From earthy new potatoes and bite-sized salad varieties to floury bakers and roasters, the humble potato remains the nation’s favourite vegetable. If you’re a potato aficionado, there are a huge number of exciting varieties you can try growing that you’ll never see in the shops.
Grow your crop from ‘seed potatoes’, which are small tubers rather than actual seeds. They go on sale in late winter. Don’t be tempted to save old potatoes from the veg rack, as they won’t produce reliable crops.
Potatoes do well in all types of soil, but the richer the better, so dig in plenty of well-rotted organic matter, such as garden compost. They also like an open, sunny site.
While maincrop potatoes grow well in the ground, early or salad varieties will also do well in containers. Polypropylene potato growing bags are designed especially for this purpose and are handy if you’re short of space.
When growing potatoes in the ground, earlies and salad types should be planted in March, 12cm deep and 30cm apart, with 60cm between rows. Plant maincrop varieties later, in April. These need to stay in the ground longer and require more space to produce a decent crop. Plant them 12cm deep and 38cm apart, with 75cm between rows. Plant potatoes with the shoots (or ‘eyes’) facing upwards.
Caring for your potato crop
Water potatoes regularly, especially during warm, dry spells, and keep them weed free. As the plants grow, cover the shoots with soil to stop the developing tubers becoming green and inedible. This is called ‘earthing up’. When the crop reaches 20cm tall, use a rake to draw soil around the foliage, leaving the top few centimetres poking out the top. As plants continue to grow you will need to earth them up again.
If earthing up sounds too much like hard work, once you’ve planted your potatoes, cover the area with black plastic. When you can see bumps under the sheeting, make a cross cut in the plastic for the foliage to pop through. The plastic will shield the tubers from light and act like a mulch to reduce weeding.
Depending on the type of potato, you’ll have crops from May to October.
Lift earlies and salad potatoes when the plants are still flowering and the potatoes are about the size of a large hen’s egg. Cut the tops off, then gently prise the plants out of the ground with a fork. Dig up the potatoes as and when you need them.
Leave maincrop potatoes in the ground until the leaves turn yellow and die down. Choose a dry day to dig up your crop. Cut off the tops and dig up your potatoes, discarding any damaged ones. To harvest potatoes grown in pots, simply tip out the contents and enjoy the rich – and easy – pickings.
Maincrop potatoes will store well for many months in a cool but frost-free place. Only store perfect ones, removing any showing signs of damage, and don’t wash before storage. All light must be excluded to avoid potatoes turning green and poisonous. Hessian or thick brown-paper sacks are available for the job. Check crops in store regularly, removing any rotten ones.
Preparing and cooking potatoes
Wash and scrub them before frying, boiling, baking, mashing, roasting or sautéeing – this has to be the most versatile vegetable!
Health note: never eat potatoes raw. Green potatoes contain a chemical called solanine, which they develop on exposure to light. It can cause severe stomach upsets.
Solving problems with potato crops
Slugs can be a problem, especially if growing potatoes under black plastic.
Blight is a fungal disease infecting both potatoes and tomatoes that turns foliage yellow with dark patches and causes the tubers to rot. Grow a blight-resistant variety to avoid having to spray with fungicide to keep it at bay.
Never grow potatoes in the same soil year after year as you’ll encourage pests. These include potato eelworm, which causes stunted growth and poor cropping.
Getting your potatoes started
To get potatoes ready for planting you must chit them first – a process that encourages shoots to grow. Place potatoes in trays or in egg cartons with the end that has the most eyes uppermost. Stand in a cool, light spot until 1-2cm long shoots have formed. This could take up to six weeks.
Potato varieties to try
‘Annabelle’ – compact, small tubers with white skins and golden flesh. Disease resistant
‘Charlotte’ – yellow skin and flesh, with a lovely flavour. Remains firm when cooked
‘Cherie’ – delicious red-skinned salad variety with waxy flesh
‘Milva’ – yellow flesh, perfect for boiling. Good yields