Growing Your Own Potatoes

Growing Your Own Potatoes

Growing Your Own Potatoes

Growing Your Own Potatoes

Growing Your Own Potatoes

Growing Your Own Potatoes

Grown in all corners of the globe, the potato has been a staple of meals for hundreds of years, yet it would be easy to assume we’d been eating them for millennia; they made their debut in Europe, however, in the 1570s, and in the UK just over a decade later. They’d been discovered by conquistadors in South America, where they’d been grown for almost 10,000 years by a small group living in the Andes. Whilst they’re arrival this side of the world had quite possibly the biggest impact of any food, transforming the diet and, more importantly, survival rates of the population, particularly the poor, their popularity eventually led to the return of famine for those that had relied so heavily upon them. A more reliable crop than many others, they’d initially been met by mistrust in Europe, being accused of causing, amongst many things, leprosy, narcosis, sterility and destroying the soil they grew in, but with time, such accusations were disproved, and potatoes established a better reputation – nutritious, highly calorific and able to fill the humble working man for longer – and they’d been welcomed by most of Europe. As cultivation increased, another South American export was discovered: guano. A group of islands off the coast of Peru – home to many sea birds – were covered in the stuff, and because of the islands’ climate, it was high in nitrogen and the ideal fertiliser for potatoes, transforming the potato-growing industry around the world. But, it brought with it an unwanted guest: potato blight.


In Europe, and particularly Ireland, the fungal disease decimated harvests for many years, and the ensuing famine killed a million men, women and children in Ireland alone. To save themselves, two million fled the country, and most arrived on the shores of the United States, seeking a better life… but America had its own problems: the Colorado potato beetle. Happily munching on a relative of the potato, Buffalo Bur, the pesky predator moved with the Spanish as they headed north, and the newly-established potato business provided a very welcome alternative for the ladybird-sized pest.


The effects were as devastating as potato blight, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that help arrived. Arsenic, copper sulphate and lime were found to be effective against both pests, and so the manufacturing of pesticides began; around the same time, a disease-resistant hybrid was created by American horticulturist, Luther Burbank, and the potato resumed its role in the global diet. It may look a little beige, but the potato’s history is anything but!


There are now over 4000 varieties available, with more than 180 species that are wild but far too bitter for human consumption, and although they’ve fallen in and out of favour many times over the years, potatoes are the nation’s favourite vegetable. Their versatility secures their place at the table, and with their well-earned position a nod to their presence in so many recipes, wouldn’t it make sense to grow you own? With three different harvests a year, and each ‘seed’ yielding many potatoes, you could be feasting on your own crops all year round. Tempted? Here’s how to do it:

First Earlies:
First early potatoes are what we generally call ‘new’ potatoes, and being fast growers, they can potentially be harvested within just twelve weeks, in June and July. They may be small, but they’re tasty! They don’t last long, however, so only dig them up when you need them – whilst the plants are still flowering – and enjoy them fresh.

Second Earlies
Similar to first earlies, second early potatoes are still classed as ‘new’ but take a little longer to mature, allowing you time to consume all firsts first. They’re also best when fresh, so only harvest them when needed – generally July and August, again, with plants still in flower – and eat immediately.


Maincrop take the longest time to mature, but they’ll be bigger potatoes, there’ll be more of them, and you could still be eating your own potatoes at Christmas. Harvest them between August and October when the plant’s leaves turn yellow, and use them for baking, mashing and roasting.

Whether you decide to grow all three varieties or just the one, they’re easy to grow at home and can be grown in bags or pots in any space big enough to house bags or pots. It may be tempting to grow your spuds from those in your vegetable rack that may have started to sprout, but you’ll be disappointed with the results; seed potatoes are your best option, although they look nothing like traditional seeds; they’re simply smaller tubers that will produce several potatoes each, and are available in-store from late winter until now.

