Monday, 22 February 2016

Potato Potential

A couple of weeks ago I was digging the veg beds when I unearthed half a row of Arran Pilots. This is an Early and should really have been eaten before the Second Earlies - about June 2015.
But I've discovered this before, that Earlies actually stand surprisingly well in the ground. They seem to be very slug resistant and keep their flavour pretty well. Okay, not quite so tender as the first dugs but still very edible. What's more, they swell up nicely so you get a lot more potato for your money.

I've got plenty of spuds still in storage but freshly dug potatoes at the beginning of February is certainly quite a luxury. It's not something I would plan to do every year or rely on, but I've learned that if some of the Earlies don't come out when they're supposed to it's certainly not a disaster.
Some very late 'Earlies'.

But my thoughts since the Winter Solstice have turned more to 2016's potato crop. Each year most gardeners buy in seed potatoes which, when the time is right, get buried in the ground to magically sprout and flourish into leafy green plants with clusters of fresh potatoes hidden just below the surface of the soil.
Seed potatoes are not cheap to buy, but as I live in an agricultural region, it's fairly easy to find places which sell them in bulk. Buying them this way is ridiculously cheap but you don't always want 25kg of seed potatoes.  In fact, most people never want 25kg of seed potatoes. In total I grow about 15 to 20 kg and that is certainly not all one variety.
So for the last two years I have started a co-operative buying scheme for the Fenland Smallholders Club. I take orders and buy in as much as is needed. Now this is a great scheme for the bulk standard varieties, such as Arran Pilot, Desiree, Charlotte and Picasso, but until the scheme grows I just don't get enough orders to warrant buying the more unusual varieties.

Before we let everyone in
Fortunately I have a second option. Cambridgeshire Self Sufficiency Group organise a Potato Day every year which is held in Huntington. They have about sixty varieties available at just £1/kg.  Potato days run all across the country and are a great way of buying seed potatoes - you get access to lots of different varieties at a good price. If you want to try lot of different types, you can buy just a few of each tuber too. The trouble is for me that the cost of petrol there and back outweighs the saving I make unless I can find another reason for being down that way.
This year I decided to help out with the setting up. There is a lot of lugging about to be done and I enjoy a bit of physical work. Besides that, the CSSG are a great group of people who I really enjoy spending time with.
As a member of CSSG, you get to pick your potatoes half an hour before the general public get let in. Not only does this mean you get to wander around at your own pace without the crowds, you also get to pick the best tubers. Not only that, but nothing will run out. Last year the Charlottes were gone by 11:17. The hall only opened to the public at 11! This year an extra sack was ordered.

As to which varieties I've chosen to grow this year, just read on.

But first to deal with a couple of questions which always crop up.


Do I need to buy in new 'seed' potatoes every year?
I don't know!!!  Of course, gardeners of old just saved their best potatoes from year to year and it is tempting to continue this tradition. Believe me, I'd love to. I keep searching the interweb and never come up with a definitive answer. What I do know, though, is that everybody I know does buy in fresh tubers every year, so I have decided to go with the flow on this one. At least I have managed to slash my costs. I cannot believe the prices that some of the bigger companies charge. Even with postage they are really taking the... potato.
The reason for buying in seed potatoes is to avoid the transfer of disease from year to year. The obvious disease is blight, which can overwinter in diseased tubers to emerge the next year. You still can't completely guard against it as it is windborne and can attack anyway, given the right weather conditions (hot and humid). However, it pays to take all precautions possible since it can wipe out an entire crop. But there are other pests and viruses, less well known, and I suspect the reason for them being less well-known is the modern practice of buying specially selected, virus-resistant potatoes. I looked up some information on how seed potatoes are graded and it was all a lot more complicated than I had imagined. It's not just a matter of growing potatoes in an area which is blight free (all our seed potatoes come down from Scotland) and then storing them in the right conditions. They are specially selected and there are percentage scores for occurrence of all sorts of nasties. There are limits and grades for how many generations of field grown crops the seed potatoes come from too.

Having said all this, I made a slight miscalculation with my Earlies this year. For the bulk order which I organise, I sold all the Arran Pilots without getting any myself. I had anticipated getting enough orders to buy a second sack, but that didn't materialise. I had intended on getting these planted in the polytunnel as early as possible in the year and didn't want to wait for potato day in the middle of February. (Potato day can't be much earlier than this otherwise many varieties haven't physically made their way down from Scotland yet.)
So I chose the very best of those Arran Pilots I dug up and put them straight back in the ground in the polutunnel for, hopefully, a very early crop of tasty new potatoes.

Is it worth growing my own potatoes?
Even if you've managed to source your seed potatoes economically, planting potatoes in spring is back-breaking work. Digging them up, especially if the soil has gone heavy and wet in autumn, is even more back-breaking. And if they catch blight or the slugs get to them, it can be soul-destroying too. So is it really worth growing your own spuds?
To that question I would answer a resounding YES for several reasons.

