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Potatoes: are they worth growing?

Of course they are, writes Michael Kelly. This versatile vegetable is a marvel of efficiency, and can help turn a poor plot into a thriving patch

It seems appropriate to have a bit of a discussion about potatoes, what with it being St Patrick's Day weekend and all.

Traditionally, Irish people put their spuds in the ground on or around St Patrick's Day, believing it to be an auspicious day on which to do so.

But the tradition has far more to do with the fact that it's just a good time of the year to sow potatoes, rather than having any connection to St Patrick.

So are potatoes worth growing? Of course I am going to argue that they are, but let's be contrary for the sake of it, and consider some reasons why they might not be.

First of all, the shop-bought alternative is relatively cheap, entirely ubiquitous, and incredibly convenient.

Potatoes also take up quite a good deal of space in the veg patch. Though you can get a small crop of spuds growing in a pot on a balcony if you so wish, if you are serious about having a reliable crop of spuds from June to October, and having some for storage over winter, you need to dedicate a fair patch of land to growing them.

Then of course, there's the dreaded potato blight, which is a pretty constant scourge in our mild, wet climate, and a particular issue if you are growing organically and don't want to spray chemicals on your plants to prevent it.

So, that's the case against growing spuds out of the way – if I sounded half-hearted, it's because I absolutely love growing spuds and here's why.

First of all, potatoes are a supremely useful vegetable, arguably one of the most useful ingredients we have at our disposal in the kitchen. Very few dinners (in our house at least) do not contain some portion of potatoes, whether they be boiled, baked, roasted, fried, mashed, chipped, or, if we're feeling sassy, au gratin, duchesse, or dauphine.

And if you think supermarket spuds are convenient, well in my view it's even more convenient to wander down to the veg patch and dig some spuds fresh from the soil – you don't even have to get in the car.

Then there is the matter of flavour. Like everything else you grow yourself, your own spuds will taste infinitely better than the shop-bought ones, and you will almost certainly get more satisfaction from eating them.

Harvesting the first spuds in May or June is always up there in my favourite growing moments of the year.

There's simply nothing better than grabbing a handful of new spuds from the soil, boiling them up (with a handful of fresh mint), and eating them with more butter than is good for you.

When you grow your own potatoes you also get to try out lots of varieties that aren't so readily available in the shops (where the Rooster, Kerr's Pink and Golden Wonder hold sway). You can literally grow whatever variety takes your fancy – eg Orla, Home Guard, British Queen, Duke of York, Setanta, Cara, Sarpo Mira and more.

The act of harvesting spuds is pure joy. Rummaging in the soil underneath a potato plant and finding lots of lovely tubers is a moment that gives opening presents on Christmas morning a run for its money.

Fundamentally, potatoes are not at all difficult to grow – all you are doing is basically sticking one of last year's spuds in the soil which sprouts in to a plant, which produces lots of other potatoes. So a single potato is magically transformed into anything from five to 15 potatoes, which you must admit is a marvel of efficiency.

The humble spud is a great vegetable to try out in your first growing year – it's pretty much guaranteed that it will produce some class of a crop three months later and you will be feeling mighty pleased with yourself.

In addition, potatoes won't really mind if you have crap soil and, in fact, they will do a good job of helping you to improve it. The process of 'earthing up' spuds does wonders for your soil, as does the fact that potato plants have dense leaves, which means that weeds don't stand a chance of getting established. Sowing spuds is a universally accepted method of helping to turn a poor piece of ground into a thriving vegetable patch.

Above all I love growing potatoes because it's the first big vegetable project of the season. "Chitting" spuds (where you leave the spuds to sprout in a shallow tray to get a head start), which starts in February, is pretty much the first growing task of the year.

Sowing spuds is also the first outside sowing I do each year, which is always exciting after a long winter. There are lots of different methods of sowing spuds, but at a basic level you are creating a hole about 15cm deep and sticking a seed potato into it. Simple.

I also enjoy the fact that growing spuds pays dividends quickly. Okay, so it will be late June before you have your first earlies (and I always eat so many in my first sitting that I get a pain), but at least in a few weeks time there will be visible signs of growth.

The first little deep-green leafy shoots will appear above ground and then the real work of earthing up and watering will commence.

In the warmer months of May when the vegetable patch still looks pretty bare, at least the spud bed is resplendent in greenery. Hurrah for that.

Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.

Irish Independent