GARDENING: Brian Kidd on enjoying early spring potatoesÂ
Potatoes are one of the most important vegetables in our diet. They are easy toÂ 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.Â Dig theÂ ground over in autumn or early winter adding lotsÂ of well-rotted manure or compost inÂ theÂ trenches asÂ potatoes enjoy plenty of organic matter.
Autumn digging allows winter to break down the soil. Even clay isÂ improved if digging'sÂ doneÂ in early autumn, with clods left in bigÂ blocks and weeds buried and left for winter to break them down. AddÂ lotsÂ of sharp sand to the surface after digging forÂ a permanent solution forÂ heavy clay.Â
Buy tubersÂ at garden centres. Put them inÂ egg cartons in plenty ofÂ light in a frost-free place so the tips produce shoots. PlantÂ shooting tubers Â in early April.
Why not grow extra early potatoes? PotatoesÂ have lovelyÂ foliage and no one will notice if youÂ grow themÂ on a patio or in theÂ border. Buy a bag of universal potting compost, removeÂ two-thirds of the contents, roll down the bag and plant three well-sprouted tubers nine inches apart, planting theÂ tubers fiveÂ inches deep. WaterÂ 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. WaterÂ the compost and before getting too excited about the crop, use fingers to see if the spudsÂ are bigÂ enough to eat before liftingÂ the whole crop.
The traditional way? Make drills five inches deep with a hoe or Â 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 earlyÂ cultivars 12inÂ apart in rows 24inÂ apart. Main crop types are planted 15in apartÂ in rows 30inÂ apart.
If you plant eight to 10 rows on an allotmentÂ leaveÂ aÂ pathÂ three feet wide through the centreÂ '“Â it makes spraying againstÂ potato blight easier.
Once the tubers are planted, feed with blood,Â fish and bone, three ouncesÂ per square yard raked into the top two inches. ThisÂ will not disturb the tubers. The fertiliser will start working as soon as shoots emerge. ThenÂ coverÂ with a ridge of soil '“Â earthing up.
Before this,Â weeds should be hoed off and picked up orÂ chickweed quickly smothers the soil between the rows.
TheÂ crop grows in the ridge and the more preparation that can be doneÂ 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.
ThickÂ 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 addÂ 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 seemÂ large enough and enjoy lightly boiled with lashings of butter.