Potato growing is a vegetable gardeners dream come true and is the most rewarding of all vegetables to grow throughout the year.
They are easy to plant, look after, harvest and store. And from one seed potato, no bigger than a hens egg, you will dig up from six to twelve large juicy potatoes. (Sometimes more sometimes less depending on the growing conditions).
And fresh potatoes from your vegetable garden, into your kitchen and on your plate within a couple of hours takes some beating for taste.
The only difficulty you will have is deciding which ones you should grow.
And that’s not really difficult.
There’s just three choices:
- First Earlies which are sown in March for harvesting in June and July
- Second Earlies which are sown in April for harvesting in July and August
- Main Crop which are sown in Late April to Early May and are harvested in late August and through to October.
Now potato gardening can take up a lot of space and if you’re short on space the best potatoes to grow are the first earlies.
First earlies take up a lot less room but still provide abundant crops, they are delicious with summer salads, hot or cold.
Only use certified virus free seed potatoes and order them early enough from your supplier so you get them in early to mid February so you can chit them six weeks before planting.
Whats ‘chit’ them?
Seed potatoes, if you look closely, have a ‘rose’ end which is usually the largest end and is where the ‘eyes’ are formed.
The eyes are where the shoots will grow from and you need to get the shoots starting to grow to about 25mm (1 inch) long before planting them. Be careful not to break off any of these shoots.
The easiest way to chit them is to place them in egg boxes, rose end uppermost and place them in a cool, light place which is frost free and out of direct sunlight.
If you don’t have any egg boxes use a seed tray, flat, or something similar with about an inch of dry peat in the bottom and stand your potatoes, rose end uppermost, in them.
Where to grow your potatoes?
They need lots of sun so choose a spot in your garden that is not shaded, receives sun most of the day and is not a frost pocket.
Frosts will kill of any shoots that are growing above ground and set back your growing times.
If frosts are expected, draw earth up over the growing shoots, or use a fleece, straw or any other suitable material to stop frost damage.
What type of soil is best for potato gardening?
Preperation is everything for successful potato gardening and the ground should be dug over the previous autumn, to at least a spade depth, and dig in plenty of well rotted manure or garden compost at the same time.
Potatoes will grow in almost any soil put prefer a well drained, moisture retentive soil with a pH of between 5 and 6.
In other words dig in plenty of compost in autumn and that should do!
So, you’re just about ready for planting. But a week or two before you do your planting give the ground a sprinkling of a general balanced fertilizer and rake it into the soil.
Planting is easy and the best way is to make ‘V’ shaped trench with a draw hoe or an up-turned rake to a depth of around 15cm (6 inches) deep. You could use a spade if you find it easier but it may take longer and the trench might not be straight.
Just place the chitted potato seeds with the shoots upwards, being careful not to break off any shoots, in the bottom of the trench and draw soil over them making a slight mound about 10cm (4 inches) high.
Space the potatoes 30cm (12 inches) apart for first earlies and 70cm (28 inches) apart for second earlies and main crop.
Well that’s the planting done, the rest of potato gardening is easy.
As shoots appear draw earth up over them from both sides to form a mound, this is known as ‘earthing up’ or ‘hilling’ and protects new shoots from any late frosts and will encourage more tubers to form.
It also stops any tubers from turning green which should not be eaten.
Keep earthing up, hilling, until the mound is about 30cm (12 inches) high.
Throughout this time keep the plants well watered, especially if the weather is hot and dry.
Potatoes are hungry and thirsty vegetables, so give them a feed with a fertilizer high in potash every week or two.
In dry spells you may need to water every three or so days. Don’t let them dry out or the tubers will not grow to full size.
The only other thing you need to do is weed regularly. If you use a hoe be careful not to go to deep or you may expose or damage the growing tubers.
Which just leaves you to harvest them?
Harvest times vary greatly and are dependant on a number of factors, variety of potato, soil conditions, site location, weather, and care.
A good indication of when they are ready to harvest is when they start to flower. Flowering usually means the tubers have reached their maximum size and will not grow any more.
Its easy to harvest them. Using a garden fork carefully push it into the soil about 30cm (12 inches) from the plants and lift the soil. You should see plenty of fresh, lush potatoes. Simply collect them and dig a bit closer to the plant and you will probably lift some more.
You may spike one or two with your fork the first time you try, but you will soon know how to dig them up without spiking them. Any that are spiked can still be used, just don’t store them eat them straight away.
A good potato gardening tip is to lift just enough potatoes you want to use as they will store better in the ground undisturbed than anywhere else.
Storage is quite easy. First earlies are best eaten in June and July, maybe even August, but they will not store well.
Second earlies, if the skin is allowed to harden off, can be stored in trays or hessian or string plastic sacks in a dark, cool and frost free place such as a garden shed or garage.
Main crop can be stored the same as second earlies, in trays or hessian or string plastic sacks in a dark, cool and frost free place such as a garden shed or garage.
Potatoes are relatively disease and pest free. Buying certified seed stock goes a long way to disease control and the only thing you may encounter, through poor soil conditions, is blight, scab or blackleg.
The only real pests are slugs.
To prevent disease building up in your garden soil you need to have a crop rotation plan.
For a real early crop of potatoes you can grow them in containers in your greenhouse or conservatory, known as growing ‘under glass’.
This is the ideal way to grow potatoes if you don’t have room for a vegetable garden or don’t want the trouble of maintaining one.
Plant four or five seed potatoes towards the bottom of a 30cm (12 inch), miniumm size, pot or container filled with a peat free compost in mid February.
Or use a potato growing sack, they are widley available in garden centers, nurseries and online.
They are ideal for growing potatoes and are easy to move around.
You can plant potatoes in containers from mid February right through to May. Just make sure, depending when you plant them you use first earlies, second earlies or main crop.
If your greenhouse or conservatory is unheated keep the container frost free using gardening fleece, bubble wrap or sacking.
As soon as shoots appear remove the frost protection as hopefully most of the frosts will be finished.
If frost is forecast just cover them over again.
Keep the compost moist, but not water-logged.
Stand them outside in full sun once all danger of frosts has passed.
They should be ready to harvest around mid May.