in the same bed at the same time as brassicas need lime and this causes scabby skin in potatoes.
Crop rotation is essential to keep the soil and plants healthy
Each year rotate your crops by moving them around your plot in a sequence so that potatoes always follow beans and roots and onions follow potatoes. This way, the plants benefit from growing in soil that has been enriched by the nitrogen-fixing bacteria found on bean roots. Weed suppressing potatoes can also be used to help clear a plot after hard-to-weed crops such as carrots and onions.
Ideally, prepare the soil for maincrop potatoes during November or December in the year prior to growing them. Good drainage is important and digging in generous amounts of organic matter or well-rotted manure will help improve soil structure, retain moisture and add vital nutrients to the soil.
The potato year begins in earnest with ‘chitting’ (sprouting) before panting them outdoors. You do this by simply standing them on end in an egg tray so that the ‘eyes’ or small dents in the skin are upright, and place in a bright, cool frost-free place
Chitting is beneficial for early varieties such as Kestrel, which has a wonderful old-fashioned taste and the easy-to-grow variety Rocket, which is quick to produce ‘baby’ new potatoes and a heavy crop of white-skinned disease resistant tubers that also repel eelworm. That supermarket favourite, the all-rounder Desiree, which has red skin and melt-in-the-mouth flesh, also benefits from ‘chitting’ and is the perfect potato to grow on poor as well as heavy clay soils and will even withstand drought.
Once the tubers have produced healthy green shoots about 3cm long, they are ready for planting out. This is traditionally done on St Patrick’s Day, which this year is celebrated on 17th March for the first earlies and early to mid-April for the second earlies. Maincrops should be in the ground by mid-late April.
If there’s room, plant potatoes in rows, in a 12cm deep trench that been enriched with organic matter. Space the seed tubers 30cm apart for earlies and up to 15cm apart for maincrop in rows 60-70cm apart. Treat the soil with Nemaslug, microscopic nematodes, to prevent slugs ravishing the tubers and young growth.
‘Earhting up’ needs to be started when the foliage is about 10cm above ground
Planting the potatoes under black polythene will do away with the laboursome task of earthing-up and will allow the first crop to be harvested with minimal digging. The ‘black out’ will also suppress weed growth and prevent the potatoes turning green, which happens when they are exposed to light, making the potatoes inedible.
To prevent damage to the emerging shoots, cover the rows with cloches until the new shoots appear. Regular watering during dry spells will ensure the young tubers swell and stay firm and healthy. Feed plants throughout the season with Vitax Organic Potato Fertiliser to give them a boost and ensure a good crop. Alternatively use Growmore, applied every 2-3 weeks from the second week of May until the end of June followed by a fortnightly regime using tomato fertiliser from mid-June until early August.
Wait until the flower buds drop, during June and July, before you lift the early varieties. They should be the size of hens’ eggs
With Maincrops, which are being grown for storage, they are harvest about 15-20 weeks after planting or at the end of the growing season. Wait until their foliage turns yellow then cut and remove it and after a further 10 days the tubers will be ready to harvest.
Leave the potatoes to dry in the sunshine on the ground before storing in paper or Hessian sacks
Potatoes can also be grown in bags of containers, which is useful if you have a small veg patch or just a patio on which to grow things.
Growing potatoes in pots is also a good solution if your plot has a persistent pest problem, such as eelworm, wireworm or slugs, all of which can spell disaster on some soils
Early potatoes are ready for lifting just three months after planting and are ideal for small plots, because they can be planted more closely together, and by the middle of summer will be dug up, allowing you to transplant a different crop such as beans or courgettes.
Grow resistant varieties such as the First Early variety Arran Pilot, which is not only tasty but also repels slugs and scab disease. Maincrop Cara is known for its soft, moist and waxy characteristics and its ability for not only keeping slugs at bay but also for resisting the devastating fungal disease, Phytophthera infestans, known as blight. This devastating disease was one of the main causes of the Irish potato famine in the 1840s and is still responsible for ruining crops today if the weather is warm and unseasonably wet.
