Growing Your Own Vegetables - Potatoes
30th Mar 2002
For most of his life my father worked on a farm and I can well remember him coming home during some extremely cold days in February, black all over, covered in Basic Slag (a high phosphate fertiliser derived from the steel making process) which he had been spreading on the land. I found it hard therefore to reconcile the fact that whenever Easter came round, rather than taking the opportunity of putting his feet up, he would be in the garden. It was a tradition going back many years, simply because Good Friday was the only holiday available then and working in the garden on a Sunday was definitely not the done thing.
Weather permitting of course, potatoes would be the priority on this day and even though we now have an abundance of potato varieties available to us, I still prefer to use, as a first early, Sharpes Express, one that my father and grandfather grew. For me it gives the real taste of new potatoes, a taste that I can still remember as a boy and though first introduced in 1901 it is freely available today. It's a long white variety with a pale yellow floury flesh, an ideal. Accompaniment with some farmhouse butter!
If you have a large vegetable garden then I would suggest that you grow the three classification of potatoes, First early, Second early and Main Crop. If however you only have a small area, then my advice would be to have just a row or two of the First and possibly Second earlies leaving the remainder of the plot for a wider range of vegetable varieties. The benefits of growing only First earlies are important to note, they take less room than Maincrop, they will usually be harvested before the Blight disease affects them and you will also be eating them when they are at their most expensive in the shops. I also love salad potatoes with their firm waxy texture and superb flavour, and a short row of these is essential. The newer variety Charlotte introduced in 1981 is freely available and has very good taste, but for the really good Flavour I still prefer some of the older types that are now coming back into favour.
My grandchildren loved Pink Fir Apple introduced in 1880 and though a late main crop the new potato flavour will last well into the new year. They certainly love it for it"s flavour but I also have a suspicion that they just love it's unusual knobbly shapes; as somebody once said if you made chips with them, they would be the most expensive in the world as you would only get one chip from each potato. If it has a drawback it"s the fact that it's rather late developing plus it's tall foliage, which can grow on good soil to over six feet in height and unless regularly tied up, will spread over other plants. A better choice probably would be the French bred Ratte introduced in 1872, it matures as a second early with superb flavour. This high yielding variety has long tubers of regular shape having a yellow flesh with a firm waxy texture.
Another must for me is Kestrel, one of the newer varieties introduced in 1992, classed as a second early, it will produce an abundance of beautifully shaped potatoes with a purple splash around the eyes. The cooking quality and flavour is exceptional and, if like me you like chips, then this is a must particularly during August and early September. Also, if you fancy having a go with potatoes at your local village show, then this variety is unbeatable with a superb skin finish.
Growing potatoes is not difficult, if you only have a very small area or indeed no garden at all, they will grow very well in Gro bags or reasonably large pots. There are a number of ways of growing them in the garden, good soil preparation will ultimately produce the best and tastiest crop. Ideally the plot should have been thoroughly dug over during the winter months and now ready to be either forked over or use a rotovator which will produce a wonderful tilth to work with. Be careful however at this time of year that the soil is in good order to work on, it's no use trying to work on wet soggy heavy soil, you are much better off waiting for some fresh wind to dry the top spit out.
I still prefer the old traditional method of straight rows leaving 21 inches or so between each row, use a string line kept taut along the length you intend to open the planting furrow. My way then is to straddle the line with your feet and shuffle them along the top of the soil keeping the line between your shoes. When you get to then end you can then move the line across to mark the next row and the 'shoe shuffling' will have left a mark to follow with the spade. Open a furrow about six inches deep placing the soil tidy on either side of the trench as you go along, this will later be used to earth up the potatoes.
Place some organic matter along the length of the trench, this can be some of you own garden compost or some nicely rotted down farm yard manure. I am often asked whether or not fertiliser should be added to the soil as well as manure, I believe that to get the optimum out of your crop, you need a balance of both. Manure has very little food value in itself consisting of only 1% Nitrogen ½% Phosphorous and 1% Potash. It's important to remember that both manure and garden compost have a different role to play to the one that fertilisers take. Manure is added to soil primarily as a conditioning agent which helps to improve the structure by breaking down and helping to create humus. On the other hand fertilisers, whether organic or inorganic, are added to the soil with the specific function of releasing foods to the plant in it's three main forms of Nitrogen Phosphorous and Potash.
The fertiliser that I have used in the past is Growmore and this should be applied by scattering a handful to a two yard run of trench, always scatter some on top of the ridge soil as well. To get good seed potatoes they should have been bought in early February and chitted, this is a process of producing shoots from the eyes, or from the rose end of the potato from which the resulting haulms or foliage will develop. The best way to chit them is to lay them out, rose end upwards in old egg trays which stops them rolling around and place them in a light warm position, not direct sunlight and protect from frost. At planting time the shoots should be strong and they should be placed a foot apart on the manure with the shoots upwards and cover over with soil.
When the shoots are through the soil you must be vigilant if frost is forecast, frost can kill the potato shoots, so they should initially be earthed up slightly for protection. If the haulms get too big to cover over with soil and frost is threatening, place some plastic pots over them or cover the whole row with fleece. Other ways of planting are by digging a hole for each potato with a hand trowel and then earthing them up as the haulms develop, you can also grow them under black polythene by making slits in it and again planting into the soil using a trowel.