I dig deep to find out why you would want to grow your own potatoes and show you how you can harvest perfect potatoes from the patio
Abundant by the bag load and as cheap as chips, it might be hard to understand why you would want to grow your own potatoes at home. But having spuds on tap means you can try new and interesting varieties and know they’ve been grown without chemicals. Plus, there’s simply nothing better than a freshly buttered potato just out of the soil!
Whether in the greenhouse, garden or in patio pots, growing at home also allows you to save some of our most precious heirloom varieties: think pearly white boiler ‘British Queen’, lumpy-bumpy Pink Fir Apple – the naturally crinkle-cut chips – or inky Salad Blues. These are varieties you simply can’t buy in the shops. Their low yields means they are commercially redundant, but grown at home in small parcels they offer unrivalled texture and taste.
A decade ago, Northumberland potato farmers Anthony and Lucy Carroll had the same “light bulb moment” when they decided to stop growing uniform potatoes for supermarkets in favour of heritage varieties.
“I remember the day I went to a potato conference and tucked away in the corner was this table of knobby, oddly shaped potatoes with deep-set eyes and colourful flesh, which tasted fantastic,” says Anthony. “I simply couldn’t get them out of my head.”
Later, when he was asked to grow yet another standard variety for a supermarket, he asked them why they had chosen that particular variety. The reply was to change the course of his career.
“’They’re high-yield, easy to harvest, disease resistant and look great in a plastic bag,’ they told me. ‘But they taste filthy’. It was at this point I said ‘no more, I’m not getting any pleasure out of these varieties, I’m going to grow the knobbly ones!’” he says.
Dunbar Rover, a creamy floury potato bred in the 1930s, was the first for the trail plot on the Carroll’s farm on the Scottish borders, and for Anthony it still sums up what they’re all about. “It may not look pretty and the yields are terrible – but it tastes divine!” he says.
Flushed with success, other varieties followed, including Arran Victory, dating from 1916, and 1940s Duke of York, and when they finally took them to their local farmers’ markets, the positive response was overwhelming. Not long afterwards they got their first contract with Booths and Fortnum & Mason.
“Potatoes have been grown commercially for high yield since the war years,” says Anthony. “They weren’t selected on shape, colour, texture or taste because they needed to feed the nation.
“While this was perfectly acceptable back then, by the 1980s we’d all become used to the standard supermarket red and white potatoes – and many people still don’t realise there’s a whole world of delicious organic and heritage varieties out there.”
A hot potato
Indeed, of the 450 varieties in Britain only 80 are grown commercially and with supermarket buyers comfortable with the long-established, picture-perfect varieties (that are cheaper and easier to grow), there’s no room for ugly spuds.
Ask the average householder what potato variety they use and they might say ‘baking’, or ‘new’ – perhaps even ‘British white’ – but it’s rare they’ll know the variety, let alone whether they are ‘floury’, ‘waxy’ or ‘early’ or ‘late’.
But a recent study, which suggested almost half of us (some 42 per cent of Brits) grew our own potatoes in 2017, could see all this change.
“Potatoes are so easy to grow at home,” affirms Lucy. “You don’t need an allotment plot, just a pot will do, and they pretty much take care of themselves.
“And if the skin finish is not perfect or they’re curiously shaped, who cares? They still taste good, and for small crop growing you can’t beat them.”
Celebrating their 10th birthday this year, Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes continues to nurture its 70-acres of special tubers, with boxes winging their way to the Roux and Hix restaurant chains, and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen.
Lucy and Anthony’s current historic collection includes ‘Mr Little’s Yetholm Gypsy’, in patriotic colours of red, white and blue, and bright yellow Peruvian potato ‘Mayan Gold’.
“We’re not trying to compete with modern varieties – we’re growing the Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis and Ferraris of the potato world,” says Anthony. “Just like the cars, a huge amount of attention to detail has gone into each crop, and you simply cannot mass-produce them.”
Have a go on the patio!
You don’t need acres of allotment to grow potatoes – try a crop in a sturdy shopping bag or old dustbin
- Spring into action. Get a head start by planting ‘first-early’ or new potatoes now into greenhouse beds, or into deep pots, buckets, bags, barrels, or even tyres. You can keep the pots on a sheltered patio (providing you keep the horticultural fleece handy) or in a frost-free greenhouse or cool conservatory. Because they grow faster, and have virtually no pests, you’ll be rewarded with unrivalled taste and texture.
- Chit chit hooray. Chitting encourages early potato tubers to produce shoots and helps them grow better in the ground. Place them ‘eye’ up in egg boxes and pop on a dry and frost-free windowsill with plenty of light. After two weeks you should notice tiny ‘chits’ forming at each eye.
3. Pot up. When the shoots are around 2cm high, plant into your containers. Fill the containers quarter of the way with soil first and place the tubers on top ‘chit up’ (you can plant 3-4 per 40 litre pot). Cover with a little soil and keep well watered
4. Make a lasagna! Once green shoots poke out the top, cover with another layer of compost, water and feed. The next time you see shoots, repeat, and so on, until you’ve filled the bag with compost. Harvest 10-12 weeks later by simply pulling one or two out of the bag, as and when you need them.
First Early, Salad or New: Potatoes are categorised according to their season so varieties such as Aura or Epicure are planted first, from February onwards, and harvested roughly 10-weeks later.
Second Early: potatoes such as Blue Kestrel or Charlotte are planted slightly later in March/April and harvested within 13 weeks.
Maincrop or Late: varieties such as Arran Victory or Golden Wonder are harvested in late summer or early autumn when their skins are firm and set.
Waxy: high water content with moist and translucent flesh, which stays firm when boiled (try Pink Fir Apple).
Floury: low water content with brighter, drier and more granular texture that’s great for absorbing flavours. Best for chips and roasties (try Sharpes Express).
First published in Vegetarian Living