Thursday, 13 March 2014

Planting Potatoes

This year we're trying two different varieties of potato, mainly because we weren't able to find the variety we normally grow. we've had much success growing 'Romano' but after searching all of south-east Norfolk we've had to settle for something new this season.
We've gone for two varieties which are said to be both reliable and resilient. The first is an early variety called 'Rocket'. It is said to be one of the earlies to crop and produces high yields. The second is 'Desiree', which is a re skinned potato with yellow flesh and is harvested later in the season as a main crop. So if all goes to plan we should be harvesting and eating potatoes from as early as May and then again in September. The hope here is that we'll have potatoes all through the summer and enough to see us through winter.
Chitted seed potatoes ready for planting
Growing potatoes is quite simple. I've only had problems once and that was due to my own ignorance. I had the idea that leaving potatoes in the ground would be a better form of storage. Not a good idea, the slugs got them all. In my experience, potatoes can be used to break up heavy soils and save you having to do the hard work of digging over your plot. They all seem to do better in soils that have been heavily manured. They also grow a lot quicker once they have been chitted. What you're trying to achieve with chitting is short compacted deep purple coloured shoots as oppose to the long translucent shoots you'll get if the 'seeds' are left in the dark for too long. However I tend to leave them in the dark for a while, until their shoots grow to about 1/2 inch, before placing them in a sunny frost free spot for further chitting. I also like to wait for the seed potatoes to go a bit soft before planting. I've had better results applying these techniques.
Mulched bed
Once chitted, it's time to plant out. Some growers tend to plant potatoes deep in the soil or in soil mounts which works fine. But I like growing in mulch. When I prepare the site I add a very generous layer of straw mulch mixed with some compost onto the soil surface and let it sit for a month or two before planting out. I like my mulch deep. Straw compresses after a while. After compression a mulch approximately fist deep is good. In my opinion, the deeper the better. 
The first step is to make holes in the mulch. I makes hole up to the soil surface and then just enough into the soil to completely bury the 'seeds'. Growing in mulch is amazing. It allows for easy harvesting, helps retain moisture and nutrients, creates habitats for predators like spiders and slow worms and harvesting is a breeze. When growing in mulch there is no need to big up potatoes at harvest time. Simply push apart the mulch and pick. This way you can just harvest what you need at the time and let the plat go on producing. This is especially attractive when growing early varieties.
Seed potato wrapped
with comfrey
Step two is to place the 'seeds' into the holes. Potatoes do better in nutrient rich soils. The more nutrients available the better the crop will be.One techniques I've picked up over the years is using comfrey leaves. Wrap each 'seed' in a comfrey leaf and place into the hole, shoots pointing up. Comfrey leaves are high in silica, nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron and are often used as fertilizer. As the leaves break down they make all these nutrients available to the potato plants throughout its' growth. Comfrey is one of my favourite herbs mainly because of it's many uses and benefits in the garden. I like to grow as much comfrey as I can get away with in my garden. The plants is large and beautiful and attracts many beneficial insects. It can also be used to make medicinal ointments, and of course it provides a constant supply of natural fertilizer.
Next is to fill the holes. One option is to simply refill the holes with mulch but adding compost would mean more nutrients for your future plants. I like using home made compost. I believe that store bought compost, thought eventually works well, lacks the soil microbes that are abundant in backyard compost. It is these microbes that enables plants to access the nutrients in soils, and making and using my own compost is one of my favourite things about gardening. I tend to overfill the holes because the next step causes the compost to sink a bit. 
Once all the holes are filled, I give each one a good drink of water and recover with mulch. Over the next few months I will keep adding mulch as and when the plants begin to emerge. This forces the plant to make more tubers under the mulch as it is deprived of sunlight. It is important that the tubers underground (under-mulch in this case) are not exposed to sunlight as this tends to make them go green and become poisonous.

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