We have been surprised at how easy it has been to grow numerous potatoes this year, our first allotment season.
The challenges we face on our plot are clay soil, not exactly the well-draining loose soil which is preferred for potatoes, the area being previously uncultivated for some time (as far as we know) and very little experience in potato growing!
After clearing the area we wanted to of weeds, we dug the area over as best as we could, simply shovel in, turn the soil (or giant lumps of clay on our plot!) then break up the ground as best as possible. We didn’t add any compost or manure to the soil this year, so we were trusting any nutrition from an unused and rested plot.
As you can see from this picture, taken on a chilly November morning, the soil is heavy. But we persisted and tried to break it up as best as possible. Leaving the soil for a couple of months after digging it over is supposed to help break up the surface soil; through the natural action of wind, rain and frost.
In late February we purchased some seed potatoes. You could use supermarket potatoes, but we wanted at least to give the potatoes a chance and read that sometimes the supermarket ones don’t produce a good crop. So we picked Maris Pipers and Charlottes, one bag of each. Two contrasting potatoes, Charlottes being ‘earlies’ which means they take slightly less time to crop and will produce smaller potatoes (allegedly!). The Maris Pipers being would take a little longer to grow.
I read that ‘chitting’ the potatoes first helps with potato production. Each potato will have an ‘eye’ or two on the external surface. You see these on potatoes you’ve kept in the cupboard for too long. Well the idea of ‘chitting’ is to encourage these eyes to develop a little before sticking the potatoes in the ground; the eyes grow the plant. We chitted the potatoes for at least two weeks, leaving them in egg boxes, eyes up, on a cold but bright window sill in the house.
Here are the Charlottes being chitted. I read that you’re supposed to chop off any extra eyes, and only plant the seed potatoes that have one eye; we didn’t do that though. This is so the potato produces one stem rather than two, saving energy for growing potatoes rather than the plant above ground. Some of the Charlottes were quite big with eyes on both top and bottom, so I cut them in half. A couple of the ones that were halved shrivelled up a bit, but there doesn’t appear to have been any detrimental effect on the harvest.
Next up is the tough decision of when to plant them out. We live in Kent so it’s not unreasonable to assume that the worst of the frosts are over quite quickly in the Spring (not really the case in 2017 sadly!) so we gambled and planted out the Maris Pipers in the second week of March.
I followed the instructions on the seed potato packet; planting their set distance between rows and between plants and we dug them quite deeply, over a foot deep.
For the Maris Pipers, we dug holes rather than whole rows, marking out the rows using string and pegs and measuring the distances using a tape measure. We planted out around 5 rows of 6/7 seed potatoes; rather a lot of potatoes! But we wanted to account for losses which might occur. Each hole got a handful of chicken poo pellets thrown in for good measure too.
Here you can see the 5 rows marked out with string plus also note how the soil on top has broken down more from the giant clumps we had in November.
For the next three months, we held our breath waiting for news of frosts! If a frost was likely, we popped down to the allotment and dug up the soil around any plants that had grown. This is to protect the potato plant from the frozen conditions and covering up the plant, blocking out the light, does not seem to detrimentally influence their ability to keep growing.
By the end of March, we decided it was time to stick in the Charlotte potatoes. The bed we had prepared near the top of the plot was a little bit tighter for space; being wedged between two bean wigwams!
The Charlotte potatoes being put in the ground, fewer straight lines but with some chicken poo pellets thrown in for good measure.
Fast forward to the middle of May! We had been (as diligently as possible) ‘earthing up’ and covering the potatoes with either grass cuttings or soil when the frosts were predicted; and this is what we had. Here you can see that each row of the Maris Pipers have some potato plants pushing through. Some potato plants have not come up at all (a couple never did).
Another couple of weeks later and they were beginning to come up a bit more, although the slugs had a go at some of the plants, almost munching them to the ground.
Same date, looking down the plot, you can see the Charlotte potatoes coming up between the two bean wigwams. The Charlottes grew up much faster than the Maris Pipers (which can just about be seen in the distance).
So the end of May brought Kent a very late frost, which we were prepared for! Earthing up our plants as much as possible as we were running out of soil either side of the plants, meant they were back to looking quite puny. But it was worth the effort as the damage to the plants was minimal.
First week of June and things on the allotment are beginning to take shape. You can see here the Charlottes are starting to raise the roof. We occasionally watered the potatoes with Tomorite to give them a boost.
Second week of June, the squashes are going out next to the Maris Pipers which are really beginning to take shape.
Same week, you can see the Charlotte potatoes are beginning to swamp the bean wigwams! We really must consider the spacing a little more next year.
After much consideration, we decided we couldn’t hold out any longer, and decided to dig up the weakest Maris Piper plants (just the two of them). They had suffered a bit with slug damage in the previous month. We were so chuffed! The potatoes had a quick boil then topped with butter and mint. Delicious!
Another week down and the allotment is unrecognisable from March. The potato plants are well in bloom and in the dry weather, it’s time to really get watering. We have suffered a little bit with scab on some of the Charlottes, which is okay if caught early, it is a scab that appears on the outside of the potato so they just require a little more peeling than just scraping before cooking. The potatoes kept producing all the little tomato-looking fruit on the top which are poisonous. Some people say to cut them off, however we didn’t have time to do that this year.
So here are today’s crop (second week of July), one bag of Maris Pipers and one bag of Charlottes. Each bag was 2-3 plants dug up. We really should have started to dig up the Charlottes earlier but our inexperience meant we waited some time. Earlies apparently need around 12 weeks in the ground and Maris Pipers around 16 weeks, so technically they’re all ready to come up now! But we have no intention of doing that, our plan is to dig up the Charlottes over the next month and leave the Maris Pipers until the end of August. They should be just fine in the ground, unless we have an underground slug invasion!
Planting the potatoes was a fair amount of effort, lots of holes to dig in tough clay soil. Keeping on top of earthing up with the threat of frost was a bit of a chore, but okay; as was making sure the potatoes were watered in the drier spells (it’s a lot of potatoes to water!). Digging them up again can be tricky too, the little things are everywhere! And it is a tough call to figure out how deep to dig, how wide and you always risk skewering the potatoes with your fork. However I have been very surprised at our success, we’ve already had lots of potatoes, enough to share with family, and they are simply delicious! The challenge of the summer is keeping an eye on those potatoes still in the ground and checking for potato blight; something our plot neighbours say our allotments get every year.
Next year we will grow potatoes on the other side of the plot where we currently have brassicas and cabbages, crop rotation limits the spread of disease from one year to the next. We might get some manure to stick in the ground in the autumn where the potatoes will be going but this is dependent on how much time we will have then. Hopefully our success this year was not just beginners luck!
Useful websites full of information on how to grow potatoes:
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A great partner in the root vegetable category are carrots. Learn how to grow carrots by viewing the articles in our How To Grow series – How To Grow: Carrots.