About the Potato
Potatoes can be so cheap to buy, so why bother to grow your own?
One reason is taste - the chance to get tasty tatties that are full of flavour is not to be missed. Another reason is to try a different variety. The shops stock a limited range and often bag them without even telling you what variety you are buying. As a result, even if you liked it, you couldn't guarantee to get it again. Go to your Garden Centre and your eyes will be opened to all the varieties of seed potato available.
The best reason for me though is the plant itself. Far from being a dull and functional plant, it has lush green foliage and delicate white or pink flower. One of the prettiest flowers in the garden and loved by pollinators so winning on all levels.
Types of Seed Potato
There are three sorts of potatoes based on when you plant and harvest them: First Earlies, Earlies and Maincrop. The titles are fairly explanatory but basically the First Earlies are 'new' potatoes, small potatoes harvested as early as June followed by Earlies and Main Crop which produce larger potatoes later in the season.
||Plant in Garden
||Plant in Containers
||Late Feb / Early March
||Early/ Mid April
||Late March/ Early April
As soon as you buy your seed potatoes lay them out on a tray or in open egg boxes in a cool, dry, light position to allow them to sprout. This is known as chitting.
Believe it or not there is a 'right' way up for potatoes. The 'rose' end or the end with the most eyes and dimples should be placed uppermost. The debate is ongoing as to whether chiitting is needed at all though, so I doubt getting them the wrong way up at this stage will have a significant effect. The chits take about 4 to 6 weeks to grow. However you may find that your seed potatoes have started chitting before you buy them. They are ready to plant when the chits are about 1" (3cm) long. On early potatoes, rub off the weakest shoots, leaving three per tuber.
To ensure that you don't get a glut of potatoes you may wish to chit enough for one planter (3 or 4) leave it 7 to 10 days and chit a second batch etc etc so that your potatoes are planted and harvested over a period rather than all being ready at the same time. Our Potato Planters come in a pack of 3 so you can do the bags one at a time to achieve this easily.
Where to Plant
The first choice to make is where you want to grow them - in the ground or in containers. This depends on what space you have and how much digging you want to do. Containers are by far the easiest way but if you have lots of space and fancy the exercise then growing directly in the ground is an option.
Planting in containers
Take a large 40L Potato Planter or if you want an even bigger crop a Vigoroot Potato Planter that will air-prune the roots.
Pour about 5cm of good multipurpose compost into the bottom. Place your seed potatoes - 3 or 4 per planter- onto the soil making sure that your chits are facing upwards. Cover with a further 5cm of compost. Water and wait. That's it.
Earthing up: containers
In Containers - earthing up couldn't be easier. When the shoots have reached 10cm pour more soil into the planter until the tips of the plants are just covered. Keep the soil moist and continue to cover as the shoots grow. Maincrop potatoes benefit from a nitrogenous fertiliser around the time of the second earthing up. The bag will be full by the time you are finished.
Early potatoes take between 12-15 weeks to mature, main crop take about 20 weeks.
Once they have finished flowering and the leaves start to die back your potatoes are probably ready to harvest. To get the best results, and potatoes that will store really well, leave it 2 weeks after the foliage has died back to harvest. If frost is expected within two weeks while plants are still green and vigorous, you can defoliate the tops in order to kick start the skin setting process. The best way to do this is to shred the leaves and stems of the plants so that death is gradual rather than sudden. If the plants die suddenly (including death to hard frost), the tubers may be discoloured.
The skin on mature potatoes is thicker and firmly attached to the potato. To check if your potatoes are ready you can delve into the bag with your hand and find a potato. Rub the skin with your finger and if it comes off really easily they are probably not ready yet and need a little longer.
Once you are sure they are ready you can harvest. Simply turn the bag upside down on a plastic sheet, into a wheelbarrow or a corner of the patio. Shake the soil from the roots and you will see the potatoes which you can gently remove.
Curing & Storing
After harvesting, potatoes must be cured. Let them sit in temperatures of 7-16C (45 to 60 F) for about two weeks. This will give the skins time to harden and minor injuries to seal. Store your cured potatoes at about 4 C (40 F) in a dark place. A jute Veg Sack is ideal for this and will keep out the light that would turn them green and make them poisonous.
Planting In the Garden
If planting outside make sure that before you plant the potato bed has been turned over well then warm up the beds by placing mini poly tunnels over them a few days before planting.
The traditional planting method is to dig a narrow trench and place the tubers with chits facing up between 4” (10cm) Earlies and 8” (20cm) Maincrop deep.
Leave about 12" (30cm) Earlies and 15" (37cm) Maincrop between plants and 24" (60cm) Earlies and 30" (75cm) Maincrop between rows.
Finally, replace the poly tunnel to keep the soil warm, give them a good start and protect from late frosts once the shoots break through.
Earthing Up: outside
When shoots get to around 9" (23cm) start 'earthing up'. Basically, make small mounds of soil around them, covering the leaves creating a ridge about 6" (15cm) high. As the stems grow, repeat the process. The final height of the ridges will be about 12" (30cm). This will protect the plants from frost and keep the light from the developing potatoes which makes them go green and poisonous.
To harvest potatoes, you’ll need a spade or a fork. You can harvest just for supper i.e just what you need right now. However, it is quite stressful for the plant so be as gentle as you can. To do this drive your fork into the soil at the outside edges of the plant. Carefully lift the plant and remove the potatoes you need. Set the plant back in place and water thoroughly.
To harvest the whole crop, first test them for maturity by digging up one potato and testing its skin as outlined above. Especially important when digging up potatoes is making sure that you don't scratch, bruise or cut them. Damaged tubers will rot during storage so these should be first in the pot. Work through the bed as methodically as you can, feeling round the roots so that you don't miss any potatoes. Potatoes should then be cured and stored as detailed above.
Growing potatoes is very rewarding and you may find yourself bitten by the bug and refilling your potato planters immediately after harvest to grow your own potatoes for Christmas! In the meantime why not try this delicious Potato Scones recipe?