Before you plant your first and second early ‘seeds’, it’s advisable to ‘chit’ them to help produce a more substantial crop, and that involves nothing more than allowing them to sprout. Place them in trays or egg cartons with the eyes facing upwards, and store in a cool, bright spot; within six weeks, you should see shoots around 2cm long, and your potatoes are then ready to plant. Chitting is not essential, and if not done, it just means harvesting will be a little later; as maincrop are in the soil longer anyway, there’s no need to chit them at all.


First earlies need to be in the soil from mid to late March, and second earlies, around two weeks later. When planting, make sure your soil is well dug and weed-free, and dig straight trenches 60cm apart and 12cm deep; place each seed 30cm apart with the shoots uppermost, and fill your trenches with soil. Maincrops should be planted from mid to late April, but they need a little more room to perform, so ensure your trenches are 75cm apart and your seeds are planted 37cm apart. All planting times should be adjusted to suit your climate; in colder areas it’s advisable to delay planting by a couple of weeks to avoid the worst of the frosts; if it’s a little warmer, a second batch of maincrop potatoes may be possible if planted in late July or August, and could provide a fresh crop for your Christmas dinner! Late frosts become problematic if shoots have started to appear, but covering them should prevent unnecessary damage.

Of course, digging trenches is only possible if you have the room, but you can still grow your own in deep pots, planters, potato bags or recycled compost bags. Plant one seed in each 30cm pot, but only fill it halfway with compost; your crops may not be as bountiful, but they’ll be just as delicious, and it’s far easier to protect them from frosts.


Once planted, water well and regularly, particularly during a hot, dry summer. Be mindful that when leaves start to develop, they could shade the soil, so watering may be necessary even when it rains; potatoes grown in pots and bags will require regular watering whatever the weather. Keep weeds at bay, particularly in the first couple of months when the plants are young.


When shoots start to appear, it’s important to keep the soil topped up. Exposing developing tubers to light will turn them green and render them inedible, so ‘earthing up’ is essential to protect them: when shoots reach around 20cm, add more soil to the base until around 10cm remains, and repeat as the plants continue to grow; with pots and bags, add another layer or two of compost over the weeks until they’re full.


And then comes the fun part! If you’ve planted your first earlies in mid-March, you could harvest them mid-June to July; second earlies will be around two to four weeks later, and your maincrops will be ready for digging up at the end of the summer and through to autumn. You can lift what you need and leave the remaining potatoes in the soil, but be aware that the longer they’re underground, the more they’re at risk from pests. Check the size of your potatoes before digging them up, and if they’re not big enough, leave them another week or two and check again. Maincrop harvesting can wait until the leaves of the plant yellow; once they do, cut off all growth above ground and leave your potatoes in situ for another ten days before digging them up; leave them to dry in the sun for a few hours and then remove any residual soil. Alternatively, carefully remove a few at a time without disturbing the roots, and the remaining crop will continue to grow. Potatoes grown in pots and bags can be easily removed by tipping them out of their containers.

Potential hazards? There will always be some! A nitrogen-rich fertiliser will always help your plants, but as well as frosts, you’ll also need to protect them from slugs and snails. If you plan to grow them for several years, be sure to grow them in a different area each year to prevent a build-up of pests and disease, most notably, potato blight. Choosing varieties that are resistant to blight is the next step, but if you’re unable to for any reason, keep a close eye on your plants. Yellowing leaves with dark spots are the first signs of the fungal disease, and should your plants succumb, the tubers will rot. All is not lost, however: by removing all traces of foliage and lifting the potatoes as soon as possible, you can potentially save your crop. Growing your potatoes indoors will remove the threat of blight, so make room in your greenhouse if you have one; if not, a warm, dry summer will help, so start doing your sun dance!


So, are you tempted by some new, minted potatoes, dripping in butter or a homemade potato salad made with homegrown spuds, maybe a steaming jacket potato later in the year or some crispy roasts with Christmas dinner? You need to be planting very soon, so grab the last of our seed potatoes and get growing!

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