Weather’s damper on our potato crops

By Richard Wright

Friday, March 7, 2014


Weather’s damper on our potato crops

Richard Wright with a Saxon seed potato.


WHAT would we British have to talk about if we lived in a more predictable climate?

It is that weather cocktail thrown down our throats which has made doing almost anything outside in the garden problematic.

I don’t even like to tread on what’s left of the grass floating on the sodden sponge that was once topsoil.

As a keen Mr Potatohead, my seed potatoes would normally be in the ground by now but I haven’t been able to face turning over the horrid ground, which would become compacted very easily.

It is worth waiting for it to dry out a bit but it will certainly be worthwhile getting them in the ground eventually because the commercial crop will have been badly hit.

Farmers, of course, rely on mechanised planting and that compresses the soil a fair bit more than my size nines. So for long periods planting has not happened, especially in huge tranches of the country literally under water.

Jersey royals look set to be both scarce and consequently expensive in the shops after Channel Island farmers were forced to put planting on hold even there in predominantly lighter soils.

Normally it would be a continuous operation from January through to the end of March but a substantial number of weeks have already been lost. The good news is the valuable, really early ones did get in the ground in January, which means they will still be the first of the new crop in the shops, which is great for those of us who enjoy a classic taste and texture.

Jersey royal, or International Kidney as it is known elsewhere, is one of my six chosen varieties this year. Indeed, it is usually on the list because it is a heritage variety that has stood the test of time.

It was first bred in 1879 and has a delicious buttery taste, although I do not think it is as good as it was — but that is probably the fault of badly assaulting my taste buds for four of my near six decades.

It is the flaky skin which holds much of the flavour and the spud should be washed and gently scrubbed — if needed.

It is waxy as a new potato and, harvested as a main crop, it becomes more floury and a good general-purpose potato.

Arran pilot is my next staple choice — and that’s a potato with an interesting history.

It was one 'Boss’ McKelvie who gave us the varieties which were grown in the Scottish isle of Arran.

Potato breeding is a hit and miss affair and his hits included Pilot, Victory and Banner.

Even a 'miss’, Arran Cairn, turned into a success story because it became one of the parents of the top spud Maris Piper, which has been with us now for 51 years and remains my chipping, roasting and baking potato of choice.

Pilot was introduced in 1930 and was named after the Boss’s Clyde river pilot cousin.

McKelvie was awarded what should have been the Order of the Potato Empire at the age of 78, but it turned out only to be an OBE, marking a significant contribution to potato culture.

Arran pilot remains a home-growing favourite. They, especially, are best steamed straight out of the ground as a salad, or a new potato, because they lose taste quickly. They are especially good at resisting dry conditions too.

My third heritage variety is perhaps my favourite because it does so much, so well.

Brilliant as a new potato, Red Duke of York also boils if left to get bigger and mashes and bakes. It makes an interesting chip too.

Sadly, it loses its colour when cooked but it is a well-flavoured, waxy textured, new potato, which is delicious, hot or cold

Carlingford is one of the new chips off the block.

It is a small, firm potato with a delicately flavoured, waxy flesh and best eaten as a new potato. It was only introduced in 1982.

Premiere is a high-yielding first-early, which became available three years before Carlingford.

It has the great advantages of having shallow eyes and all-round disease resistance.

Yellow skinned, the tasty flesh is also yellow.

Saxon is 13 years younger than Carlingford and is a variety with white skin and white flesh with a firm and moist texture.

It has a creamy flavour and is suitable for chipping, boiling, mashing or baking.

It has quickly, I am told, built a reputation as the best tasting of all modern-day varieties. We shall see.

As usual I bought my seed spuds at Jubilee Garden Centre, near Newchurch, where there is the great advantage you can buy just a single potato if you want to just try a taster.

In a 'normal’ year — if there is such a thing — potatoes should be planted from the end of February.

First earlies can be 'chitted’ — allowed to sprout on their ends in a cool, light place for a couple of weeks prior to planting but that is not essential.

The risk of disease can be reduced, but certainly not eliminated, by avoiding planting in a place where potatoes have been grown the previous year and, ideally, not the year before either.

Dig in plenty of well-rotted manure or, if it is too late, it can be top dressed.

Plant potatoes in rows at a spacing of 30cm (12ins). Rows should be set out 60cm (2ft) apart. Place the seed potatoes into 10cm (4ins) deep trenches and backfill.

When shoots reach 20cm or so (8ins), bank up soil leaving just a few inches showing. Repeat this process after a further three weeks.

If space is limited, try growing potatoes in bags on the patio — even one of those supermarket Bags for Life will do the job for a matter of pence.

Fill the potato bags one third with good-quality compost mixed with some well-rotted manure.

Depending on the size of the bag, place two or three seed potatoes on top of the compost.

Fill the bags by another third and place another couple on top of the compost. Finally cover them with more compost until the bags are full.

Place the bags in a sunny position and water regularly.

What a blooming strange sight

IT WAS precisely two years and 49 weeks ago today that I wrote that everything was firmly crossed that the dazzling bloom in my little Crimean cherry plum orchard would not be dimmed by gales or a late frost.

This year, a full month earlier than in the exceptionally mild early part of 2011, the brave, or foolish, little plums are in full bloom.

It was Ron Cawdell, from Fishbourne, who flagged up just how affected trees and shrubs have been by this exceptionally mild winter.

I have not seen magnolias in Ryde and Wootton, or indeed a flowering cherry in full bloom, so early at a time when the more usual flashes of colour from later camellias and mimosa are still with us.

It is a funny old year but, as I say, it gives us something to talk about.

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