Potato varieties for 2021 and how we secure an early harvest
Our seed potatoes have arrived. It is, of course, far too early to be thinking of planting potatoes outdoors but we always try to achieve a modest but particularly early harvest of new potatoes, and for those we need to get started in January.
For some years we have grown our potatoes in two different ways: in the vegetable beds as part of our rotation and in small pots in the glasshouses for an early crop. Although one could plant in the beds in a less labour intensive way, we always did it the hard way: first raking out two parallel trenches along the length of the four foot wide beds and heaping the soil to either side. Then digging holes with a trowel in the bottom of each trench and planting the well chitted tubers at the bottom of the holes, thus putting the seed potato quite deep. As they develop, the excavated soil is gradually piled into the trenches and eventually ridged up to cover the stems and, in due course, developing tubers. This method gives a good depth of soil in which the tubers can develop, well protected from exposure to light. It is, though, quite an effort to prepare and even more so when it comes to digging them out.
There are easier methods for growing potatoes in beds and we could have looked to one of those, but this year we are moving entirely to pots. We have some 35 litre pots for our later sowings of first early, second early, and main crop potatoes. It should be a lot less effort to grow them in containers and our experience with our early pot grown potatoes has been quite positive; they typically come out quite clean and in good condition.
We aim to get our earliest harvest by the end of April, something we regularly achieve. To do this, at a time of year when temperatures are a bit mean, requires an early start. Though we might do well enough with 10 weeks later in the year, we probably need about 12 weeks of growth to produce a useful harvest when starting early. We are not looking for quantity or size in the tubers, just an early sample of that precious new potato flavour. The quality of tubers, we know from past years, should be very good indeed.
Our early harvest is raised in modest pots of 15 litres in volume. This is, I feel, a suitable size for the first crop and certainly large enough for our purposes. Indeed, a 10 litre pot might be adequate. We have 20 of these pots and usually sow 10 of each of two different varieties. Past favourites have included Sharpe’s Express, Epicure, and Duke of York or Red Duke of York; all good choices for a first early. Whilst the first few might only yield smallish tubers, by the time we get to the last pots they have had a few weeks longer to mature.
Potatoes are frost tender and readily damaged, though they typically recover, albeit with a check in their growth and possibly lower yield. In attempting to produce such an early harvest we have several advantages. First, we are located in the south of England, where the climate is markedly less harsh – generally speaking – than the north. Frost is still a potential problem, but regular and prolonged periods below freezing are less often encountered. We are also surrounded by lakes and I do wonder whether they might have a noticeable regulating effect on the local microclimate, much in the same way as the country’s maritime climate tends to result in less extreme weather conditions; neither excessively hot, nor exceedingly cold. Large bodies of water are quite effective heat sinks; it takes a great deal of energy to change their temperature. Thus, they can have a cooling effect on an otherwise unseasonably warm day and a warming effect on an unseasonably cold one. In the same way, a well placed wall can be exploited to improve growing conditions; and that is our second advantage: we have a more-or-less south facing wall that would, on its own, provide some protection, but our two large glasshouses are secured to it to make the most of this precious resource. This provides a fair degree of protection.
In order to get our end-of-April harvest, we would look to get the potatoes planted in early February, ideally by the end of the first week. Conditions outdoors at that time can be, and in all likelihood will be, rather hostile to reasonable growth and at high risk of frost. Rowed up in front of the wall in the glasshouses, though, the conditions are much more favourable. We might, on occasion, drape some fleece over the pots but have thus far had no trouble with frost damage. Even when we have had damage to outdoor crops, we have had none under cover. Of course, it takes several weeks before the shoots are exposed above the soil; we may top up the pots in stages, or they can be filled at the start, but by the time the shoots are above the soil level, and exposed to the environment, temperatures should be just that bit better. At this time of year, a few weeks can make all the difference.
Ideally then, to plant in early February, the seed potatoes are needed by mid January at the latest, giving two or three weeks to set them out to chit. The process of chitting, where the potatoes are placed in a reasonably lit area at room temperature or perhaps a little cooler, develops sturdy shoots and gives them a head start when planting out. There is some debate over the merits of chitting, as the potato will grow whether first chitted or not. It may be that chitting makes little difference later in the year, when temperatures are more conducive to rapid growth. For an early start, though, I think it probably does make sense to chit the potatoes first. This can be begun indoors, in warmer conditions. Planting outdoors right now, the tubers would sit there and sulk, and come into growth rather slowly due to the low temperatures.
We are trying several varieties this year that are new to us. We are also trying a few that are a little on the modern side – not that the 1960s is modern, now, I suppose, but certainly more recent than some we have grown in the past. Whether fruit or vegetable I do enjoy growing older varieties, even if modern sorts may offer various benefits. For the small pots we have Home Guard and Arran Pilot. Home Guard was introduced in 1942, hence the name, and was a popular variety during the war. Their firm flesh makes them suitable for boiling. Arran Pilot is a little older, from the 30s, and produces waxy tubers. I am fairly sure we have grown Arran Pilot, before, but Home Guard is, I think, a new one for us.
In the large pots we will be growing Pentland Javelin, which is the youngster of the group, from 1968. It is a first early, but from what I have read, perhaps not quite as quick as the others, and so may not be ideal for our first planting.
We have the second early British Queen. Whilst many of the second earlies are waxy salad types, British Queen is a floury potato well regarded for its flavour. I cannot remember whether or not we have grown this one before. Although popular in Ireland it is of Scottish origin and dates back to the late 1800s. We also have Belle de Fontenay, which may be classed as a second early, though it can also be found listed as an early main crop or a main crop sort. That one is a classic waxy salad type, of French origin and dating back to the latter half of the 1800s, perhaps the 1860s.
We have only one main crop potato this year, Kerr’s Pink. This is another Scottish potato that seems to have been popular in Ireland. Raised in 1907 it produces tubers with pinkish skin and a floury texture. This is another new one for us. For a floury main crop potato, we have often grown Arran Victory, which we have found to be very tasty; if one can manage to boil them long enough without disintegrating, they make an excellent mash. I am hoping Kerr’s Pink may be something similar and it is always nice to try something new, well old, really.
For now, though, our first earlies are chitting nicely and in a week or two they will be heading for pots in the greenhouses.