Saturday, 15 February 2014

Potato day

I've been hearing about an organisation called the Cambridgeshire Self-Sufficiency Group who seem to be doing some good stuff. I've finally tracked them down, as today they held their fifth annual Potato Day in Huntingdon.

I couldn't quite work out why it's taken me three years to hear about them and track them down. Even when they were mentioned, at the Fenland Smallholders Club, they were mentioned in hushed voices.

Anyway, I finally got to the bottom of it a few weeks ago. They were, apparently, a splinter group from the Fenland Smallholders! Formed after an acrimonious split, it would seem.

It's ridiculous, but from what I can make out the Smallholders Club was rife with politics when I first joined it and is only just really emerging from that period.

Anyway, that's all I'm saying... before I put my foot right in it. Except that today I joined them, so I now have a foot in both camps!

So, the Potato Day.
40 varieties of seed potato to choose from, a seed swap, potato dishes, craft stand...

I've already purchased my potatoes for this year, but I found out today that I could have purchased most of them at this event. Having said that, the petrol money would cancel out most of my savings, but if I could find a reason to go to Huntingdon anyway... Plus I'd like to support the group's efforts.

I currently buy my seed potatoes directly from Scotland, from a company called JBA seed potatoes. They have a very informative website here. I've always been very happy with the spuds I've received and they don't charge a ridiculous amount, either for the seed potatoes or for the postage.

They have 55 varieties to choose from, which means I can have red, white, waxy, floury, early, late, salad, bakers, chippers, roasters, boilers. Whatever I want.
There is an amazing variety of potatoes with such different qualities. So much so that I virtually regard them as different vegetables. How can you compare a Charlotte with a Romano, a Bonnie with a Pink Fir Apple?

So, here are the varieties I'm growing this year. I've pretty much settled on my selection now as my experimentation over the last few years has taught me which varieties taste best and grow best.

First Earlies: I'm growing Dunluce this year. It was between these and Arran Pilot. Also a red first early, Red Duke of York which makes excellent chips, unusual for an early.

Second Early: Bonnies - fantastic for baking and last well in the ground. Charlotte - a classic salad potato.

Maincrop: Romano - an updated version of Desiree, which has served me very well in the past. Orla - an organic growers' favourite. Cara - a basic white maincrop. Pink Fir Apple - a novelty shape salad potato. Does well in non-blight years.

This selection should give me potatoes throughout the year and I'll never get bored of them.

So today also marked a special day come round again in the calendar. For it was time to start chitting the potatoes. This is the process where they are exposed to the light and laid out to allow shoots to start to form. This gives them a headstart when they are planted and can make a considerable difference to final yield. It also allows an earlier crop.
The only tricky thing about chitting is getting the spuds the right way up! You sometimes have to look very carefully for the cluster of small eyes from which the shoots will develop.
There's a little pruning to do too, as you don't want too many shoots. It doesn't matter too much, you'll just get more, but smaller potatoes.
Some of these shoots will be sacrificed.
The potatoes are laid out carefully in egg boxes.
It's important to label them, as they can all look very similar.


The distinctive shape of
Pink Fir Apples potatoes.

So I opened up my boxes today and discovered that some of them were already chomping at the bit. They'll need a bit of a haircut. For the leggier shoots will have grown too long and spindly by the time I can put them in the ground. Thank goodness there is enough energy in those insignificant little tubers to be able to regrow healthy shoots quite quickly.
There is a crucial bit of timing involved too, as a late frost will catch any emerging vegetation and set the potatoes right back, undoing much of the preparatory work. The only way to get over this is to earth up over them if a cold night threatens... if only I didn't have a job to do as well.

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