In the middle of winter I turn into a hoarder of cast-off cardboard egg boxes, whilst my family regards me with raised eyebrows and pitying smiles. But Iâ€™m preparing for one of the most important late winter jobs â€“ chitting potatoes. Thereâ€™s something satisfying about windowsills full of rows of egg boxes with a seed potato resting in each hollow.
Chitting potatoes gives the potato tubers a running start so they can reach maturity quickly. As a tender crop from the Andes, potatoes are susceptible to frost so the shorter the period between planting and cropping, the better. My potatoes have now been chitting for a few weeks, theyâ€™ve produced 2cm green shoots and are nearly ready to go into the ground. Iâ€™m growing first early â€˜Lady Christlâ€™ (a family favourite with good disease resistance, an excellent flavour and crops well in containers) and second earlies â€˜Nicolaâ€™ (tasty, yellow-fleshed and eelworm resistant), â€˜Cherieâ€™ (flavoursome, heavy cropping and attractive rose pink skin) and â€˜Piccolo Starâ€™ (a new one to us with white flowers and yellow skin) this year.
First earlies will be ready to harvest 100-110 days after planting and second earlies in 110-120 days. You can start planting early potatoes from the end of March (first earlies) to early-mid April (second earlies) when the soil has reached at least 7Â°C. Potatoes are a useful crop to plant on new ground which needs breaking up before planting other crops later in the year. In our allotment weâ€™ve made space for two potato beds in areas which have been overgrown in the past. Once any perennial weeds have been removed, the potatoes will be planted in 15cm deep trenches with tubers 30cm apart and rows 60cm apart. The roots will open up the soil and the thick top growth will help to control weeds. Once the potatoes are harvested in June, the frosts will be over and my tender courgettes and beans will be ready to take their place.
Potatoes require plenty of water, especially in the period a month after planting to a month before harvesting. Give plants a good water at least once a week and earth up the new shoots or protect with fleece at night to protect them from late frosts.Â Covering the emerging shoots with soil (earthing-up) is important to avoid potatoes growing on the surface of the soil, as any potato which is exposed to light becomes green and inedible. Earthing-up should be done several times as the potatoes grow until the sides of the mound are about 15cm high.
Before getting an allotment, we grew potatoes in containers successfully each year. They can be grown in special containers with covered gaps in the side for ease of harvesting or just in large pots or fabric containers (at least 30cm deep with drainage holes). Pots can be planted up now for an early harvest of new potatoes in summer:
- Fill the container with 15cm of compost and plant the tubers (usually 2/3 per large pot) just below the surface
- Add extra compost once shoots are 15cm tall and repeat this process until the leaves reach the top of the container
- Water regularly to keep compost moist â€“ a good soaking every week should suffice
Growing maincrop potatoes in a small garden fills space which might better be used to grow crops which are more expensive to buy or which occupy the ground for less time (like cut and come again salad leaves). But even the smallest garden or patio has room for a container filled with early potatoes to add a sparkle to summer lunches when freshly harvested and steamed with butter and chopped mint.
By Nic Wilson
Nic Wilson is a garden designer, garden writer and enthusiastic home grower (especially of more unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs). Â She enjoys volunteering in her local community garden and experimenting in the kitchen with crops from her garden, allotment and the hedgerows.