If you have never grown potatoes before - or vegetables even - then you need to think carefully about whether you really need to grow your own potatoes. Whilst potatoes are relatively easy to grow and produce abundant quantities of this valuable starchy food, they take up more time than most vegetables, and certainly take up more space.
Growing potatoes is a commitment! On the good side, they grow and crop well, and there is nothing quite as tasty as a newly harvested potato - especially the 'earlies'. You can ignore the taste of supermarket-bought potatoes that generally need a helping of gravy to enhance the lack of taste. The taste of freshly dug new potatoes will hook you into searching out and trying the various varieties.
In the pub, or any other meeting place with friends, you could rapidly become a bore!
A lot depends upon the real reason why you want to grow vegetables and potatoes in particular. If economics is the main reason for growing vegetables, then your wallet would best be served by growing only the early maturing 'new' potatoes, and using your plot for other vegetables of more value, rather than growing the maincrop varieties.
The reason being that the 'new' potatoes are relatively expensive, whilst the maincrop quite cheap compared with other vegetables during the latter part of the year. Add to this the fact that if you want potatoes through the winter months from the maincrop harvest, they will need to be stored in a cool place.
There are three categories of potatoes. Early, second early and maincrop potatoes. Each have their own group of varieties suited for growing either early in the year for immediate consumption, or for their ability to be stored throughout the winter with not too much deterioration. For this page we deal only with the early and maincrop types. This is to keep things simple, and in general terms some of the early varieties can be sown a little later, effectively turning them into second earlies!
The early potatoes are those that we buy as 'new potatoes' - maybe even as English New Potatoes, or Kentish New Potatoes. They are normally available in early June dependent upon seasonal fluctuations. If you buy new potatoes at Christmas, they will have been imported, and certainly not taste the same our own newly harvested new potatoes.
For growing purposes, they are not as prolific croppers as the maincrop, but they are available for digging much earlier in the year. They do not store well, so are best harvested when needed and eaten within a day or so of digging. (Maybe a week!)
The earlies should be ready for digging from mid to, late June.
As the name suggests, this category are the main producers, and are available for harvesting from early autumn. Maincrop Potatoes are generally stored throughout the autumn and winter months, providing the staple food for that time. This category is the mainstay of the food industry, with products as different as frozen Chips to Instant Mash being produced from this economic crop.
Potatoes are grown from small tubers known as seed potatoes. If they look like small potatoes, that's exactly what they are. However, they have been grown in sterile conditions to make sure they are free from diseases, and in particular, Potato Blight. Don’t be tempted to save your own small potatoes for this purpose, unless you a 100% sure of the condition of your soil. Far better not to take the chance, and buy certified seed potatoes. (It also gives you the chance of trying a different variety. )
Seed potatoes are normally available in garden centres in the early spring. They are not ready for planting until after the frosts in the spring unless you take a few measures. Your new seed potatoes should be firm to the touch and around the size of a chicken egg.
The early varieties of seed potatoes will need to be 'chitted' to get them off to a good start. Chitting the tubers simply means getting a few shoots to grow out of them before you plant them. This is done by placing them in a light, warm - not hot - place in a wooden seed tray or cardboard box that has been cut down. The fact they are normally egg size, means that they can be placed in old egg cartons for chitting!.
Examine the tubers and you will notice that one end has more eyes or buds than the other. That is the end that needs to be placed uppermost. After a few weeks you will see the buds swell, and eventually turn into green shoots. It important to allow full light to the tubers, or these new shoots will become long and straggly.
You are aiming for short stubby shoots which green. It is normal to rub out a few of the shoots so that you are left with the three strongest ones. If you leave all the shoots on, it will mean that you will get smaller potatoes - but more of them. The final weight will be about the same.
If you are feeling experimental, then place the removed shoots into a pot of compost, eventually moving to a bucket or tub of compost once they start to grow, and bring them on in the greenhouse for a really early and unusual crop.
The chitted seed potatoes can be planted in rows from mid April if the weather is not too harsh. A good guide as to planting time, is once you notice weeds starting to grow well in your or someone else’s garden. That will indicate that the soil is warming up! They should be planted in well prepared soil, at a depth of 4in (10cm) and spaced at 30cm apart for the early crops, and a little bit more for the maincrop planting. Maincrop varieties will be planted at end of May.
If you are growing more than one row, then allow 18in - 45cm - between the rows.
Once growth starts to peep through the soil, then gently cover the new growth with soil so that the plants are growing under a ridge of soil. Do this each time the foliage shows through until the ridge is approximately 6in - 15cm - tall. This will prevent the sun getting to your new potatoes which will start to grow from the underground root and stem system.