I recently wrote a long-winded email full of advice for my niece who has just taken on an allotment, but what it boiled down to was “don’t do anything in January, and in February all you need to do is buy some seed potatoes”.
Her new allotment had been fairly well kept, so the beds aren’t overgrown or full of weeds. If they had been, then I’d have referred her to to the ‘Controlling Weeds’ section of this Natural Pest and Weed Control factsheet that I wrote for the LowImpact.org website a couple of years ago.
Back to the potatoes: all allotment holders and most vegetable gardeners enjoy growing at least a few potatoes. Don’t grow too many – if it’s your first time, buy no more than 6 or 12 seed potatoes so that you can find out gradually how much work, space, and storage they take up.
Unless you’re growing big quantities of potatoes, it’s best to buy the tubers (seed potatoes) from somewhere you can select them individually. That way, you don’t have to buy a 2kg pack of 30 when you only need 10, and you can pick and mix a range of varieties.
The ideal place to buy seed potatoes is a ‘Potato Day’, which you can find in most towns in February. This is a one-day event, usually run by a gardening group, where there are sacks of a dozen or two varieties of seed potato, which you can buy individually for about 20p each. Stroud has an annual potato day run by Down To Earth and Transition Stroud (see video if curious). This year, it is Saturday 4th February, 10am to 2pm in the Merrywalks centre.
Once you have bought your seed potatoes, get them out of the bag as soon as you get home. If they are left in the dark they will grow long thin shoots, which isn’t what you want. Spread them out on a windowsill in a cool room, to ‘chit’, which means to develop small, dark green buds. If you want to be really professional, lay them out in old cardboard egg trays, with the ‘rose end’ upwards… if you look carefully, you’ll see that one end has the place where a stalk was attached, and the opposite end has a group of tiny buds – that’s called the ‘rose end’.
Plant your seed potatoes in March or April, about 3 inches (75mm) deep in soil with manure or garden compost mixed in, or just in bags of peat-free bought compost. Each time the growing shoots poke through the surface, ‘earth them up’ with a little more soil or compost, until the seed potato is eventually buried by about 10 inches (250mm) of soil or compost. Keep them well watered, and the time to harvest is usually after the potato plants have flowered.
Potatoes are really easy to grow, and will give a good crop so long as they have plenty of food and water. The main disease that affects them is Potato Blight, which kills off the tops in late summer, or earlier in a bad year. Blight thrives in wet conditions, and the spores are carried across the country on the wind. Some years it is more of a problem than others, and if you are only growing early/new potatoes, then there’s not much to worry about. For a main crop potato, I recommend Sarpo Mira, which has been bred to be almost completely blight resistant. It’s the only type of potato that I grow on my allotment these days.
Outdoor-grown tomatoes are even more badly affected by blight. Tomatoes and potatoes, as you may know, belong to the same plant family, the Nightshades, or Solanaceae, a large family of plants which originated in South America. If you try to grow tomatoes outside in the UK, they will often be killed by blight before you get any fruit from them. Growing tomatoes in a polytunnel or greenhouse protects them from blight as it keeps the spores off them, and keeps the leaves dry.
If you do want to grow outdoor tomatoes, there is a new variety with excellent blight resistance, called Mountain Magic F1. It’s expensive (£2 – £4 for a packet containing just five or six seeds!) but I was extremely impressed by the results obtained by Bill, my brother-in-law, last year. In a garden where every other tomato plant was long dead from blight, the Mountain Magic tomato plants were still alive, thriving, and giving good, large cherry-sized fruit. Available from Kings or Thompson and Morgan, but can be found from £1.99 per packet including postage on ebay.
Finally, don’t forget that February is the time for pruning fruit trees and bushes, if you haven’t already done yours.