You really can’t beat the taste of potatoes that you’ve just lifted from your own garden. And the good news is that growing your own potatoes needn’t be a chore if you follow our simple rules. You have to put in a bit of effort at the beginning but a little elbow grease goes a long way with potatoes. What’s more, the most delicious spuds of all – those new potatoes that you slather in butter and gobble greedily on a summer day – are the easiest to grow. So, what are you waiting for? The great British spud is coming to a garden near you!
Lesson 1: Preparing to Plant Potatoes
1.1) No Pain, No Gain
You have got such a treat in store when you harvest your first crop of home-grown potatoes. But, before you get to the yummy bit, you’ll need to work up a sweat! Potatoes, like any root crop, find it difficult to grow in compacted, stony ground. Choose an open, well-drained, sunny spot and dig over the soil, breaking up clods of earth and removing stones. Work in plenty of compost and manure. Avoid excessively limey soil.
1.2) Pioneer Potatoes
Ideally, you should dig your potato patch in the winter, allowing it some time to settle before planting. But spuds are a pretty forgiving crop and you can do this job in the early spring if you have to. In fact, many gardeners use potatoes as a “pioneer” crop on new vegetable plots. Don’t plant potatoes where they have been grown in the past three years. This encourages disease.
1.3) Head Start
There are three types of potato: early, 2nd early and main crop. The easiest way to grow any variety is to buy seed potatoes especially raised for the purpose and certified free from disease. Earlies should be “chitted” before planting. Find a light, airy position indoors and place the tubers in a seed tray or old egg box with the sprouting ends uppermost, around six weeks before planting. The green sprouts that result give earlies a head start. Chitting is not normally necessary for 2nd early or main crop potatoes.
1.4) Try These
There are hundreds of potato varieties. Experiment to see what works best for you. Earlies include “Pentland Javelin” and “Arran Pilot”; “Estima” and “Kestrel” are reliable 2nd earlies; try “Cara” and “Maxine” main crops.
Lesson 2: Planting Potatoes
2.1) Early Learners
Most potatoes are planted in early to late spring but they mature at different rates to provide eating throughout summer and into autumn. Many beginners find that it’s best to start with early and 2nd early potatoes. Spuds are pretty easy to grow but can succumb to pests and diseases, especially once they’ve been in the ground for a while. New potatoes are also more expensive to buy, so growing your own will save you money.
2.2) Spaced Spuds
Plant seed potatoes with the shoots uppermost. Aim for two or three shoots per tuber. Rub off extraneous shoots. Gently place them in 15cm-deep drills (trenches), covering them with soil to form a slight ridge. Many gardeners recommend adding a general purpose organic fertiliser to the bottom of the drill. Earlies should be 30cm apart, with 45cm between rows. Space main crop and 2nd earlies 38cm apart with 75cm between rows.
2.3) Potted Potatoes
Potatoes make good container crops. Plant two or three early seed potatoes in tubs at least 30cm deep and wide, filled with multi-purpose compost or well-improved garden soil. Use chitted tubers and plant them half-way down a 30cm-deep container. Alternatively, use heavy duty plastic rubble sacks, perforated for drainage. In this method, plant main crop potatoes in a sack half-filled with compost. “Earth up” the shoots as they grow, rolling up the sack to accommodate the extra compost. There’s more about earthing up in the next lesson.
Lesson 3: Looking after Potatoes
3.1) First Shoots
Once the shoots have grown a few centimetres above the soil, it’s time to begin the “earthing up” process. Draw earth up around the emerging stems and repeat every fortnight or so as the plants grow. This ensures that the developing tubers are not exposed to light. Potatoes that have been exposed to light become green and they’re not good to eat: they can give you an upset stomach.
3.2) Hanging Loose
Keep the soil between your rows loosened. This will make it easier to earth up the stems when they appear. The best tool for earthing up is undoubtedly the draw hoe. If you’re planning on growing a lot of main crop potatoes, a draw hoe is a smart investment.
3.3) Fighting Scab
Water early potato plants regularly, especially in dry weather. Don’t let them dry out once the tubers have reached marble size. Main crop potatoes need plentiful watering around the time that the flowers develop. This will increase the yield and make the plant more resistant to scab, which attacks potatoes in dry soil. Although potatoes are thirsty, they don’t like to be waterlogged. It’s essential to choose a well-drained site in the first place. As spring turns into summer, keep an eye out for the first flowers on your earlies. Find out why in the next lesson.
Lesson 4: Harvesting Early Potatoes
4.1) Flower Power
There’s a reason you’re looking out for flowers on your early potatoes. The arrival of fully opened flowers is your cue to make an exploratory excavation! This is usually around three months after planting. Approach the plant from the side and carefully lift the tubers with a fork. If you have a fork with flat tines, use it. Otherwise, go gently, trying not to disturb the tubers until you’ve worked out how big they are.
4.2) Salad Spuds
With luck, you should have a lovely crop of new potatoes – an ideal accompaniment to a summer salad. If the tubers are still too small, leave them a little longer. As a rule, don’t harvest more early potatoes than you need for your next meal. These spuds taste so much better when they’re straight out of the earth. They also lack the thicker skins of main crop potatoes so they don’t keep as well as their more robust companions.
4.3) Routine Maintenance
If you’re growing 2nd early and main crop potatoes, don’t neglect them in your excitement over your tasty early harvest. Sticking to a regular earthing up routine, for example, will help ward off potato blight, a serious disease that can destroy an entire crop and strikes during cool, wet summers. Pinch off main crop flowers to encourage bigger tubers.
Lesson 5: Harvesting Main crop and Late Potatoes
5.1) The Main Event
Treat 2nd early potatoes as earlies, although some varieties can be kept in the ground longer. They should be ready to harvest after around 15 weeks. Main crop potatoes will reach maturity after 18 weeks. By this time, the foliage is turning brown. Cut down the foliage and leave the potatoes in the ground for another fortnight before lifting for storage.
5.2) Sound Storage
Immediately after lifting, leave the tubers to dry out for a few hours. Examine the crop and use or destroy any damaged tubers. Only store completely sound potatoes. Place them in boxes with raised corner posts, in a dark, frost-free location. Cover them if necessary to ensure they don’t turn green. Inspect them periodically.
5.3) Welcome Latecomers
Your home-grown potato experience needn’t end in the autumn. Early varieties planted in late summer will provide crops in late autumn or even winter. Some suppliers prepare seed potatoes especially for this purpose. Choose sheltered positions or use the space vacated by your genuine early crop, after improving the soil with well forked-in compost and general purpose organic fertiliser. (This follow-on technique is an exception to the rule of not growing potatoes in the same spot within three years.) Lift in late autumn or cover with straw and leave for a few more weeks. Fresh, home-grown potatoes are guaranteed to lift a winter supper!