Growing your own vegetables to cook at home is one of the most rewarding activities any gardener can undertake. It’s almost primal – a man working the land to feed himself and his family. The following information will give you some pointers on how to grow potatoes.
Advice On How To Grow Potatoes
There are a number of important steps you need to consider when you are going to grow your own potatoes. The information you’ll find below will hopefully point you in the right direction and help you grow the best crop of potatoes that you can manage.
Buy top-quality seed potatoes from a reputable merchant. They come with a passport in the form of labels with the EU grades stamped on them. They will have started as certified disease-free and will carry one of the three grades — EEC1, EEC2 or EEC3. It is reckoned that the best seed potatoes available to the public are cool-stored Scottish EEC2.
A good extra precaution, if you are unsure about your soil, is to choose varieties that have been bred since 1970. They are more expensive, being subject to Plant Breeders Rights, but they have more disease resistance bred into them.
Soil and Situation
Potatoes need a sunny open site. They are not frost hardy and hate cold wet conditions, so delay planting if necessary. The soil you use should have been well manured the autumn before. Break up all lumps before you begin and work the soil to a fine tilth. The ideal is pH5-6. Add a good general fertilizer or hue the trench with comfrey leaves.
Though not strictly essential, the traditional way to start off seed potatoes is by chitting. Place them in egg boxes with the end with the most eyes, or buds, facing upwards. Keep them in a light place out of direct sunlight, at a temperature of about 18°C (64°F).
Move them to a cooler place when they start to shoot. Around six weeks from starting, the shoots will be around 2.5 cm (1 in) long and the potatoes will be ready for planting. For fewer but larger potatoes, leave the top shoots and rub off the side ones.
Planting and Earthing Up
Plant in individual holes or in a trench, around 10 cm (4 in) deep, and add an extra 2.5 cm (1 in) ofsoil on top. Traditionally first and second earlies are planted on Good Friday (the first holiday since Christmas for the rural poor of the 18th and 19th centuries), though any time between March and May will do, depending on the weather. Aim for a month before the end of the frosts. If they come up too soon they can be protected with cloches or by more earthing up.
Plant first and second earlies 30 cm (1 2 in) apart in rows 45 cm (1 8 in) apart. Leave 38 cm (15 in) between main crop tubers in rows 70 cm (28 in) apart. Adjust up or down according to the size.
While excessive water can bring on too much leaf growth at the expense of the tubers, potatoes need to be kept moist. A good dousing every two weeks in dry weather is recommended and when the flowers are forming.
As they grow, earth them up by drawing soil over them with a hoe to prevent light getting to the tubers. This will encourage a greater yield from the base. The ideal time is when the haulm (stalks and leaves) are about 23 cm (9 in) high. Bury them by about half and repeat about three weeks later, leaving about 15 cm (6 in) of the haulm exposed.
Continue to earth up every three weeks until the leaves meet and shade the tubers. Try to keep the ridge slopes at about 45 degrees and the tops reasonably flat to help irrigation. Until the ridges are covered, roughen them up with a hoe from time to time to prevent a ‘crust’ forming.
An alternative is to grow them through black plastic On the no-dig system. This is a good way to combine weed clearance with growing crops. The only downside is that the plastic encourages slugs.
New potatoes timed for Christmas and winter eating are planted in midsummer in a barrel or bin to keep them out of the cold, wet soil. They need to be kept well watered and covered with straw or fleece when the frosts come.
Harvesting And Storing
Earlies. When the flowers open, the earlies are ready. They should be eaten soon after harvesting. Check the tubers for size. If you are satisfied, dig carefully from the outside inwards to avoid piercing the tubers. A flat-tined fork is usefuil for this.
Main Crop Potatoes. These should be lifted when the haulm has died back and gone brown – usually in September. If they are lifted too early they will have a soapy taste when cooked. Test by rubbing the tuber to see whether the skin comes off easily. If it doesn’t, the potato has set and is ready to harvest. Choose a dry day and cut the leaves right off before you start – a sickle is the ideal tool for this.
If the potatoes come out wet, they need to be laid out in the sun for a couple of hours or brought under cover. Remove any damaged ones for immediate eating. Store the rest in double-thickness potato sacks or the modern equivalent. It is worth befriending the local greengrocer to get a supply of these. They are ideal for the purpose as they completely cut out the light while letting in air. Store in a cool, frost-free place for up to three months.
On allotment ground it is important to be extremely careful to avoid potato disease. The chances are that potatoes have been grown many times before in the same patch and it is more than likely that disease will be lurking in the soil. Problems that can arise are potato cyst eelworm, potato blight, wireworm, scab, potato blackleg, potato common scab, rust spot and slugs.
Rotation is vital. Always dig out any self-sown potatoes or any missed in the previous harvest. Another golden rule is never grow from your own stock or use potatoes from the green-grocer. It was the sharing and exchanging amongst small communities in Ireland that caused potato blight to became an epidemic and brought on the Irish famine of 1845-6.