[continued from Part One]
Potatoes fall into three categories as far as cropping is concerned. Early, Second Early, and Maincrop. If you want to be self sufficient in tatties, you probably want to grow all three. But for most purposes, Second Earlies can be ignored. And in a small garden, Maincrop potatoes occupy a disproportionate amount of space for a very long season. So most gardeners settle for a few Early ones. Does this begin to sound easier?
Right, let’s do some name-dropping. The King of the Earlies has to be Duke of York. Call me a traditionalist if you like, but although many fine modern varieties have been bred, the Duke takes some beating. It’s been around a long time, and was an old established favourite back in the year oatcake, when I first became curious as to why my Dad dropped part of our dinner in the ground every spring. And for many childhood years, I never heard early potatoes called anything other than Dukes. But give some of the newer ones a go, too. Minerva is particularly fast-maturing. Charlotte is good cold in salads, as is Maris Bard. And Pentland Javelin is one of the heaviest croppers among the earlies.
If you want to try some Maincrop varieties, Kerr’s Pink is my Maincrop equivalent of the grand old Duke. King Edward is another which has been around a long time, but is still very popular. Desiree is a good all-rounder, and more disease resistant than most. Or try a new variety, Estima (from Suttons), which is claimed to be an excellent baker, though I’ve yet to try it myself.
On a cautionary note, though Earlies are rarely affected, Maincrop tatties are susceptible to potato blight, especially in a damp season. It can affect leaves, stems and tubers, and is caused by the fungus Phytophthoro infestans. You always wanted to know that, didn’t you? Pass the Trivial Pursuit (or shall I just get my anorak and leave?).
Stop it. Blight is serious. The first symptom is yellow-brown patches on the leaves. Act immediately. Cut off the foliage to ground level, and dispose of it. And by dispose, I mean burn or otherwise destroy, because the fungus will happily overwinter in the compost heap. You can cut the foliage off like this because in all but the most exceptional season, your tatties will be ready, or pretty nearly ready, before blight strikes. If you leave the foliage on, the fungus spreads down the stems and into the tubers. You are not always aware that a tuber is infected. The problem becomes evident with stored potatoes, when you’re left with a putrid gooey mess where once had been your prized winter fodder.
And so, finally and briefly, let’s have a quick peek at a couple of alternative growing techniques.
For early crops, or patio gardening, grow in a big pot or tub. A plastic dustbin does a good job, but is somewhat lacking in aesthetic quality. If you do choose a bin, remember to make lots of drainage holes. Put planting compost (not just garden soil – this is a restricted environment, and the potatoes will need a good quality compost to do well) in the bottom third of the container, and plant a few tubers. The number you use depends on the pot size, but say five in a dustbin. Cover and leave, not forgetting to water. As the foliage grows, keep adding more compost, until a few inches from the top. Tubers will form all the way up the buried stem.
Forget all the cultivation, digging trenches, etc, but don’t forget to add manure/fertiliser. Spread some black plastic over the soil and anchor it down. Make small slits at the same spacing as you would if growing in rows, and pop the tubers through, and into the soil, with a trowel. Then do . . . nothing. No earthing up. No weeding. The polythene will take care of that. That’s it. Eat when ready.
And a wee footnote. Want some really fresh home-grown new potatoes with the Christmas turkey? When your earlies are ripe, select some undamaged ones, and pack in slightly dampened peat in an airtight container. Bury well down in the garden, and don’t forget where you’ve put them! Lift them on Christmas morning, and they’ll be as fresh as the day they were dug. Well, nine times out of ten, anyway.
But don’t think I’m going to confess to my disasters!