Taste the difference
Winston is a superb early potato, ready within 12-14weeks from planting, with creamy moist flesh of excellent flavour. Midway between waxy and floury, it’s ideal for boiling, mash or baked.
Albert Bartlett Anya, a cross between Desiree and Pink Fir Apple, is a second early salad variety, with superb nutty flavour with creamy, waxy flesh and although it has a knobbly appearance it has smoother tubers than Pink Fir. Albert Bartlett is the UKs leading grower and packer of potatoes – it’s a family business and for 60 years have been committed to natural farming ideals.
Charlotte, is one of the best all-rounder potatoes and UK chefs’ favourite salad potato producing pear-shaped, yellow-skinned waxy tubers with creamy yellow flesh with first class flavour, either hot or cold.
Ratte is a favourite with French chefs for its delicious nutty taste, which some say, is like chestnuts. Within five months of planting, it produces long, smooth-skinned tubers with white skins and firm waxy flesh.
Maris Piper is the most popular variety in the UK. It stores well and is a versatile all-rounder. Brilliant for mash, it has dry, floury, creamy white flesh of good flavour that rarely discolours on cooking.
King Edwards is a late maincrop with good resistance to scab and slugs. The creamy white flesh has a light floury texture making it perfect for roasting, jackets and oven baked chips.
Red Duke of York is a vigorous red skinned sport of Duke of York with moist yellow flesh and superb flavour. This heritage variety is a great all-rounder that is especially good as early salad and holds an RHS Award of Garden Merit.
The maincrop variety Purple Majesty is ideal for mashing, baking, roasting and microwaving, as well as making spectacular chips and crisps!
Try heirloom potatoes, which our ancestors grew to bring some fun to mealtimes. Purple tatties especially not only look good – they could help ward off strokes and heart disease.
Salad Blue, which was popular during Victorian times, has bright blue skin and flesh with a floury texture and delicate flavour. It’s a good choice for colourful chips, mash and salads.
Highland Burgundy potatoes are a long oval shape with a bright burgundy skin, combined with a red flesh with a definite ring of white. They make a pink fluffy mash and novelty roasties, crisps and chips. Best cooked in their skins to retain their red flesh with definite ring of white.
Shetland Black arrived in the Shetland Isles in1588 from a Spanish Armada shipwreck! It was added to the National Collection of potatoes in 1923. It’s a second early variety producing lots of smallish tubers that are jet black with floury texture. Soon after harvesting the skins pale to a brownish-black with a purple glow.
Purple Majesty has the taste and texture of an ordinary variety, but boasts vivid purple flesh which retains its colour during cooking.
IT’S A FACT!
Potato plants blooms are like fat white or purple stars. By some accounts, Marie Antoinette liked the blossoms so much that she put them in her hair. Her husband, Louis XVI, put one in his buttonhole, in an attempt to persuade people grow and eat to eat this strange new food. Potatoes were mainly regarded with suspicion, distaste and fear and even unfit for human consumption, only useful as animal fodder and sustenance for the starving.
Potato varieties with white-skinned tubers tend to have white flowers
Potatoes with reddish skins often have more purple or even more colourful flowers
Wild potatoes are laced with solanine and tomatine, toxic compounds believed to defend the plants against attacks from dangerous organisms like fungi, bacteria and even human beings.
Wash the potatoes then carefully make small vertical slits, 2mm apart, three quarters of the way down each potato, all the way along. Put the potatoes in a roasting tray. Mix together the butter and oil and brush over each potato then bake in a hot oven.
For the best crispy potato wedges you’ll ever eat, lightly season cleaned and sliced potatoes with lemon and paprika, then oven-baked to perfect crispiness
Put the potato onto a skewer and cut through it along its length and gently fan out the potato down the length of the skewer, until you have an even gap between the slices. Brush with melted butter or sprinkle with a mix of parmesan cheese, black pepper, garlic powder, paprika, and salt and bake for 25-30 minutes.