If you have only ever eaten supermarket potatoes, you will find that a whole new world opens up when you try your own homegrown potatoes. Hundreds of different varieties are available, they are easy to get hold of and simple to grow. You don’t even need a huge garden as there are plenty of potatoes that will grow quite happily on a patio or balcony in a pot or flexible container.
Some mysterious terms explained
When you first start looking at a catalogue or website advertising grow-your-own potatoes, it’s like getting to know a whole new language. Here is a quick guide to ‘spud-speak’:
- First earlies: these are new potato varieties that put on a fair speed once they are planted. If chitted well (see below), you can be digging up the plant and eating your first plate of potatoes within 10-12 weeks of planting.
- Second earlies: these varieties are also new potatoes and are ready in 13-14 weeks.
- Maincrop potatoes: these have a steadier pace. Plant at the same time, and they are ready to eat in 20-22 weeks.
The perfect idea is to grow all three types, so that you can have a nice constant supply of potatoes across the summer.
What is chitting?
This is the method of getting your potatoes off to a flying start. Its generally too cold to plant any potato before the middle of March as the tender shoots don’t like frost. But you can get them sprouting inside by chitting them. This means putting the potatoes in a light (but not in the sun) but frost free place so that their ‘eye’s’ start to sprout and turn green.
The ideal thing to do is put your seed potatoes in empty egg cartons, and put them on a north facing windowsill in a cool conservatory, bedroom or shed. They don’t need watering – just keep an eye on them and see how the shoots develop. Once there are a fair few, it’s a good idea to rub off the smaller ones so that you have three of the best left.
Choosing your varieties
If you are just starting out growing potatoes, look forward to a long voyage of discovery. Start with some potatoes that you like the sound of. The catalogues have detailed descriptions of what each variety tastes like, and whether it is resistant to potato blight, slugs and other potato threats.
As time goes on, you will settle on your favourite varieties and fine tune the numbers of seed potatoes that you buy and plant to suit your eating and cooking requirements.
When do I plant my potatoes?
Mid March is a good time; the chitted seed potatoes will put on growth rapidly. You need to plant in a trench or hole at least 10 cm (4 inches) under the earth either outside or in a deep pot. Space them 30cm apart (or 1-2 per pot or container) in rows that are 60 cm apart.
Once the shoots start to appear, and there are still ground frosts at night, do some earthing up. This means gently drawing the soil or compost around the shoots up over them, so they are covered. You can also protect shoots in April from late frosts using fleece.
What is potato blight?
This is a fungal disease that every potato grower dreads. It was responsible for the potato famine in Ireland in the mid 19th century. It’s still alive and kicking today and typically infects potatoes and tomatoes when the weather is cool but very humid. In other words, a wet week in the British Summer.
If you grow first earlies and second earlies, you are usually OK, it’s the maincrop potatoes that suffer most as they are still in the ground growing in July/August. You can’t save a potato plant with potato blight; all the potatoes and the plant should be disposed of carefully to stop the disease spreading.