Potatoes remain one of the most popular vegetable crops to grow, due to the fact that they're so versatile and reasonably easy to grow.
A lesser-known advantage is that they're a great way to clear and improve poor clay soils. Their roots help to break the soil down along with all the necessary digging and earthing up. Plus their leaves block out light to help prevent weeds from growing.
Potatoes come as First Earlies, Second Earlies and Maincrop. The first and second earlies tend to produce the smaller new potatoes which are faster to mature and less prone to disease. The Maincrop produce larger potatoes which store well.
At this time of year all varieties are available as seed potatoes which, once purchased, need to be ‘chitted’. This can be done by placing your chosen varieties into egg boxes with the end showing the most 'eyes' or buds facing upwards. Keep them in a light, frost free place and out of direct sunlight. Around 6 weeks later the shoots will be roughly one inch long, and your potatoes will be ready for planting out. Plant them in individual holes or in a trench, around four inches deep, and add an extra one inch of soil on top to create a mound.
Traditionally First and Second Earlies are planted on Good Friday, though any time between March and May will be fine depending on the weather. If they start to produce shoots too soon, they can be protected by covering them with soil otherwise known as ‘earthing up’. Plant First and Second Earlies twelve inches apart in rows eighteen inches apart. For Maincrop potatoes, space the rows further apart allowing twenty-four inches between rows. Continue to 'earth up' every three weeks until the leaves start to shade the tubers.
An alternative way of growing smaller new potatoes if you don’t have the room is to place three tubers in a bag and keep adding compost as they grow until the bag is full.
First and Second Earlies are ready to harvest when the flowers begin to open. They should be eaten soon after harvesting as they don’t store well.
Maincrop potatoes should be lifted when the haulm (the top of the plant) has died back and gone brown, which is 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. If your potatoes come out wet when dug up, 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 potato sacks or some form of textile or paper bags, but not plastic as this will cause them to seat and go rotten. Bags are best stored in a dark, cool and frost-free position. With the right conditions, your Maincrop should last for months.
Adrian, Nursery Manager