Potatoes are very easy and they produce the highest yield per square metre of any food crop. Unfortunately, they suffer from a debilitating fungal disease called potato blight (Phytophthora infests) which affects the tops and tubers. But this disease doesn’t usually strike until late-July and August so you can avoid it by only growing 'new' potatoes.
These varieties are labelled first and second early potatoes and they are harvested young from mid-June onwards. Although the choice of variety is best early in the year, you will still be able to order some later on.
Flavour and texture vary and both are very personal choices. Experienced gardeners and chefs have their own favourites. But generally there are floury varieties (that tend to break up a little when cooked) and harder, waxy varieties sometimes termed salad potatoes. Classic floury varieties include 'Red Duke of York' - Raymond Blanc’s favourite. 'Foremost' is a tasty, hard-textured new potato that boils perfectly and avoids slug damage.
When to plant
Earlies are best planted in the first half of April to avoid late frost damage. Plant 30cm (1ft) apart in rows 60 cm (2ft) apart and harvest 13-14 weeks later.
First early potatoes
Duke of York 1891
Pale yellow, oval - firm but slightly floury.
Oval with white skin and white flesh.
Ideal for boiling straight from the garden.
Creamy white, round potato - scraper.
High yields/good frost recovery.
Floury texture - general purpose potato.
Popular scraper - stores well.
Slightly waxy, firm white flesh of good flavour.
Early, pale-yellow oval potato with smooth skin.
Remains firm when boiled.
Good for growing bags where space is limited.
Maris Baird 1972
Early heavy cropper - crops well in dry conditions.
Firm - general purpose.
Blight resistance high - so excellent on allotments.
Cream flesh - full of flavour.
Boiling or salad potato.
White, waxy-fleshed new potato.
Boiling and salad use.
Red Duke of York 1942
Moist yellow flesh.
Tends to disintegrate when boiled - but superb flavour.
Vales Emerald (Maris Peer/Charlotte cross)
Round, cream skinned potato.
Second early potatoes
Anya (Pink Fir Apple/Desiree cross)
Nutty-flavoured, small potato.
Salads or boiling.
Yellow-skinned, waxy potatoes with creamy flavourful flesh.
Eat hot or cold.
British Queen 1894
Floury, high-yielding potato.
Roasting, frying - boiling requires care.
Smooth-skinned, pale tubers with violet eyes.
All-purpose and often seen on the show bench.
Creamy, high-yielding oval potato.
Boil, bake, mash or roast.
Easy to grow in containers; and grow bags.
Maincrop potatoes are harvested in late September so they have to be blight tolerant, if possible, because they are still growing when blight is most likely to strike.
What to do if blight strikes
The first sign is a slight wilt on the foliage followed by brown lesions. Cut the foliage (the haulms) away and bin them. Do not add them to the compost heap. Hopefully this will prevent the tubers from being infected. Infected tubers rot in the ground - which is what happened in The Great Potato Famine.
If you get blight in the tubers bin the crop and avoid growing potatoes in the same place for three years.
Why grow maincrops?
Gardeners on allotments often grow maincrop potatoes as these can be stored over winter. 'Cara' is the classic blight-resistant variety. But, as the fungus mutates, resistant varieties tend to become affected too. In recent years this has happened to the foliage of 'Cara'. However I have never had blight on the tubers.
Organic gardeners often grow their own potatoes because the average crop is sprayed at least 16 times from planting to harvest.
Round/oval pinkish-red eyed tubers.
Particularly good baker and the best for organic growers.
Classic red potato.
The best masher.
Long, oval, white tubers with creamy white flesh.
Excellent chipper, especially long or large chips.
Bred from Cara - creamy skin and striking bright red eyes.
Waxy flesh. for general use.
Red oval potato with floury yellow flesh.
Mash, steam, roast or chip.
Modern disease-resistant variety. Robust and will grow well in a wide range of conditions.
Wide range of uses.
Oval, white-skinned and creamy-fleshed variety - very healthy.
Should I plant potatoes on Good Friday?
It is traditional to plant on Good Friday but this is a superstitious idea rather than a practical one. Potatoes were introduced into Europe in the mid-sixteenth century by Spanish conquistadors who found them in the high Andes. Hence they were not mentioned in the Bible (for obvious reasons) and many people thought they were the devil's food. In Ireland (where potatoes were the staple food crop) they were planted on God’s Friday on land blessed with Holy Water. Potatoes are frost tender and mid-April is usually safer than March - unless you fleece the crop or cover the tops with soil - this is called earthing up.
A blight-resistant potato
Russia funded new research into blight-resistant potatoes in the 1950s and 1960s. The work was carried out in Hungary using potato species originally collected in the early years of the 20th century. These varieties, housed in Russian Botanic Gardens, are often no longer found in the wild. They provided an unique resource of resistant breeding material.
When the Soviet block broke up the chief scientist hid his disease-resistant tubers under his bed and carried on breeding independently in secret. The potatoes came to West’s attention when Scottish breeders noticed an unaffected crop amidst a blight-ridden trial. The foliage was tall and entirely healthy. After careful negotiation the research project moved to Bangor in Wales and blight-resistant potatoes with the Sarpo prefix began to appear about five years ago.
Gardeners have embraced the two varieties of Sarpo potatoes available. 'Sarpo Axona' is a red-skinned potato with creamy flesh and 'Sarpo Mira' is similar but floury. They both sell well (from Thompson & Morgan) and there are four new 'Sarpo' varieties on the horizon which may well be available by 2012. 'Blue Danube' is also one of their varieties, but it doesn’t have the Sarpo prefix. The foliage can suffer slightly from blight, although the floury tubers are completely resistant.
Sadly, commercial growers have shunned Sarpo varieties so far. But the writing is on the wall now that the chemical use is being restricted by legislation in horticulture and gardening. The Sarpo varieties offer the only way forward.