Some people swear that the time to plant potatoes is St Patrick's Day. Some swear they have to be planted on Good Friday. We planted ours this year between the two and we've seen some shoots already. Not that big and not that many but shoots nevertheless.
Potatoes have been around for ages. The Incas in Peru first cultivated them 10000 years ago! When the Spanish conquered Peru in 1536 they liked the taste and then 50 years later Sir Walter Raleigh introduced them to Ireland.
They're relatively easy to grow and if you're quick - and we mean really quick - you can still find seed potatoes online. But be quick!
We've grown potatoes in a number of ways over the years. In the ground at our allotment, in sacks of compost or specialist potato sacks and this year we're trying them in an old galvanised water tank.
As Nessa would say "we're not going to lie to you" and the best results we get are from the ones that are grown in the ground, but if you haven't got that luxury don't let that put you off from giving them a go. There really is nothing better than using your hands or a garden fork to lift out what seems like buried treasure, using your finger nails to scrape the soft skins, boil them and then eat them with butter, salt and some mint.....
So how do we grow them?
Well you need to be quick. We know. We've said that but if you haven't got any seed potatoes then get online now and order some. We've heard people say they've grown them from potatoes they've bought at the supermarket or simply from potato peelings but the only way to grow potatoes properly is from true seed potatoes that are certified to be virus free.
The first thing you need to decide is the variety you want to try. They come in various sizes, shapes and colours but are largely classified as either earlies or maincrop. Ok, there are also salad potatoes and first and second earlies as well but in essence it's quite simple:
Earlies are potatoes that you plant first (early - mid April) and take a shorter period to reach maturity and when you can harvest and enjoy them. They lend themselves to smaller plots as they can be planted closer together and by the middle of summer - June or July - we should be able to harvest them - and then plant a different crop in that space - beans or courgettes for example.
Maincrop potatoes take a lot longer to reach maturity and therefore stay in the ground for longer. They're planted from mid to late April and should be ready for the pot when the growth has started to die down - usually between September and early October.
When your chosen seed potatoes arrive you ideally need to "chit" them. This is an easy process where you allow the eyes in the potatoes to start to sprout before you bury them in the ground. Chances are that any you buy now might already have started that process so when they arrive in a net bag be careful not to break the shoots off. If they haven't started to shoot yet put them in an egg box, eyes upwards and leave them in a cool, light room.
When the shoots are sturdy and no more than an inch tall you can start to think about planting them.
Where can we plant them?
They can be grown in most types of soil. We first planted ours when we first took on our allotment with little, if any, preparation. Potatoes can be strong root plants that can help break up the soil.
They need some sun and warmth and some people aim to plant their potatoes in a trench that runs north - south. That's what we've tried to do in the first picture. However we've also grown them in sacks of compost and that tank. Here all we did was partly fill the sack and tank, put the seed potatoes in - shoots pointing upwards - and then covered them with more compost.
If you have some you can add some specialist potato fertiliser to give them a boost.
What do we do next?
Watch them! If there's a risk of frost when the shoots first appear then try and lightly cover them for some protection. When the growth - called haulm - is about 9 in high then we need to start "earthing" them up. This simply means covering the haulm with either compost or soil. We do that by using the soil either side of the potatoes and, using a rake, draw that up and over the haulm.
If the weather is warm, and if you're growing yours in the garden then it's a good idea to give the potatoes a good water by flooding the trenches between the ridges you should now have as a result of earthing them up.
Watering the potatoes at this stage should help improve the size of the potatoes and the overall yield. If you have a nitrogen rich fertiliser then you can add it to your watering can. The potatoes seem to like it. Look at ours from last year - one bed has enjoyed our seaweed fertiliser whilst the other hasn't. No prizes for guessing which is which!
How do we harvest them?
Well that's up to you! Gently is one word that we'd use. If you're growing in the ground then we'd recommend a fork. Lift one of the plants by putting the fork into the ground at a suitable distance so as not to spear your buried treasure. If you're happy with the size of the crop - earlies should be about the size of an egg - then either use the fork to lift as many as you can eat, or do as we do - loosen the soil and get your hands dirty!
We adopt a similar approach with potatoes we grow in containers. When either the flowers on our earlies have started to die back, or when the haulm on our min crop has started to yellow and wither, or when we simply get impatient we use our hands! It's easier as we've grown the crop in compost in containers - and have a rummage around.
You cook them and eat them! Up to you how you do that and a lot will depend on the variety you've grown. Some potatoes lend themselves to being gently boiled and served with salt, butter and mint, others might be better mashed, chipped, roasted or baked.
We always tend to go for first earlies or salad potatoes (we usually grow International Kidney - Jersey Royals if grown on Jersey) - and as you can probably gather - as this will be the third time we've said this! - we go for the light boiling, salt, butter and mint option! We're thinking that this year we might actually go with sampling a few that will be cooked on a camping stove at the allotment within minutes of them being lifted.
You can't get much fresher than that!
We'd urge you to give it a go.
What you grow will taste so much fresher and better than anything you can buy at the supermarket. They don't come in plastic and as you've grown them you'll know exactly what's been used to nurture them.
Did you know that commercial growers spray their crops several times in a growing season to control the growing cycle - including spraying the crop to prevent further growth when the potatoes have reached their "optimum" size. That's a process that's called desiccation - and in a previous life we've seen it done on a potato farm in Cambridgeshire.
We're not necessarily knocking that approach as commercial growers will be bound by ever changing, supermarket determined challenges but if we can grow our own, and do so healthily and enjoyably then that has to be better. Right?
Alistair (and for today and this weekend Toby, Tilly & Edie)