We tend to think of potatoes as a poor man’s crop. But they are far from humble food. Think of duchesse potatoes, whipped into a fluted cone like ice cream and then baked into a crispy frosting that complements the softness of the mash beneath. Or think of the regal King Edwards, the top spud of the main crop, diced into crinkly chips and flash fried with lashings of salt.
Potatoes are easy to grow, taste quite different fresh and despite being a mere root vegetable, they are filling and they are one of the most nutritious vegetables you can grow. During the war, people were advised that a potatoes casserole was as good as a meat dish. For years I thought this was propaganda. But in fact the humble spud is as nutritious as it is flexible. Freshly harvested salad potatoes, boiled for less than fifteen minutes, flavoured with a tart vinaigrette and tossed into a salade Niçeoise, is one of the simple pleasures of summer.
In order to enjoy that pleasure next summer, February is the time to get started. The first and possibly most important thing is to select some really good seed potatoes. These are little potatoes from last year that will sprout to form plants for this year. It is impossible to stop any potato sprouting at this time of year. You can plant the sprouters from your supermarket veg basket, and I’ve been successful with British Charlotte from Waitrose, but if you want the very best salad potatoes, it is best to order from a reputable supplier. The range is massive; you can attend one of the many potato days that these suppliers support.
I had sent a special order to Chris Smith at Pennard, the acknowledged spud king. I only sew four pots, with four tubers in each. But even with this modest quantity I get a reasonable summer crop.
How to chit potato tubers?
My grandfather always chitted, and I think it is probably the best way to ensure an early crop. Apart from being the first to enjoy fresh spuds, when they are still pricey in the shops, the other benefit of growing early potatoes is that they are less likely to succumb to potato blight.
The potato tuber grows sideways, from a thick fleshy chord that is attached to the plant. A close inspection of your seed potatoes will reveal a slight indent and possibly a stump, where the spuds umbilical has been severed. Don’t confuse this (pictured left) with the new shoots that grow from the other end of the seed, At this time of year the shoots will be tiny, dark green or white nipples. See right hand image.
I place mine, shoot side up, in egg boxes. These I keep in a cool, dry and light (not sunny) place. See above. Don't forget to label them clearly. This year I'm making a note of the seed company as well. I have a hunch it makes a difference.
Growing Potatoes in Tubs
In about a month’s time, when we are unlikely to get any further frosts, they will be ready to plant out, on top of six inches of compost in big plastic pots. I put four in each pot and I don’t cut them (But you can with main-croppers in the soil, if you prefer more, smaller potatoes.) I top up the earth as the shoots develop. I find they like light sun or dappled shade and lashings of water and food. I feed them with a homemade compost tea, or a slightly more diluted tomato fertiliser.
Harvest the first earlies when they begin to flower and second earlies when the flowering has ended. Harvest the maincrop at any time, depending on the weather and your nerves. The foliage will die down, but beware, I think it’s the dying foliage that is most vulnerable to blight, so if you think you have any, do not delay. Cut all the foliage off straight away and then harvest as soon as possible.
The difference between earlies, second earlies and main crop is really only how long you leave them in the ground. If it’s a good year, you can harvest second and maincrop by digging around underneath for an early meal and then leaving the rest of the plant intact, to allow a few to grow larger and develop into the perfect roasting potatoes. As long as you don’t get any blight you can also save your own as seed for next year.
I’ve selected four varieties this year, two of which I grew last year. The Pink Fir Apple potatoes looked wonderful in 2012, their foliage and flowers were a delight, but they succumbed to blight in August and by the time I harvested them, most of the pink skinned beauties were spongy and useless. And Nicola, which I rate higher than Rocket, was not available by the time I ordered.
Some have lovely flowers and coloured leaves.
One of the first and earliest to mature, a round, smooth skinned and waxy salad potato. Grown by the horticultural show anoraks, because of their reputation for heavy and early cropping and their resistance to all critters. This will be my first to harvest.
This is a real show stopper; they are small, elongated and gnarled. (Some would say difficult to peel, but only a philistine would want to peel of the flavourful skin of this potato when it has been freshly harvested.) This is classified as an early maincrop, but I defy anyone to leave them in the ground long enough to get really big. However, it is a good keeper and suitable for many cooking purposes.
On the left you can see the wonderful crop that I got last year from just one pot - minus a few that I picked off earlier before I harvested the whole plants.
They have a lovely nutty flavour and are delicious as salad or boiled. Because they are long and thin they make good chips too!
Belle de Fontaney
This, like Ratte is an old French variety. It’s a second early. Keep it for a while after harvesting, to encourage the flavour to develop. It is a delicious potato but unfortunately last year they succumbed to blight.
This variety was developed in 1947, in Brittany and the breeder, obviously with his mind on other things during the German occupation, didn’t bother to name the variety. It is also a second early and has fewer larger tubers than the parent, which is Bell de Fontenay. This cropped nicely and early too.