Firstly, have you ever wondered how, even with your tender loving care, you still end up losing potatoes, yet the farmers plant whole fields full of the things seemingly problem free. The answer is... chemicals. Slug pellets are liberally scattered, they are extensively sprayed throughout their growing lives and even after harvest they are sprayed to stop them sprouting. Personally, I'd prefer not to be eating all that.
Secondly, for each of my potato plants only one seed potato was transported down from Scotland. After that, nothing more than a fork and a wheelbarrow is needed. It really annoys me that we feel it necessary to import vegetables from all over the world just so we can have them out of season. Not only is there the environmental cost of the transport, but there are environmental costs to the countries they are grown in too and the economic benefits for those people are far from sustainable. So if you're going to buy chemical laden potatoes, at least buy them locally grown.
Thirdly, from April to October (at least) my potatoes come fresh from the ground. I have long been a believer that freshness, over every other factor, is why home grown tastes so good.
And if I've still not given enough reasons to persuade you, there's variety. You can get Maris Pipers, Picassos and 'Red Roosters' from the supermarket, but if you want Charlottes or Pink Fir Apples you'll be paying through the nose. Salad blue or Shetland Black will set you back a bob or two... or likely a lot more. And if you particularly wanted Blue Kestrel or Homeguard, then good luck finding those!
And that brings me on to my final question.

Which varieties should I grow?
Potatoes take up a fair amount of space, so if you're limited then it makes sense to grow just Earlies (take up space for less time, less prone to blight, more benefit of digging fresh) or more unusual varieties.
I have come to the conclusion that we should think of potatoes more in the way that we think of apples rather than bananas. There are many different varieties with different attributes. Different colours, different tastes, different uses, different textures, different harvest times. Different.
And for the grower, there are other factors - which potatoes are resistant to which pests and diseases, which potatoes do well in your ground, not that any year is the same as any other year!
At the Potato Day there were 60+ varieties available, which can be a bit bewildering to the individual.

So here are the varieties which I have more or less settled on:

Earlies

- Red Duke of York is a must. Not a traditional early, but the only early I know which is floury and makes excellent chips and roast.
- Arran Pilot or Dunluce. I think First Earlies are pretty interchangeable, although one year I tried Swift, which are supposed to be one of the very earliest, and was disappointed both with the yield and the taste. Other people love it though. Personally, for my super-earlies I prefer to use the polytunnel and have more choice of variety. As I'm growing Arran Pilot in the polytunnel, I've decided to grow Dunluce outside this year.

Second Earlies

- Charlottes are an absolute must. It is a prolific variety, stores well and tastes wonderful. I am flabbergasted at the price of these in the shops. They are actually one of the cheapest seed potatoes to buy.
- Kestrel. A new one for me last year. I was slightly disappointed with the yield, but the potatoes retained a very crunchy texture and the taste was good. The jury is out, so this year I have opted to grow just a dozen Blue Kestrel, which has the same qualities but is blue.
- Bonnie. This was on my absolute favourites list. It develops into big round potatoes which are fantastic for baking. I had two great years with this variety, but then the slugs seemed to find them so I haven't grown them for two years.
However, as I could buy just a few from the Potato Day, I've bought a dozen tubers to give it another go. I'll thoroughly dig the soil prior to planting and let the chickens in. Hopefully that way the slug problem will be eradicated before it starts.

Mains

- Desiree. A favourite of mine in terms of taste and in a good year produce massive tubers for baking. However, one year I had a poor harvest so decided to swap to Romano - an offspring of Desiree - but this too cropped disappointingly. So this year it's back to Desiree. It was in my bulk buy scheme and I had 4kg left for me so there'll be plenty!
- Picasso. Desiree is a red, so I needed a maincrop white too. I would have gone for a couple of organic favourites, Orla or Cara, or even King Edward, but Picasso won the vote of the bulk buy scheme and I had a load left over, so that's what I'll be growing.
- Markies. An experiment on the basis of someone else's recommendation. Again I just purchased a dozen tubers at Potato Day. If it does as well as reported, it'll become my go-to white maincrop.

Lates

- Pink Fir Apple. Because it's allegedly so late to develop, it is said to be very susceptible to blight. However, I have not found this. Even when we had very early blight and I had to chop off the tops I got a reasonable yield and virtually none of the blight got into the tubers. In fact, this year Pink Fir Apple gave by far my best yield of all varieties.
Some people don't like its knobbliness, but that's simple. It doesn't need peeling. Just a quick scrub and it boils (or even bakes) wonderfully, retaining a nice firm texture. It's a great one for slicing and putting into those midwinter casseroles.

So that's it. My potato buying advice.
Potatoes have a lot going for them, so go on, be bold! Don't just treat them as bulk carbohydrates. Try some different varieties and learn to appreciate them.
You can even grow them in bags. So get chitting!

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