Nothing beats the taste of freshly-dug potatoes – and growing your own couldn’t be easier, says Adrienne Wild
There are potato varieties for salads, roasting, boiling, baking and mash – and if you start planting after the danger of frost has passed, you could enjoy them from June through to October.
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, and if you want fresh new potatoes for this year’s Christmas dinner, all you need do is buy a second early variety, such as ‘Charlotte’, and get them in the ground in late June.
The potato year begins with ‘chitting’ (sprouting) before planting them outdoors – this is essential for early varieties such as ‘Kestrel’, ‘Rocket’ and ‘Desiree’. During January and February simply stand the potatoes 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.
When they have produced healthy green shoots they are ready for planting out. This is traditionally done on or around Saint Patrick’s Day – 17 March.
Crop rotation is essential to keep the soil and plants healthy. Each year, you simply move groups of crops around in a sequence so that potatoes always follow beans and roots and onions follow potatoes, so that 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.
Potatoes can also be grown in bags or containers, which is useful if you have a small vegetable patch or just a patio on which to grow things. They’re 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.
The other option is to plant resistant varieties. ‘Arran Pilot’ repels slugs and scab disease and ‘Cara’ is a good choice for keeping slugs at bay and resisting the disease-causing fungus Phytophthora infestans.
Known as blight, this devastating infestation was one of the main causes of the Irish potato famine in the late 1840s and is still responsible for ruining crops today if the weather is warm and unseasonably wet.
Grow your own
If there’s room, plant potatoes in rows, in a 12cm-deep trench that’s enriched with organic matter. Space the seed tubers 30cm apart for earlies and up to 45cm apart for maincrop in rows 60-70cm apart.
Treat the soil with Nemaslug (microscopic nematode worms), to prevent slugs ravaging the tubers and cutting short young growth.
Planting the potatoes under black polythene will do away with the labour-intensive task of ‘earthing up’ and will allow the first crop to be harvested with minimal digging. The ‘black out’ will also suppress weed growth.
Wait until the flowers open or buds drop to lift the early varieties, which should be the size of hens’ eggs, and with maincrops for storage wait until the foliage turns yellow then cut it and remove it. Wait for about 10 days before harvesting the tubers and leave them to dry before storing in sacks.
‘Winston’ is a superb early potato with creamy moist flesh of excellent flavour. Midway between waxy and floury, it’s ideal for boiling, mashing and baking.
‘Anya’, a cross between ‘Desiree’ and ‘Pink Fir Apple’, is an early salad variety with superb nutty flavour.creamy, waxy flesh and smoother tubers than those of ‘Pink Fir Apple’.
‘Charlotte’ is the classic salad potato, producing pear-shaped, yellow-skinned waxy tubers with creamy yellow flesh with first- class flavour, either hot or cold.
‘Ratte’ has a delicious nutty taste. Within five months of planting, it produces long, smooth-skinned tubers with white skins and firm, waxy flesh.
‘Maris Piper’ stores well and is a versatile all-rounder. Brilliant for mash, it has dry, floury, creamy white flesh of good flavour that rarely discolours upon cooking.
‘King Edward’ is a late maincrop potato with good resistance to scab and slugs. The creamy white flesh has a light floury texture, making it perfect for roasting.
‘Red Duke of York’ is a vigorous red-skinned version of ‘Duke of York’ with moist yellow flesh and superb flavour. A great all-rounder that is especially good as early salad.
Try heirloom potatoes, which our ancestors grew to bring some fun to mealtimes.
‘Shetland Black’ 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.
‘Salad Blue’, which was popular during Victorian times, has bright blue skin and flesh with a floury texture and delicate flavour. A good choice for colourful chips, mash and salads.
‘Highland Burgundy’ makes pink fluffy mash and novelty roasties, crisps and chips. Best cooked in their skins to retain their red flesh with a clearly defined ring of white.