Outside the snow has been lying on the garden for at least a week. So yesterday I took the four-wheel-drive into the local town to buy seed potatoes. In the past I’ve bought them through catalogues, but these rarely guarantee delivery dates and I have received them as late as March, with long, pale shoots that snagged against the net bags and snapped off. That year my crop was late – and light. So now I buy them from a shop I can trust. I always go for Scottish seed, which is reliably disease-free, although this year the tubers themselves are quite small – which doubtless reflects the terrible, wet summer of 2012. The main reason I like to buy my seed potatoes this early in the year is that they’ve not yet had time to develop any growing shoots, a process known to gardeners as chitting. The young chits sprout from the potato’s eyes, or growing points and they do this as a response to growing day length and warmth. But they mustn’t, under any circumstances be frosted. The idea is to encourage the growth of tight, small, dark green (the look almost black) shoots and this is best achieved with plenty of light, but while they must never be frosted, they must also be kept cool – ideally below normal room temperature. So I put them on a sunny shelf in the porch. They will stay there throughout the rest of January, all February and most of March. If the weather isn’t too grim I like to plant my spuds before the end of March, but early April will do, if the long term forecast looks wet or frosty. Potatoes don’t like being planted in very cold soil.
Seed potatoes are usually sold in net bags and one of the reasons I like to buy mine quite early is that the young chits easily snap off and catch on the bag’s netting, unless you’re very, very careful. Incidentally, I looked ‘chits’ and ‘chitting’ up in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary and the words derive from the Middle English chithe, meaning a shoot, sprout, seed or mote (in the eye). So there. Anyhow, buy your seed potatoes this time of year, and the chits won’t have developed. I then empty each bag into an old-fashioned wooden seed-tray, or an orange box (you can normally persuade farm shops or greengrocers to let you have them – but I very much doubt if supermarkets would oblige). Then make sure that you don’t mix-up the varieties and clearly label each box. I normally use two labels, as in the past I’ve had them removed by mice, or worse, blown away when I’m actually planting. That can be very frustrating. Check the seed carefully and chuck out any that look even slightly dodgy. Then spread them evenly across the bottom of the box or tray so that they all get plenty of light. Finally stack them, if you have to, so that they get plenty of light and air. As you can see from the close-up picture, the seed potatoes have no chits. They’ll be looking very different in late March.
Now to varieties. There are five basic groups of potatoes: First Earlies, Second Earlies, Early Maincrop, Maincrop and Salad Potatoes. The first earlies include varieties such as Home Guard, Foremost and the one I’m growing this year, Ulster Prince. First Earlies, as their name suggests, are ready first and should be planted first (although I tend to plant everything thing at once, as that fits in with my other work on the farm). With luck you should be digging your first earlies in late May or June. But they don’t store very well and some people think that by July and August they’re starting to lose flavour. I don’t altogether agree. Second earlies come a bit later and are a superb potato if your soil is heavy, like mine. Heavy soils encourage slugs, which normally get very active after August, by which time your earlies and second earlies should have been lifted. But in very wet years (like 2012) they can succumb to blight and don’t store too well. Again, early maincrop varieties are ready before the autumn and are less heavily attacked by slugs. Maincrop varieties are best on chalky or sandy soils and they store longest – and ought to yield the heaviest crop, too. I grow Kestrel, a superb tasting, second early, and Cara, a pink-skinned maincrop developed from the old variety Desiree. Cara and Desiree are quite blight resistant and don’t seem to be too badly attacked by slugs. More important, they taste delicious and bake well (baked potatoes are a winter staple in our household). Salad potatoes in my experience are more trouble than they’re worth. The two commonest varieties are La Ratte and Pink Fir Apple. They eat well, even if they’re hard to peel when mature, as they’re very long and thin. But the main trouble is they also produce dozens of tiny tubers, which you can never recover when you’re doing the lifting. Those tiny tubers producers plants for years afterwards and will cause all sorts of problems with your crop rotation regime. So I steer clear of them; but other people swear by them. It’s up to you.
I always try to lift my potatoes in early August, even if the green tops (the haulm) haven’t died-off. If you lift them as early as this, let the lifted spuds dry-off for a couple of days somewhere sheltered, and that way they’ll develop tough skins; but don’t leave them in bright light for more than that, or they’ll start to turn green. Then bag them in light-proof paper sacks, somewhere cool and frost-free. I normally go through my stored potatoes and pull out any rotten ones in early December, before bringing them indoors, out of the way of harsh winter frosts. When they’re a bit warmer any rot will spread fast – so be ruthless. This year I threw about ten per cent out and it was well worth it, as I haven’t found a rotten spud since.
Some people say you shouldn’t bother to grow staples like potatoes and cabbages, but I strongly disagree. After all, what do you eat most of? So are they worth all the effort? You bet! Once you’ve got accustomed to proper garden potatoes, even the best bought organic spuds taste of very little – and as for the usual supermarket stuff, frankly I wouldn’t feed them to pigs. But then, I’m biased, because I also love a good joint of pork.