There’s no doubt that when it comes to grow your own, spuds have an image problem. Potatoes may be a staple of many diets but for the average vegetable gardener they are seen as space-greedy and suitable only for allotments. Why devote time and effort to something that’s cheap to buy and, frankly, a bit dull?
The answer, as with so many crops, lies in the taste. There’s nothing quite like newly dug potatoes and growing your own gives you the chance to try varieties ignored by the supermarkets. They can also be raised in containers, so even balcony gardeners needn’t miss out, while choosing one of the colourful varieties means you could be harvesting rainbow nuggets of gold.
The start of the potato growing season is one of the highlights of the year at Dundry Nurseries. The Cotswold business hosts an annual Potato Weekend that sees thousands of seed potatoes sold to customers who travel from all over the country for the event. As little as one tuber can be bought, making it the ideal way for beginners to start, or for old hands to try something new.
This year, the 19th event, there will be around 135 different varieties on offer with coloured spuds set to steal the show.
“We like to be a bit different,” says Steve Mercer, manager at the family-owned nursery. “As with everything we do, it’s a bit of fun.”
Unlike varieties such as ‘Red Duke of York’, it’s not just the skin that’s coloured on these spuds but the flesh as well. Some are Heritage varieties, others newer introductions.
‘Violetta’ and ‘Salad Blue’ are both a deep blue-purple, ‘Red Emmalie’ is a glorious pink-red, while ‘Highland Burgundy’ has almost all red flesh with just a narrow band of white under the red skin. ‘Shetland Black’ has dark blue skin and creamy flesh with a distinctive purple band.
When it comes to more mainstream varieties, ‘Charlotte’ is still the bestseller.
“It’s because everybody knows it and it always grows well. Why change a good thing?” says Steve.
There has been a trend though for growers to move over to ‘Annabelle’, which crops earlier than ‘Charlotte’ and with more uniform tubers. In the same way, ‘Mozart’, which Steve describes as “bombproof”, is gradually becoming the spud of choice among former ‘Desiree’ growers. Meanwhile, ‘Jazzy’, a popular waxy spud with great flavour, sold out on the first day at last year’s event.
“We’ve tripled the order this time,” says Steve.
Last year, around 1,800 people visited over the two days of the Potato Weekend with many more calling in during the run-up to be sure of getting a particular variety.
“Around eighty per cent still come back for the weekend to talk to fellow growers. It’s really a social gathering.”
• Dundry Nurseries, Bamfurlong Lane, Cheltenham, holds its Potato Weekend on Saturday and Sunday January 16 and 17 from 9am to 4.30pm. Tubers are 20p each; £1.75 a Kg; £4.50 3Kg. Nursery owner Chris Evans will give cookery demonstrations using coloured potatoes on the Saturday. Gloucestershire gardening groups will have stalls, there will be advice about growing potatoes, antique tools on display and a potato-themed play on the Sunday. Refreshments will be available. For more details, visit http://www.dundrynurseries.co.uk/default.asp
How to grow spuds
• Always use certified disease-free tubers.
• Tubers should be chitted to develop shoots before planting. Place, eyes uppermost, in a light, frost-free place, such as a conservatory or porch. Old egg boxes are an ideal container.
• Ground should not be freshly manured – prepare it in the autumn. Pelleted chicken manure is a popular fertiliser when planting.
• Plant around the end of March for first earlies; early to mid-April for second earlies and mid to late April for maincrop.
• First and second earlies are planted 1ft apart, 5ins deep with 2ft between rows. Main crop: 18ins apart, 5ins deep.
• As shoots start to grow, earth up by drawing earth around them to protect from frost and stop light turning the tubers green. Keep well-watered.
• Harvest first and second earlies from June, when the potatoes are egg-sized. Harvest main crop from September when the flowers go over.
• Allow potatoes to dry before storing in a dark, frost-free place in sacks. Do not store damaged tubers and check remainder regularly.
• A 35L bucket can be planted with three tubers. Keep well watered and either fill the bucket immediately or earth up as the tubers grow.