Spuds, Glorious Spuds: Growing potatoes

My husband loves potatoes.

No, love isn’t strong enough a word. He loves me, his family, our pets…

He is besotted, devoted, passionate about potatoes! Potatoes are his oxygen, his joie de vivre, his safety blanket, his constant in a chaotic and ever changing world. When I first brought my husband to Texas to meet my family, our American sized potatoes were the thing that captured his heart in the Lone Star State – oh yeah, and the family were ok, too. As soon as we acquired the allotment, I knew I would have to grow potatoes – and lots of them!

Aim to find someone who looks at you the way my husband looks at potatoes.

My first true experience of seriously growing potatoes was last year. It all seemed fairly straight forward and, while we had huge harvests off some of the varieties, there were others that really failed to impress. The variety ‘Red Duke of York’ – although lauded for its reliability – was a bit of a disappointment. Hardly any of this variety were able to thrive and those that did produced scabbed tubers. To be fair, some of this can be attributed to a steep learning curve and my lack of experience at the time – not hilling up properly or protecting before late frosts, incorrect chitting techniques, not allowing enough room between tubers, etc. These are lessons which I’ve really taken on board for this year’s potato planting.

To accommodate my husband’s insatiable love of potatoes – and my love of trying new things – we decided to plant eight different varieties this year which are a combination of some old favourites and some new experiments. In all honesty, I did overestimate how much space I had dedicated to potatoes (again) so we ended up giving the excess seed tubers to a friend’s allotment, but I am very hopeful for good results this year! We’ve planted two first early varieties (Rocket and Arran Pilot); two second early varieties (Charlotte and Purple Eye); and four maincrops (King Edward, Maris Piper, Pink Fir Apple, and Kerr’s Pink).

In this post, I’m going to discuss the techniques we use – and the ones we’ve tried in the past – to get a delicious crop of fluffy, tasty, carbo-licious potatoes!

Even with the occasional crop failure, last year’s harvest was a roaring success!

The most cursory glance at this blog will tell you one thing – we have heavy clay soil and I have dedicated a lot of breath to moan about it! While this type of soil is great for retaining nutrients, it makes for an absolute backache to dig. It can also be tricky if there are any extreme variations in the weather – too much rain and you have a clumpy, sodden, muddy mess and too little rain will result in dry, rock hard, undiggable soil. I am often asked how to deal with this type of soil and I’m afraid that the answer isn’t what people want to hear – you just have to dig it, condition it with lots (and I mean, LOTS) of organic matter, and give it time. The best patch on our plot which has the closest thing to a fine, crumbling texture took 3 years of digging and planting to get the soil so workable, but even then it still requires effort to break it up.

If you’re not gardening on a budget, then you can always assemble raised beds and buy in loads of sieved topsoil and compost. Others rely on the no-dig method. I do really like this style of gardening and think it has a lot of benefits: however, the main downside for us would be the sheer amount of compost, mulch, and topsoil that we would need for a plot our size. Without the ability (or space) to make that much compost, we would also have to spend money to supply this. As we are attempting to do the allotment as cheaply as possible, we’ve just relied on the longer, more old-fashioned methods.

The even bigger question to come out of the soil conundrum: how do you plant potato tubers in heavy clay soil? Luckily, we’ve come up with a solution that has worked for us so far (fingers crossed).

Most advice says to plant the tubers in a trench approximately 8-10 inches deep. Some fellow gardeners on our plot use a petrol powered tiller to do this but – as we are trying to do this on the cheap – we’ve had to adapt this slightly. To accommodate for our heavy soil, we only dig about 6 inches deep – this keeps us from running into the extremely compacted and nutrient poor subsoil while still utilising the best of the more fertile topsoil.

You can tell by this picture what kind of soil we have – the pile on the left-hand side is what we’ve dug out to make the trench.

We then line the bottom of the trench with about 1-2 inches of well-rotted manure and/or compost. When I first started planting potatoes, my farm raised father-in-law told me to ‘Throw a bunch of sh*t on it.’ At the time, I thought he just meant a lot of stuff. No – he literally meant manure. And boy, does it work! Not only does it help feed the potatoes, but the earthworms love it and they’ll happily process it to better condition and soften your soil.

Once you have lined the trench with manure, place your chitted potatoes in the trench approximately 8-12 inches apart, depending on variety. While you don’t necessarily have to chit maincrop potatoes, I would definitely recommend doing it for first and second earlies. It allows them the chance to make healthy sprouts and the beginnings of good root systems before being placed in the ground, giving them a strong head start. To chit your potatoes, put them in a cool but sunny spot – for example, we use the counter in the utility room. Don’t be tempted to use your old potatoes from the pantry with long stringy shoots – these are not what you want!

