Sunday, 10 February 2019

Potato day 2019

While heavy snow hit almost all the rest of the country, here in our little piece of fenland we managed to all but avoid it. But with the ground frozen for a couple of weeks it has slowed my progress in the veg plot.

That is though what the seasons are all about. As a smallholder you work with the weather patterns. We don't get snow all winter, but a week or two of freezing temperatures and the odd covering of the white stuff is what we should expect.
Anyway, I am glad we didn't get a lot of snow for it somehow has the capacity to make the ground even sludgier than a downfall of rain.

Saturday 2nd February was Potato Day, an annual event held by Cambridgeshire Self-Sufficiency Group.
For the last few years I have helped set up, getting lots and lots of potato varieties out of a van and laid out in neat order on tables. The event is held in Huntingdon but the venue has changed several times. For now it has settled into a fantastic old church in the very centre of town.
It surely has to be one of the most glamorous venues for a potato day.

As is usual I like to arrive early, get set up, purchase my year's supply of seed potatoes and get out before the place is full of Joe (and Jane) public.

There are over 40 varieties of potato to choose from. We used to have even more, but some of the more unusual types don't sell well enough to be worth buying in. They are just £1/kilo for members of the group, £1.30 for non members.
It is a great opportunity to experiment with new varieties. One year somebody bought one of each just so they could compare yields, taste and uses.

With so many types of potato on sale it can be a bit bewildering. It pays to do a bit of research and find out the qualities of each one. There is of course information available at Potato Day, but over the years I have now settled on eight varieties.
Primarily they absolutely have to be slug resistant. For some reason slugs like to munch some types of potato but not others. The other big pest is a fungal one. Blight. That's the same potato blight which caused famine in Ireland all those years ago.
We didn't get it at all last year but that was because it was such a dry year. It thrives in warm, humid conditions, exactly the conditions we are getting more and more in summer as the climate breaks down.
There are some varieties which have been bred to be very resistant to this scourge. I have grown them and their leaves did stay wonderfully green compared to the collapsed foliage of the potatoes all around them. Unfortunately though they have very little taste.
So instead I look for varieties with 'some resistance'. This usually means that they do get killed off by blight, but that for some reason it seems slower to infect the tubers meaning that more can be saved.

It is this prevalence of blight nowadays which necessitates purchasing new seed potatoes every year. If we didn't get it I would probably just use last years potatoes to start off the crop each year. This is the reason why 'volunteer' potatoes, those which you missed harvesting the previous year and appear in last year's bed, need to be removed straight away.

So, my eight varieties:
Earlies - Arran Pilot and Red Duke of York.
Second Earlies - Kestrel and Charlotte (Kestrel is the variety chosen by the Grow Your Own group for everybody to grow this year so we can compare results. Fortunately it is one which I grow every year as it grows very well here. I did used to grow Blue Kestrel successfully too but it is no longer available at potato day)
Maincrops - Desiree, Valor (a new one I tried last year, very firm flesh which stores well and has a lovely taste), Cara (a good all round white potato. I would prefer the organic growers' favourite Orla but that one is not available).
Speciality - Pink Fir Apple - very late to form tubers so be prepared to get none if blight comes early. But in a good year I get sacks full. It is a distinctive potato which is great boiled or whole in winter stews. It lasts well through the winter and we are often still eating it when the first of the early potatoes is ready in spring.

I have planted some of the Arran Pilot potatoes in the polytunnel where I can protect the emerging leaves from frosts. They will give an early harvest of new potatoes.

Arran Pilot and Kestrel potatoes being chitted

The rest are in the conservatory (aka plant nursery come potting shed at this time of year) chitting. This is the process where you lay them out in egg boxes and encourage them to start sprouting. In theory this gives them a head start once they are outside in the ground.
They can' just go straight into the ground outside as any frosts will likely kill them.
I think the effect of chitting is marginal but it's just something you do, almost a custom which marks the beginning of the potato growing year.

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