Tuesday 21 August 2018

Plant your first earlies on St Patrick's Day

Once you've chosen your variety, growing potatoes couldn't be easier - just chit, plant, harvest, eat

GERRY DALY: It’s worth sprouting, or chitting, potatoes before planting, as this brings harvest forward
GERRY DALY: It’s worth sprouting, or chitting, potatoes before planting, as this brings harvest forward

Gerry Daly

Growing your own potatoes is remarkably satisfying and not all that much trouble - but it is most important not to take on too much. Start with early varieties that can be eaten fresh, and do not need to be stored. Early varieties suffer less from pests and diseases, too.

Choose an area in full open sunshine with good air movement but not too windy or exposed. The soil should be deep and fertile and free of perennial weeds, such as scutch grass, thistles or docks. It should have plenty of organic material applied. Some general fertiliser can be applied to boost fertility.

There are hundreds of varieties to choose from. Traditionally the choice of varieties went like this - first early 'Home Guard', followed by second early 'British Queen', then early maincrop 'Kerr's Pink' up to the year-end or so and 'Golden Wonder' to store until June. All of these varieties are still good, along with other old and valued varieties, such as earlies 'Sharpe's Express' and 'Duke of York' and early maincrop 'King Edward' and 'Record'.

Other varieties available include the earlies 'Lady Cristl', 'Colleen', 'Orla'; early maincrop: 'Maris Piper', 'Pentland Dell', 'Sante'; and maincrop: 'Setanta', 'Cara', 'Rooster', 'Druid' and 'Valor'. Some of these show good pest and disease resistance, such as 'Lady Cristl', 'Orla', 'Sante', 'Cara', 'Druid', 'Setanta' and 'Valor' as well as the very blight-resistant 'Carolus' and 'Vitabella'. 'Sante' and 'Valor' have resistance to both kinds of eelworms.

Planting

It is worth sprouting, or chitting, the potatoes before planting, especially with first earlies, as this brings harvest forward as much as three weeks. Sprout by standing the tubers one-deep in shallow trays in a greenhouse or conservatory with good light.

Early planting is possible in a mild garden with light soil, dry enough to cultivate early. There is a risk of frost damage to the foliage so the earliest crops can only be grown in mild areas, or covered with horticultural fleece. Maincrops can be planted in March, April or early May.

Earlies are planted at 30cm apart in rows spaced 50cm apart. Main crop varieties need more space, planting at 40cm apart in rows 75cm apart. Plant first earlies by trowel, so as not to have to move much soil, and maincrop by making drills.

Small packs of seed potatoes are available with as few as 10 tubers, enough for three or four metres of row, which means more than one variety can be grown, yielding 1.5kg of earlies and 3kg of maincrops per metre of row. But a few plants can be grown in large pots, even on a balcony, for that superb fresh flavour.

Aftercare

Earlies might need to be covered with fleece against frost. Earthing up to prevent greening is likely to be necessary when potatoes are trowel-planted. To earth-up, loosen the soil along the paths between rows with a fork and then shovel it on either side to mound up around the stems when the plants are about 15cm tall. Watering may be required for earlies and maincrop. Earlies often suffer drought in May and may need one or two heavy waterings with a sprinkler or hose. Maincrop potatoes may run short of water in July or August in dry weather.

Harvesting

Early potatoes can be used as soon as they are large enough, although they can be 'soapy' at this stage. Usually when the plants have flowered or soon after, the early potatoes are ready and this can be as little as 100 days after planting in good weather. Maincrop varieties are usually left to build their dry matter levels to make them more floury in flavour and store better.

If blight appears, it's best to cut away the foliage to prevent it transferring to the tubers. If tubers are left in the ground too late in autumn, slugs can do damage. Potatoes can be stored in a frost-free shed, or outdoors in a pit made with straw and covered with soil.

Smell the roses

Irish rose grower David Kenny, who has bred many a winning variety, shares a lifetime of horticultural wisdom on this most popular of flowers at Our Lady's School, Templeogue, Dublin 6 on March 21, 8pm; €7 for non-members.

Create a buzz

It's no news that bee colonies have been badly hit over recent years. Now, you can help create a friendly habitat for these important pollinators, no matter how small your space, with a new book by Sarah Wyndham Lewis, Planting for Honeybees (£12, Quadrille), out now.

Meet an eggspert

Bird expert Jamie Durrant stages a free drop-in session for young twitchers at the Natural History Museum (museum.ie) in Dublin, 11am-1pm, March 29, with a chance to handle bird's eggs and ask all about our feathered friends. Entry free, ages 8+.

Sunday Independent

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