It is a sad fact that potatoes are so common that few people think much about them. Bags of them have to be labelled with the variety but most people don’t recognise any variation other than red and white. Admittedly the advent of ‘Rooster’ brought a rush of excitement to the nation but now ‘Rooster’ is so universal that it is in danger of becoming a cliche.
But potatoes are important. I have to admit that I am not the biggest potato eater but that means that when I do eat them, I want something interesting. Potatoes can be more waxy or more floury. Now I am in Ireland I am surrounded by ‘floury potato eaters’ but I stick resolutely to my waxy spuds. The UK is more mixed and while the roadside stalls here advertise ‘balls of flour’ to sell their ‘British Queen’, a variety that is almost unknown in the UK, I don’t think these would sell in the UK.
Although potatoes are rarely given much thought, a shortage, for any reason, causes panic. When I was at school and worked at Knights I also worked at a greengrocer in Oxted; Meyers, by the station. In the 70s I remember that there was a severe shortage of potatoes and I checked to find – From Hansard 1976. ‘The quarterly return … showed that the amount spent each week on potatoes doubled from 7.9p to 16.15p, despite a 14 per cent. drop in sales. The overall food increase, including beef and milk along with potatoes, meant that the food bill for a family of four went up by £2.88 a week in that quarter’
I am not sure if this was the year I am thinking of but I remember that the only potatoes we had for sale were Jersey Royals and they cost £1 a pound. We had a small bag by the till and anyone who bought them might as well have pulled up in a Rolls Royce, it was such an extravagance.
And. of course, I cannot live in Ireland without being aware of potato blight. This is a terrible problem for potato growers. It is a fungal disease that strikes when the weather is warm and humid. The spores are spread in the air and land on the leaves. If the weather is warm, especially at night, and the leaves remain wet for a day or more the spores grow and infect the leaves. They kill the foliage and, if the weather is wet, spores drop onto the soil and infect the tubers which rot. If you see the foliage dying you have to harvest the tubers immediately before they get affected.
‘Blight season’ usually starts in August, with thundery weather, but with the current thunderstorms and warm, humid weather it is worth being aware of the problem.
I usually grow only ‘early’ potatoes. The reasons for this is that, like many people, I do not have room to grow and store main crops for use all year and I love early spuds to use fresh in summer. The other advantage is that they are usually harvested before August, so that, although they are not resistant to blight they are rarely affected. But be aware that they may get affected this week.
Many people wonder when potatoes are ready to harvest. A good guide is that when the flowers are produced the plants can be lifted but you can always lift a few plants to check.
People are also frequently confused about the round, green fruits produced in some seasons. These are potato ‘apples’ and they look a little like green tomatoes – after all the plants are related. But, like all green parts of potatoes, they are NOT edible so don’t be tempted to try them.
There are resistant main crop potatoes and the best of these, that I have grown, are the ‘Sarpo’ varieties. It is too late for this year but look for them next spring. I find them heavy cropping and will produce a good crop when other main crops are ruined.
And don’t forget that you can buy seed potatoes now to plant in bags for a crop of new potatoes at Christmas.
Deadhead roses – As flowers fade, trim back the stems, to a leaf, to promote new growth. Give the bushes a second dressing of fertiliser too.
Sow Fennel and Chicory – for fresh veg in late autumn.
Keep feeding pots and baskets – to encourage lush growth and lots of flowers.
Top up ponds if levels have dropped. Now is also a good time to add new water plants.
Cut off strawberry runners unless you need them to make new plants.
Water newly planted shrubs – they will need more water than you expect until they get their roots in the surrounding soil.