Growing spuds without a garden

Growing spuds without a garden

Potatoes take up a lot of room in the garden and they are possibly not the best crop in a small garden. But everyone has room to grow a few early ‘new’ potatoes and these are surely one of the most delicious crops we can grow. You can grow your own delicious spuds on a patio or along that path beside the garage. But before I explain how, we need to cover a few basics.

You can classify potatoes in various ways but the two most useful ways are by time of maturity and by texture. Potatoes are either earlies, second earlies or maincrop. They are all planted at about the same time, in mid March to April. The new shoots are prone to frost damage as they emerge from the soil. Earlies are usually dug in late June or July, second earlies a few weeks later, when both are in flower, and maincrops are left until September or October when the foliage is dying down.

There is nothing better than the first harvest of new potatoes cooked in minted water and glistening with melted, golden butter. Their most important advantage to the home gardener is that they are usually harvested before blight sets in, usually in August.

Floury potatoes are the traditional Irish favourite but I confess that I prefer waxy spuds which are ideal in salads. The first early spuds coincide with my first salad leaves and it makes it seem like summer.

Seed potatoes are in short supply this year so you need to get yours as soon as possible. Seed potatoes are not actually seeds but just small tubers. They are grown in areas where they can be certified free from serious potato diseases. Don’t plant the spare, sprouted spuds from the kitchen.

Chitting potatoes

Once you have your seed potatoes you need to sprout them (chitting) before they are planted. If you are the cook in the family, you will know that one end has the withered remains of the stalk where the potato was attached to the plant and the other end has several ‘eyes’. Called the ‘rose’ end, this needs to be uppermost when you space the tubers in a tray. Then place the tray in a light, frost-free place so the shoots can develop. They should be thick and sturdy, not like bean sprouts, and when they are about 1cm long you can plant them.

As they grow you should earth-up the new shoots. There are several reasons for this. First, the young shoots, above ground, will be killed by late frosts in spring. When these are 10cm high, or when frost is forecast, rake up the soil to cover them and keep off the frost. Secondly, the tubers are formed on the stems so it increases the crop. Later earthing up keeps down the weeds until the potato foliage covers the soil and it prevents any tubers from being in the light which makes then green and unsuitable for eating.

But back to our potatoes without a garden

You can grow potatoes in pots or bags and although these can be earlies or maincrop, it is especially useful for earlies. I use old, 60 litre, compost bags and roll them down so they are about 30cm high. Place compost in the base and then two or three sprouted tubers and cover with some compost. Water and keep in a frost-free place. Once the shoots appear these need to be in sunlight so although you can start them in a shed, after a month they need daylight. As the shoots reach about 15cm high, roll up the bag slightly and add some compost but leave the very tops uncovered. As they grow, repeat this. Keep them well watered and feed with a liquid fertiliser throughout their growth. You can keep the bags by a sunny wall, in the greenhouse or polytunnel or even a sunroom. Being easy to move, they can be outside most of the time but moved when frost is forecast. I start mine in the polytunnel and move them outside in May. A big advantage is that you can push your hand down the side of the bag and harvest a few early spuds and that the tubers are clean and easy to prepare. And although you probably won’t have enough to be self-sufficient, these extra special early crops will taste all the better for being homegrown.

Some earlies to try:

‘Orla’ (Early) A waxy salad potato that will produce heavier crops if left longer to mature

‘British Queen’ (Second Early) Tasty and floury so it mops up lots of butter

‘Charlotte’ (Second Early) popular and tasty salad potato with lots of small, oval tubers

‘Colleen’ (Early) A good all-rounder with even, oval tubers perfect for all purposes. Resistant to blight.

‘Epicure’ (Early) A good floury option that is less prone to frost damage than most.

‘Red Duke of York’ (Early) Good crops of attractive red tubers with tasty, yellow flesh

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