Finally March has arrived and for the allotmenteers, kitchen gardeners and veg growers among us, potatoes are one of the trending topics. The gardening blogs and twitter-sphere are simply a noisy chatter of them.
It’s really hard to imagine life without potatoes. Go on, give it a try.
New potatoes with mint. Potato salad. The crispy topping on a shepherds pie. Banger’s and Mash. Roast potatoes with a Sunday lunch. Baked potato with beans.
Imagine us Brits without our Fish and Chips! Good God!
This humble, starchy vegetable’s versatility as food is surely part of our everyday lives. It has become the staple crop in so many countries.
Despite what I always think of this tuberous crop having a typical British feel to it, its origin lies in South America. In fact, genetic testing of the wide variety of cultivars and wild species proved a single origin for potatoes in the area of present-day southern Peru and extreme northwestern Bolivia* .
It’s quite amazing to learn that of the 5,000 potato varieties worldwide, 3,000 of them can be found in the Andes alone.
One of the main reasons for the popularity of potatoes and the spread of its cultivation must be due to the yield. Growing potatoes takes relatively little effort and they yield abundantly. They also adapt relatively well to diverse climates provided they are relatively cool and there is a good source of water for the plants to form tubers.
Growing and cultivation
Potatoes are generally grown from seed potatoes. If you have been to any garden centres recently or simply seen the abundance of tweets from allotmenteers and kitchen gardeners online you will have seen these. They look, well, just like potatoes!
However, these are tubers specifically grown to be disease free and provide consistent and healthy plants. I didn’t know until doing a little research for this post that here in the UK, most of the seed potatoes originate in Scotland. This is because the strong westerly winds help prevent attack from disease spreading aphids.
Different types of potatoes
Despite the huge varieties of potatoes which come in many different sizes, shape and colour, they are classified as either being earlies or maincrop.
Both types of potatoes are planted at the same time, however it is the earlies that are ready for harvesting far sooner than the maincrop.
Think of the earlies as your ‘new’ potatoes. Cooked in their skins, served with butter and mint or a delicious addition to those summer salads. Maincrop, left longer to mature tend to be bigger and more versatile in the kitchen. They can be stored over the winter and are suitable for mashing, baking and chipping.
There are so many varieties of each type of potatoes to choose from. What you grow will depend on a number of things. Taste and flavour has to be a priority and one of the many benefits we get from growing our own, but local conditions will also determine what varieties you choose.
The Wisley Plant Centre publish an extensive description on their seed potato list. Thompson & Morgan also have a useful Perfect Potatoes Selector to help us make the right choice of varieties to grow on our plots.
Chitting potatoes is simply encouraging the seed potatoes to sprout.
According the RHS, chitting or sprouting the seed potatoes before planting out extends the growing period and leads to earlier tuber formation and higher yields.
Its not as mysterious as its namesake may suggest. I saved an egg box from the recycling bin and used it to hold the seed potatoes. The seed potatoes should be placed rose end up in the egg box and left to chit in a dry, frost free place. Mine are on the windowsill in the spare bedroom.
I’ve noticed there seems to be an ongoing debate amongst veg growers as to whether chitting is necessary. Most agree that chitting earlies is important in giving the potatoes a head start before they go into the ground, but some suggest that its simply not important to chit maincrops.
My view is that it isn’t difficult or hard work to chit either variety and while I can see the point some of the naysayers of maincrop chitting make, it really makes no difference in terms of time or labour if you pop them out to chit with the earlies at the same time – whats the harm?
This year I have decided to grow an early variety called Rocket, and a maincrop variety called Picasso.
Rocket is a very early bulking and heavy cropping first early variety producing round, white skinned and fleshed tubers. Apparently it has good all round disease resistance and is easy to grow and quick to produce baby new potatoes. If you don’t have any ground space, give Rocket a go a its particularly well suited to growing in containers and potato bags.
Picasso is an early maincrop variety which has creamy skin and striking bright red eyes. It produces huge yields of waxy fleshed tubers with good all round disease and drought resistance.
I have grown early potatoes before but never a maincrop variety. I was put off growing maincrop potatoes as many people told me that they take up large amount of space for a long period and the risk of blight puts home growers off.
Last week I asked the twittersphere about their potato growing habits. Around a third of those who responded only grew early potatoes, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that over 50% of respondents grow both earlies and maincrop through the year. As I have the space and want to be able to have a supply of homegrown spuds for as much of the year as possible I’m growing both this year and I hope it is a great success.
I started chitting my seed potatoes back in February. I mentioned it in my earlier blog post New allotment series: February. They have done incredibly well and the chits on the earlies look like trees sprouting out of tubers!
Planting out and growing on
I am hoping to plant out my potatoes this weekend as long as the conditions are suitable. I need to add some compost to the new beds and provide some protection from potential frosts. Potatoes are very susceptible to frost damage – even if it doesn’t damage the foliage it can really hamper the strength of the plant and lower the yield and tuber quality.
The weather is looking good for us here in Cardiff so my fingers are firmly crossed. I don’t think my 5 year old can go much longer without another day on the allotment soon.
I hope others are looking forward to getting on their plots this weekend. I’d love to hear from you. I’m always grateful for any advice and guidance. Drop me a comment below or connect with me on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.