Although potatoes are relatively cheap to buy, there’s nothing like the taste of home-grown varieties gathered fresh from the garden or allotment plot. Most supermarkets only tend to stock 2 or 3 varieties. But there are hundreds of different flavours, textures, colours and shapes of potatoes to try.
Chitting your seed potatoes
A ‘chit’ is a name for the young shoot that grows from a potato. In order to set your potatoes off to a good start, it is highly recommended that you chit your crop before planting them out. Chitting is basically allowing each potato tuber to start forming growth shoots and roots ahead of planting. This process is absolutely required for early potatoes to give them a head start in the cooler months of the year.
Some may argue that commercial growers don’t chit and that their yield is comparable to that of chitted crops. This may be the case, but such industries can store their potato seed under carefully controlled temperatures before planting, thereby encouraging better results. Another reason to chit – you can determine which potatoes will grow into strong plants before placing them into the ground. This should save valuable growing space and prevent unsightly patches of earth, should the odd tuber come to nothing.
During mid-February, place your potato tubers in a dry, frost-free but cool and bright place. Stand each tuber side-by-side in large egg trays, with the surface most populated with ‘eyes’ pointing upward. After a few weeks, the eyes develop into chits. Don’t be alarmed if, by the time you plant your chitted potatoes, the shoots are a little long and pale. Although not ideal, they will soon recover and grow strong and green. Just be careful when planting that you don’t undo all of your hard work by breaking or rubbing off the shoots.
Tip: Encourage a small number of short and strong chits per potato. This will yield a heavier crop than you would get from allowing masses of long chits.
Potato crop types
Potatoes come in three main crops: early, second early and maincrop. This effects when your potato should be planted and how much space each tuber requires.
Early crops tend to be more pest and disease resistant. They also generally grow into smaller plants and require less growing space. ‘Earlies’ can be harvested earlier in the year, about 10 weeks after planting. Plant in mid-March in the south of England, or after the risk of hard frost has passed in early April. Establish them in rows 30 cm apart with 60 cm between each row. First earlies are also great for growing in barrels and large pots. Varieties to try: ‘Duke of York’ or ‘Rocket’.
Second Early Potatoes
Will take 13-14 weeks between planting and harvest. Plant your second earlies in mid-March in the south of England, or after the risk of hard frost has passed in early April – the same time as early crops. Place your chitted tubers 45 cm apart with 75 cm between each row. Varieties to try: ‘Kestrel’ or ‘Vivaldi’.
Depending on the variety, maincrops tend to be heavy croppers! Takes 15 weeks from planting to harvest. Plant your main crop during the first few weeks of April, if you live in the south of England. Plant in the latter part of April for the north. Establish them in rows, 60 cm apart with 75 cm between each row. Varieties to try: ‘Cara’ or ‘Desiree’.
How do I know my potato crop is ready for harvest?
After the given amount of weeks, you should start to notice that the leaves on your plants are starting to wilt and the stems turn yellow. Info: Earlies – 10 weeks, Second Earlies – 13 weeks, Maincrop – 15 weeks.
Dig a single plant or two up to see if the crop is ready. Don’t unearth all of your potatoes at the same time, unless of course you really love potatoes for breakfast, dinner and tea! They will continue to grow happily for a while if left in the ground. Equally, don’t leave them for too long. Potatoes turn sweeter with age and, as a result, become more attractive to slugs.
Discard potatoes that have developed a green outer skin. Green potatoes contain a toxin called ‘Solanine’ which may be harmful if eaten! Potatoes turn green if the tubers are exposed to sunlight, so always ensure that each plant has a plentiful covering of soil or mulch around its base. Topping such a layer up every week or so will not only guard against “greening”, but will also encourage the formation of even more potatoes!