Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Potatoes in early spring

There has been a bit of grumpiness in the Winter household at dinner time. We have run out of our own potatoes and we have to eat some shop-bought spuds. They are nothing like the ones we grew ourselves, and the potato eaters (well, the potato eater –there is only one) are not happy.
Still, it is that time of the year and at least we can start the potato-growing process again. It will still be about four months before have anything worth eating so I guess I am going to have to either put up with soggy spuds or switch to rice or noodles.
If I do I will be following a national trend. Over the past fifty or so years, potato consumption has steadily fallen, and the standard serving of potatoes with the evening meal has disappeared. I do not know the exact figures but I believe that only about 30% of the population now eat potatoes most days. I would not be surprised to learn that a significant proportion of potatoes grown commercially in New Zealand are destined for the “chip” market.
That makes the case for growing them at home even stronger, to my mind. As well as the benefits of actually knowing where your vegetables have come from, the crops you grow will be tastier and healthier.
My neighbour Bill is the one to talk to about potatoes. His crop is always earlier than mine and his potatoes are significantly larger than mine. Then, he is of Irish descent, so he should know more about growing Murphys, shouldn’t he?
The first step for growing potatoes is site selection. As long as the soil is well drained and in a fairly sunny position, almost any soil will grow a reasonable crop of potatoes. It was a long-standing tradition, now largely abandoned, for new home-owners to grow a crop of potatoes on their newly purchased section and many a lawn has been established on land “broken in” by a crop of spuds.
The ideal soil is a light sandy soil that has had some organic matter added to it in the previous autumn. Unless you have a time machine, it is too late to do that, so a good dressing of any vegetable fertilizer before the soil is given its final working up will prove very beneficial. The crop needs plenty of nitrogen as it grows so do not stint on the fertilizer.
We are luck as our vegetable garden is in a very well drained part of the section, and it has been built up over many years with plenty of compost and manure. I only have a small vegetable garden (the flowers keep intruding and taking over!) so it is important that I rotate the crops carefully. This year’s potatoes will be going into a quarter of the garden that was manured the previous year for a leaf crop. It was limed in the autumn and has been left fallow over the winter.
Old books insist on gardeners buying selected seed strains for planting, but to be honest I think there is nothing wrong with just selecting some of your own best tubers each year and planting those. I have been doing that with some Maori potatoes for years and I have not noticed any diminution in the crop. You could also plant some of the tubers from the vegetable drawer if you wanted. They will work just fine.
There are many different varieties on the market – I understand that there are over 50 grown in New Zealand, although I guess your garden centre is not going to have them all in stock.
Among the popular ones for planting early are the old favourites like Jersey Benne, Cliffs Kidney and Ilam Hardy. These are all proven varieties, but among the newer ones that have become popular are Rocket and Karaka.
It pays to bear in mind what ‘early’ means in this situation. It does not mean that the plants are hardier or that they need planting earlier – it simply means that they mature quicker. In theory, you can plant ‘early’ and ‘main crop’ varieties at the same time, and get a staggered harvest. In general, though, most of us plant the ‘early’ varieties first, and plant a ‘main crop’ variety later.
I grew ‘Red Rascal’ last year and was delighted with that so I will be sticking to that for this season’s crop. I do not have the space to have more than one patch of potatoes so I will just have to make do with that.
Garden writers seem to persistently recommend that the potatoes be pre-sprouted for a month or so before they are planted. They are set out in a single layer in an old seed pan in a warm spot. The sprouts will appear from the eyes. The strongest should be retained, while weaker and spindly shoots should be rubbed out. Large potatoes, with more than one set of sprouts, can be cut before planting.Having said all that, I don’t ever bother with pre-sprouting, and have never noticed a bad crop as a result. I simply make trenches about 20 cm deep, and plant the tubers in the bottom of these trenches. Keep the soil handy though. The tubers are placed about 30 cm apart and the rows about 90 cm apart. As the spouts appear through the bottom of the trench, the soil previously placed aside is heaped over the sprouts. This is very important as the new tubers are formed on the stems. You could use well matured compost or even well-aged straw as part of mound.
From then on it is quite straight forward. Keep an eye out for late frosts (I find the knitted frost cloths are ideal for my small patch) and make sure the plants are well watered as they mature, as they will not form tubers if too dry. If you and your neighbour plant now you’ll be eating your own potatoes (or your neighbour’s) for Christmas.

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