The great staple of the daily diet for most people is the potato. It is one of the most versatile members of the vegetable family because it can be used in so many ways. The humble potato can be roasted, baked, fried, sautéed, boiled, mashed… the list goes on.
Growing potatoes is cheap and easy and allows you to choose varieties that might not be available in the shops. The only downside is that you cannot check their progress while they are growing because all the action takes place in the ground; you have to wait patiently until the time comes to dig them up.
Potatoes are grown from tubers, known as ‘seed’ potatoes. It is best to plant new ones every year rather than use leftovers from previous crops which may have viruses or diseases that could affect the rest of your garden. Buy your seed potatoes from a reputable supplier to ensure top quality stock that has been certified as free from disease. You can buy at any time from late winter to early spring and keep them in storage in a cool dark place until you are ready to prepare and plant them in March or April.
Some varieties will need ‘chitting’ before planting in the ground. Chitting encourages sprouting and is done by setting them out side by side in a box or on a tray, with the ‘rose’ end (the end that shows little buds) uppermost. Place the box, with an identifying label if you are growing more than one variety, in a cool but light place; this will encourage short compact sprouts to form which will ensure the best results.
The next job is to prepare the soil in your vegetable plot by digging some well-rotted manure, compost, or general fertilizer into the top 11 inches of the earth. Bear in mind that potatoes need to be grown by crop rotation, which means ensuring that they are not planted in the same place every year. This lessens the risk of encouraging diseases which tend to strike if the same crop is planted in the same place year on year. A crop rotation cycle of four years is considered ideal to keep the risk as low as possible. A simple notebook in which you log the relevant details will help you to keep your garden disease free.
March and April, when the grass in your lawn has resumed growth after winter, are the best months for planting out your potatoes. Dig trenches about 6 inches deep, and around 24 inches apart, and place your chitted potatoes, rose end up, at the bottom of the trench. Keep an eye on the weather and, if frost is forecast, protect shoots and leaves with fleece that can be purchased from any garden center.
Potatoes need to be ‘earthed up’ once they are around 6 inches high by bringing up some of the soil and packing it around the shoots, leaving about 2 inches of leaf exposed; this helps to keep the crop out of the light, and free of weeds and disease. Earth up again once the plants are starting to touch each other. You can also add a ‘mulch’ of leaf-mold, straw, or hay, which will help to retain moisture around the plant.
Water your potatoes regularly, ensuring that you water the soil and not the leaves. Aim for consistent moisture around the plants to achieve a high yield of healthy potatoes.
Depending on variety, potatoes can be harvested at any time from mid July to the end of October but, if you see signs of disease, you will have to lift them earlier to minimize damage. For the best storage results choose potatoes with well-developed skins; leaving them in the ground for about three weeks after the stems have died back will achieve this.
Lift your potatoes gently, shake off the soil, and leave them on the ground for a few hours to dry off any moisture.
You have worked hard all spring and summer, planting, digging, weeding, and watering, and now you have a good stock of potatoes to get you through the winter months. It is a great feeling knowing that you will be saving money by eating what you have grown, but first you have to harvest it all, and get it into storage.
Storing potatoes is not just a matter of tossing them into a box or bag. You do not want to waste all the effort that went into growing and nurturing them because you did not prepare and store them correctly.
Potatoes should be dug up and laid out on newspaper in a cool, dark place for about two weeks; this allows any moisture to dry out. Once they are thoroughly dry, scrape off any surface soil, but do not use water because the dampness will encourage them to rot. Check the potatoes over, discarding any that are already showing signs of rot. Potatoes that have been accidentally sliced through with the spade during harvesting should be used straightaway because they will not keep for long.
Once you have sorted your potatoes, you can store them either in paper or hessian sacks, or by layering them in a wooden crate with sheets of newspaper between each layer, and a covering sheet on top. Both methods will keep them cool and dry and will ensure that they are stored in the dark. Keeping them out of the light is essential to avoid greening of the skins, or sprouting, both of which will shorten the storage life. Once you have prepared your crop for storage, place it in a cool room; a basement is ideal.
Every now and again, check your potatoes, discarding any that have started to sprout or show signs of rot. Left in place, they will start to decay, and may spoil the rest of the crop.
By following these instructions, you will ensure that you have potatoes right through the winter.