Blight Resistant Potatoes
20th Nov 2004
The biggest killer that Ireland has ever seen all started off with our staple diet, the humble potato. It began with a blight of the potato crop that left acre upon acre of Irish farmland covered with a messy black rot. As harvests across Europe failed, the price of food soared. The poor Irish farmers found their food stores rotting in their cellars, the crops they relied on to pay the rent to their landlords totally destroyed. Peasants who tried to eat the rotten produce were violently sick and entire villages were consumed with cholera and typhus. Parish priests desperate to provide for their flock were forced to forsake buying coffins in order to feed starving families, the dead going unburied or buried only in the clothes they wore when they died.
Sarvari Research Trust
The above is just a short paragraph of what must have been the sheer hell that the humble potato was able to impart on people from 1846 through to 1850 claiming as many as a million lives. The reason I'm referring back now to that devastating period is because of the tremendously exciting work that"s being done by the Sarvari Research Trust. This Trust has been set up at the University of Wales Bangor to work on Blight resistant potato varieties under the expert guidance of Dr David Shaw. Dr Shaw is an acknowledged world expert on potato blight and has been working on this fungal disease for over 35 years.
It's only because of the advances made by modern science and technology today that farmers are able to control this terrible disease through a spraying programme using a variety of Fungicides. What about us amateur gardeners though who, these days, can find hardly anything on the garden centre shelves to help us out?. Thankfully, the day is now here when you can purchase a potato variety that has unprecedented levels of blight resistance. The Sarvari Family in Hungary have been breeding blight and virus resistant varieties for over 50 years and their newly released variety 'Sarpo Mira" is really exceptional. It's exceptional because this potato has in built blight resistance without the necessity of chemical sprays. Sarpo Mira is actually the first variety to score a full 9 out of 9 in commercial evaluations against blight. Sarpo Mira, an early Maincrop, has everything you could hope to find in a potato, tremendous yields, large tubers accompanied by a tasty floury flesh for all cooking purposes. It also has an added plus that it grows well in most soil types with weed suppressing foliage which helps towards cleaning out your plot. Trials have shown that it seems to be unbothered by slugs, wireworm and viruses generally. If you want to grow totally organically or without the need to use chemicals, then I thoroughly recommend this new variety; It's available exclusively from Thompson and Morgan.
When I was invited by Dr Shaw to visit the trial ground just outside Bangor two years ago to look at a few different varieties growing, I was absolutely amazed by what I saw. My visit was towards the middle of September and the potatoes were growing in a small exposed area of land. The whole outer perimeter of the planting area had been planted with blight inoculated King Edward potatoes. The haulms on these were brown and dead from the blight whilst the Sarpo varieties were bolt upright, with lovely green haulms and seemingly totally resistant to the fungi that must have been sporulating all around them. Sarpo Mira is the first one to be on general release but others are sure to follow.
Most of the larger seed companies stock a range of potatoes and I really to have to say that there is nothing quite like lifting your first haulm of early potatoes.
Ever since I can remember, my father always grew a very early row of Sharpes Express which would always be planted (weather permitting of course) on Good Friday. This was simply because as a farm worker, this weekend was the first bank holiday of the year and I used to help him out trying to get as much work as possible completed during this four day period. Today I still grow Sharpes, not because of it's cropping capabilities, but for its distinct flavour and crumbly texture that I remember as a child. A little bit of farm butter on the side of the plate and then, with finger and thumb holding the potato, rubbing it into the butter, nothing could possibly taste any better.
Order your potatoes as soon as you can now so that when they arrive you will have plenty of time to start chitting them. Chitting is the name given to the process of starting the young potato shoots into growth so that when they are planted into the soil, you will have gained a few weeks of growth. The shoots will emerge from the eyes of the potato which are, in the main, situated at the rose end of the potato. Place the potatoes, with the rose end upwards in a tray or box, better still, use a full size egg tray which is ideal to hold each potato individually. Place them initially in a warm dark room to break dormancy then leave them in a cooler position with plenty of light on them to ensure strong dark green shoots. Be careful if they are in a shed or garage that you have an old blanket to hand to throw over them should we have a prolonged frosty period.