Potatoes on the Patio
I was pushing the trolley round my local Waitrose this week and a handy mixed bag of Alan Titchmarsh endorsed Potatoes caught my eye. What “AlanTitchmarsh and Waitrose Grow Your Own” have cleverly done is to offer a mixed bag with three dependable varieties to give you everything you might want from your potatoes. The selection includes Maris Peer, a second early and Desiree, a main crop plus Pink Fir Apple, a great main crop salad potato. Since I always get a few Pink Fir Apples to cheer up my early autumn lunches, this seemed like a good offer. The proof will of course be in the eating.
Novice gardeners can get a bit bamboozled by all the talk of Earlies, Second Earlies and Maincrops. Actually it isn’t as complicated as it sounds. First Earlies are so called because they are the first potatoes to be ready. They can be planted from late February in milder, frost free areas, followed by Second Earlies from early March. When temperatures rise a bit towards the end of March, you can plant your Salad varieties and Maincrops.
About 6 weeks before you plan to plant the tubers, use the sections of an egg box or put them on trays in a cool, well-ventilated, frost-free place, out of direct sun light – a garage, shed, cool spare room that sort of thing. Place the seed potatoes rose end where most of the eyes are. It is from the eyes that the sprouts or chits will come. It isn’t necessary to chit Main crop varieties, but is strongly recommended for First Earlies, Second Earlies and even Salad varieties. You are after strong dark green or purple shoots about 2.5cm long. Leggy pale shoots are a sign of too much heat and not enough light. If your shoots aren’t sprouting after 3 weeks, move the potatoes to somewhere slightly warmer and that should get them going. Then move them back into the cooler atmosphere for the final week.
A Pot for your Pots
You can grow a few spuds anywhere – they do particularly well in tubs and bin bags, so are quite suitable for growing on the patio, amid the garden furniture. If you pick your container carefully to compliment your cast aluminium outdoor furniture, you won’t give the impression of doing a ‘Good Life’. Actually, a couple of large glazed pots, or those clever plastic tubs that look as if they are ceramic, will bring a spot of life to a paved area, and may enhance the view from your metal garden table. Make sure you water regularly and give a good soaking once every ten days in periods of drought. The potatoes need a lot of water to swell their tubers.
Where to grow your Potatoes
Potatoes suffer from a number of pests and diseases so it is advised that you don’t grow potatoes in the same spot for seven years, or 3 if this is impractical due to space. It is tradition to plant them in rows from North to South so that the sun’s rays reach both sides of the ridges. Once shoots appear, it is time to ‘earth up’ the rows. This means forming a ridge by covering the shoots on both sides with extra soil. You are protecting the plant from late frosts, and just as importantly, ensuring the tubers don’t become green and inedible by contact with the light. Keep building up the ridge regularly until they are about 20 cm in height.
Many factors affect when your potatoes will be ready for harvesting, from the planting date, to the weather during the growing season and the variety. As a general rule, First Earlies are best harvested in small quantities as required, in June and July. Second Earlies and Salad varieties can also be eaten fresh in June and July, but if you allow their skins to set so they don’t rub off in the hand, cut the foliage down to stop them growing and lift to store in September. Maincrop potatoes can be lifted from September onwards and stored in a hessian sack in a cool dark place. Make sure you harvest them in dry conditions.
Whatever the variety you choose, it won’t be long before you can sit back enjoying your carefully chosen garden furniture, admiring both the aluminium patio table and the fruits of your labours on top. Nothing tastes nicer for a summer barbecue than a potato fresh from the earth to table in a matter of hours.