GARDENING: Brian Kidd on enjoying early spring potatoes 

Potatoes are easy to grow - why not grow them early? They have lovely foliage
Potatoes are easy to grow - why not grow them early? They have lovely foliage
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Potatoes are one of the most important vegetables in our diet. They are easy to grow but plant them in soil which has not hosted this crop for two years or more.

They are good to grow in soil which has not been cultivated for ages.Dig the ground over in autumn or early winter adding lots of well-rotted manure or compost in the trenches as potatoes enjoy plenty of organic matter.

Autumn digging allows winter to break down the soil. Even clay is improved if digging's done in early autumn, with clods left in big blocks and weeds buried and left for winter to break them down. Add lots of sharp sand to the surface after digging for a permanent solution for heavy clay. 

Buy tubers at garden centres. Put them in egg cartons in plenty of light in a frost-free place so the tips produce shoots. Plant shooting tubers  in early April.

Why not grow extra early potatoes? Potatoes have lovely foliage and no one will notice if you grow them on a patio or in the border. Buy a bag of universal potting compost, remove two-thirds of the contents, roll down the bag and plant three well-sprouted tubers nine inches apart, planting the tubers five inches deep. Water and keep the bag in a frost-free place with lots of light.

The foliage will grow and new potatoes will emerge from the underground stems in June. Water the compost and before getting too excited about the crop, use fingers to see if the spuds are big enough to eat before lifting the whole crop.

The traditional way? Make drills five inches deep with a hoe or  spade. Good smooth potatoes can be grown if sieved garden compost covers the tubers. This takes ages but is important if you want exhibition potatoes.

Plant tubers of early cultivars 12in apart in rows 24in apart. Main crop types are planted 15in apart in rows 30in apart.

If you plant eight to 10 rows on an allotment leave a path three feet wide through the centre –  it makes spraying against potato blight easier.

Once the tubers are planted, feed with blood, fish and bone, three ounces per square yard raked into the top two inches. This will not disturb the tubers. The fertiliser will start working as soon as shoots emerge. Then cover with a ridge of soil – earthing up.

Before this, weeds should be hoed off and picked up or chickweed quickly smothers the soil between the rows.

The crop grows in the ridge and the more preparation that can be done to ensure the soil for earthing up is friable, the better. Frosts will damage shoots. If forecast, cover with fleece or add soil to the ridge.

Thick potato haulms indicate a good crop. If stems are weak, apply a dressing of sulphate of ammonia using only an ounce to a yard run. Hoe in and add to earthed-up rows. Any contact with the foliage burns badly, so be careful.

In mid-June early potatoes should be ready to try. Remove, with your fingers, just a few which seem large enough and enjoy lightly boiled with lashings of butter.