High Quality Potatoes
3rd Feb 1999
Protecting from Frost
In anything like a normal year, this month is usually the coldest so we have to be grateful that it's the shortest of them all and be particularly vigilant with plants that may be in the cold frame or potatoes that are chitting away in a potting shed. Potting sheds can most certainly keep off a few degrees of frost but during prolonged periods of freezing conditions the frost would eventually get through and kill off the shoots on your potatoes. Do make sure therefore that during such conditions the sprouting potatoes are well covered over with blankets or mats; even during the daytime should the temperatures fall below zero.
If you want to have a go at some very early shows or even just to make your next door neighbour green with envy, it's not particularly difficult to get a good crop of high quality potatoes towards the end of May. Over the past three years I have had some wonderful specimens on my stand at Chelsea from varieties that are not the earliest that's available either, but certainly the most shapely. Both Kestrel and Winston perform really well as does the purple skinned Heather and the red skinned Maxine. For eating therefore you could have your potatoes even earlier by planting varieties such as Concorde, Swift, Rocket and just as their names suggest, they grow and mature very fast indeed.
The secret is to get them chitting as early as possible so that you have shoots already emerging from each potato in order that they may be planted towards the end of January. In my case I have found that by planting on or near to the 21st of January, I can harvest show quality potatoes by the third week in May. A single potato is potted up in a 5" square pot in some soiless compost and placed on the bench in a greenhouse with just enough heat to keep off the frosts. As I require a number of different varieties for my Chelsea display, I need to start them individually in pots in order to save bench space, particularly when I end up with nearly 80 pots.
Spun Fleece was certainly a wonderful invention and is always on the bench at the ready to be folded over the pots at any hint of severe frosts. Within a few weeks strong shoots will be appearing and towards early march the haulms in the 5" pots will be anything up to 8 inches high and now ready for planting on. In my case they are planted up in old 45 gallon oil drums that have been sawn in half filled with a mixture of Levington gro bags and Levington M3, this gives plenty of room in all directions to plant five potatoes from their 5inch pots in each half drum.
An alternative would be to plant the potatoes directly into old compost bags with a few added drainage holes in the bottom this can then be moved around the greenhouse or polytunnel as required. Three years ago I grew some fantastic specimens in my friend Jim"s tunnel, taking up two borders 20 foot long. Prior to planting them in the soil some potato fertiliser was raked in and the whole growing area covered over with clear polythene. The purpose was to warm up the soil during sunny days and as it warmed up, so the annual weeds would germinate. These weeds could then be hoed off after removing the polythene prior to planting.
Planting into Soil
As soon as they were planted into the soil they were given a good watering and covered over with fleece. As there was no heating at all in the tunnel, another length of fleece was on standby to throw over them should the weather deteriorate badly. As it happened we did have a few consecutive nights of frost with sunny days in between and the haulms were non the worst. It's important though, as early as this in the year, that the fleece is of sufficient size to cover the haulms when fully grown, right down to soil level. It's no good at all trying to get away with just throwing a small piece directly on top of the foliage, the fleece needs to encompass the plant in order to create it's own micro climate underneath.
What I did find however was that towards the middle of April, the Haulms were so big and heavy that they were toppling over with their own weight. They were very soft and supple having been grown in conditions with no wind whatsoever to move the stalks about whilst strengthening them at the same time. When I did take the fleece off they had a slight check with the haulms spreading about everywhere, but I still had a wonderful crop and is a method well worth trying. As we all know, there isn't anything quiet like the taste of your own new potatoes with some butter at any time, but during May they taste even better. As far as I'm concerned, I would much rather have an early dish of new potatoes and Champagne than a dish of strawberries and champagne at Chelsea! but I suppose I could be persuaded differently.