The healthy shoot in the above picture is a perfect example of what you’re aiming to happen – you can even see some leaves developing and the different buds which will become separate potatoes! There is so much promise and potential in such a small and insignificant thing. Feel free to use to use this time to ponder the wonders of nature.

After you’ve placed your potato babies snugly in the ground you’re going to top them with – you guessed it – more manure! We cover them up so that none of the shoots or spuds are visible, so an inch or two above the tops of the tubers. What this has done is surround your potatoes with fertile and loose material with which to strengthen and grow. This allows them a much better chance of survival than having to immediately contend with breaking through harder, heavier soil.

Once you have finished this stage, now comes the time consuming part. Either by hand, with a soil sieve, or with some sort of tool, break up the dug pile of heavy clay soil as best as you can. It may seem tedious, but trust me, this is worth the time.

It took the two of us approximately a half hour to break as much as this up by hand as possible for two rows of potatoes – and as you can see from the picture on the right, it still isn’t that great. This is why cocooning the tubers in several inches of soft, loose organic matter like well-rotted manure is so important. As this stage can be rather tedious, I would recommend downloading a good audio book to have in the background.

As always, water them well every other day in normal springtime weather – everyday in hot, dry weather – until the plants start to appear above ground. Depending on the variety, this can take anywhere from 2-4 weeks. Once they start to get well established, begin feeding with a general purpose fertiliser like Growmore once a week to help them develop.

When the green shoots are approximately 10-12 inches tall (or the weather forecast predicts frost) you can start to hill up the potatoes.

Hilling up accomplishes two things. Firstly, it protects the growing and swelling tubers from receiving any sunlight underground. Exposure to sunlight is what turns potatoes green and produces solanine, a poisonous chemical that effects members of the deadly nightshade family like potatoes, tomatoes, and aubergines. In fact, the genus to which the plants belong (Solanum) gives its name to this chemical. Although you can just cut off the occasional green patch before you cook them, too much of this is poisonous for human consumption. Fortunately, hilling up or mulching the emerging potato plants keeps light from filtering through the soil and turning the tubers green.

Secondly, hilling up protects the tender leaves from any late spring frosts. Covering the shoots and leaves completely with more soil or mulch may seem counterproductive and like it would slow down or impede their growth, but it actually does just the opposite – it encourages the potato to keep reaching skyward and thus grow even bigger and stronger.

As you can see from the two photos above, you need to cover the plants up as much as possible, especially if frost is forecast. Don’t worry that this process will injure the plants – after another week or so, they’ll have grown significantly taller. The below picture was taken yesterday approximately two weeks after we hilled up the first earlies at the top of the plot. As you can see, they have already come through again!

You can keep your pristine knot and cross hedges or elegant rose gardens – to me, rows of uniformly planted potatoes is a thing of beauty!

When it comes to harvesting your potatoes, it really depends on the type you’ve planted. First early potatoes are usually ready to harvest when they’re about the size of a hen’s egg or when the flowers have appeared. Second early potatoes are usually ready a few weeks later and you can tell ripeness by the same methods as first earlies. Generally, it is best to wait for maincrop and late maincrop potatoes when the flowers have died and the foliage has started to yellow and wilt. If in doubt, dig up a corner and see what you have. Even if they all seem ready to dig up, it is perfectly fine for them to stay in the ground longer – they’ll only just get bigger – so feel free to dig them up as and when you need them rather than all at once.

It is said that the best time to harvest potatoes is in the morning – although this is usually the best time to harvest or cut most plants. The idea is that you rub off as much dirt and muck from the harvest tubers and lay them in the sun to dry, allowing the skins to toughen up in the process. Later that evening, lay the potatoes in a cool, dry space and evenly spaced apart. This will allow them to dry out even further. If there are any with bruises or nicks, eat these first as they won’t keep for very long.

For the remaining harvest, store them in a cloth or hessian sack once they are completely dry – these can be bought fairly cheaply online or in garden centres. Do not put them in a plastic bag as this can sweat and encourages mould growth and rotting. Also, do learn from my mistake and sort them according to variety – it is so frustrating to find a type of potato you really enjoy and not be able to remember the species for next year! Check them periodically and remove any that are beginning to rot or have problems that you may have missed. If kept properly, you should be able to eat roast potatoes at Christmas that you harvested in late-September.

Get planting!

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