Top choices for growing potatoes

Potatoes are a space-greedy crop so growing the right variety is important. No one wants to tie up large areas of their garden or allotment for many weeks only to find they don’t like the taste or cooking quality of their chosen spud.

But making that choice isn’t easy. There are hundreds of varieties and all sound tempting.

I’ve been taking some advice from James Mclean, shop manager at Dundry Nurseries, a Cotswold firm that has been staging a January potato weekend for 20 years, attracting growers from across the country.

potatoes
James and the team are setting out tonnes of spuds

What makes their event my favourite is the chance to experiment, as tubers are sold from a single one at 20p right up to a sack-load.

This season, they will have a staggering 18 tonnes of 130 different varieties for sale covering every potato group: early, first early, second early and maincrop.

New varieties

While many are old favourites, there are several new varieties available this year.

‘Double Fun’ is a purple skinned second early with yellow, waxy flesh. ‘Elfe’, another second early, has a creamy, buttery taste.

Among the maincrop potatoes, there’s ‘Alverstone Russet’. It replaces ‘Russet Burbank’, which Dundry can no longer source, and has white flesh, high yields and stores well. ‘Pippa’, also maincrop, is a salad variety that has been bred from the popular ‘Pink Fir Apple’. It has the same great flavour but is easy to prepare as the shape is more regular.

“The most exciting is ‘Sarpo Kifli’,” says James. “It’s a salad variety but it stores well, which is unheard of, and it has a fantastic taste.”

Add the high blight resistance common to Sarpo potatoes and the fact that it’s suitable for growing in containers, and this variety seems to be one to watch.

Growers’ favourite potatoes

But if those are the newcomers, what about the tried and tested potatoes? James says there are some that always top the poll with Dundry’s growers.

potatoes
‘Charlotte’ is the best-selling salad potato

When it comes to early potatoes, ‘Charlotte’ is definitely the queen. Reliable, high yields of fabulous tasting tubers make this the number one choice for a salad spud.

Honours are shared in the first early category. As the name suggests, ‘Swift’ is favoured for its speed of growth – it’s ready in 12 to 14 weeks – and the tubers are well flavoured and firm. It’s also a variety suitable for growing in a container.

Also popular in the first earlies is ‘Rocket’. Again, it matures quickly, can be container grown and produces a lot of mild tubers.

Among the second earlies, ‘Kestrel’ is the top choice at Dundry. It is a good all-rounder in the kitchen and has possibly the best resistance to slugs.

Finally, the maincrop potatoes are led by the well-known ‘Desiree’. Its red-skinned, waxy tubers have an excellent flavour and a high drought tolerance.

potatoes
‘Apache’ is a colourful spud

But already snapping at their heels are recently introduced potatoes that are gaining a following. Possibly the best known is ‘Jazzy’, a second early that can be boiled, steamed or roasted. It’s been on the market for just two years but is already popular at the Dundry potato weekend.

“We’ve tripled our order from last year,” says James.

And if you want something that looks different on your plate, what about ‘Apache’?. A second early, it has distinctive red and yellow skin and you can keep its colourful looks by blanching it before roasting.

While most of the potatoes are sold over the weekend – this year on January 21 and 22 – the stock is arriving daily and regulars are already in picking up their favourites. The family-run nursery, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, doesn’t do online ordering but will post out orders placed by phone. The website has a list of varieties and whether they are still in stock.

Choosing is going to be a tough decision.

Dundry Nurseries, Bamfurlong Lane, Cheltenham, holds its potato weekend on January 21 and 22 from 9-4.30pm. Details of potato varieties are available on the website: Dundry Nurseries

• Do you grow potatoes? What’s your favourite variety? 

Online plant nursery guide launches

A chance remark by Monty Don on BBC Gardeners’ World has led to a project to support independent nurseries and the launch this month of an UK-wide online plant nursery guide.

There was dismay when Monty said that garden centres would be shut on Easter Day without mentioning that small nurseries were allowed to open under Sunday trading rules.

online plant nursery guide

It sparked a debate about how to best support these small growers and led to the idea of an online guide giving opening times, contact details and an idea of the nursery’s range. The website will also offer the chance for plants men and women to write about their business.

“Often we hear it is hard for nurseries to find affordable advertising space,” say the organisers, “and that people who want to support the British horticultural industry often find it hard to find nurseries.

online plant nursery guide
Tortworth Plants

“Hopefully this site will help to begin to solve both those issues while also giving our industry a boost through good media support.”

The online plant nursery guide, which launched last week, is still in its infancy and new suggestions of firms are being added as they come in. However, it already lists nearly 200 growers and received more than 2,000 hits in the first day.

It’s divided into areas, such as the Channel Islands and Northern Ireland, then regions, and then further sub-divided into counties. The Cotswolds has several nurseries listed, including Tortworth Plants, Pan Global Plants, Farmcote Herbs and Chilli Peppers, Dundry Nurseries, Miserden Nursery and Hoo House.

online plant nursery guide
Harrell’s Hardy Plants

Specialists include Spinneywell for box, Shady Plants and The Lavender Garden.

Among those on the fringes of the Cotswolds are Harrell’s Hardy Plants in Evesham, penstemon specialists Green Jjam Plants and Gardens, and Bob Brown’s well-known Cotswold Garden Flowers.

There is also a section for those nurseries who deal with customers via mail order only, although several of those who open will also send plants to gardeners who cannot visit.

Organisers are open to ideas of independent plant nurseries to include and should be contacted via the website.

The online plant nursery guide is available here: http://independentplantnurseriesguide.uk/

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Grow rainbow potatoes

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.

Potatoe 'Red Emmalie'
Try ‘Red Emmalie’ for some different mash

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.

Dundry Nurseries
Thousands of tubers will be sold over the weekend

“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.

potato 'Shetland Black'
‘Shetland Black’ has a distinctive purple ring

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.

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Steve Mercer getting reading for the Potato Weekend

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.

potatoes
Potatoes are an underrated crop