When it comes to potatoes it's early days for the expert

 

Common sense is the best guide to growing spuds

IT’S COLD, it’s dark, it’s wet, it’s windy . . . in other words, it’s January, the month when the urban farmer is forced to spend so much time indoors that he or she might as well live in a burrow.

In the Phoenix Park, the OPW’s walled kitchen garden (despite its beautiful bone-structure) is looking pretty much like any other vegetable garden at this time of year: forlorn, frostbitten and rather uninviting.

Even its gardeners, Meeda Downey and Brian Quinn, have temporarily abandoned it to busy themselves elsewhere, planting young sapling trees in the park. But they don’t have the pleasure of owning their own polytunnel like some other lucky GYOers do.

Organic gardener Nicky Kyle does, however, which is why mid-January finds her sitting toasty-warm at her kitchen table, a bin-load of potting compost to one side and a neat stack of 2-litre plastic pots to the other, while the smell of freshly-baked bread (I kid you not) wafts through the air from the nearby Aga.

In front of her, carefully stashed in plastic fruit boxes, is a selection of very well-chitted seed potatoes which, one-by-one, are being gently lifted from the pile, their brittle pink shoots and their spidery white roots tenderly disentangled, before theyre lovingly placed individually into half-filled pots and covered with a nicely fibrous compost.

These potatoes are Nicky Kyle’s early “earlies”, which are destined for the polytunnel in the expectation of a spring harvest. But the odd thing is that some of the shoots on these seed potatoes are three, even four inches long – a sight to make the purists wince. After all, conventional gardening wisdom dictates that shoots be no longer than an inch.

“Rubbish,” says Nicky firmly. “That’s the problem with a lot of conventional gardening advice. It’s just not that accurate. As long as you’re very gentle with them, you make sure that both the shoots and the roots aren’t allowed to dry out before planting, and you place the shoot on its side rather than planting it upright, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t let the shoots of seed potatoes get that long.

“In fact, it speeds things up. These potatoes, for example, should be ready to plant in my polytunnel by mid-February and for harvesting in about 12 weeks, in plenty of time for Easter.”

Potatoes by Easter? Yet another reason, you might think, for traditionalists to wince. But then Nicky Kyle is both a non-

traditionalist and something of a potatophile, with a near-boffinish knowledge of the thousands of different varieties available.

“I’ve grown hundreds of different varieties over the years,” she smiles, “I’m always curious about new ones.” So, when it comes to recommending the best varieties to grow in polytunnels, she speaks from long experience.

“I’d say Lady Christl, without a doubt,” she says. “ It’s extra early, with lovely, waxy, yellow potatoes, very tasty. Duke of York is another very good first early variety that’s suited to a polytunnel, as is Red Duke of York and Annabelle. Of the second-

earlies, I’d recommend Sharpes Express, Roseval, and then Mayan Gold, which is a potato to die for. The only problem with any of these is in getting the seed potatoes early enough to give them time to chit, so I save some of my own each year.”

But isn’t saving your own seed potatoes a Very Bad Idea, because of the risk that the stored tubers might carry disease? She fixes me with another sceptical look. “No, not as long as you use some basic common sense. Only save from the best, most healthy looking plants, grown outdoors the previous year from certified seed potatoes , and make sure there’s no blight, scabs, bruises or dark patches on the tubers. Wash them, dry them and then store them carefully, loosely covered and in the coolest place you can find – it must be frost-free, though – where the mice can’t get at them. They should start sprouting by Christmas.”

Once Nicky has finished potting up the individual tubers in mid-January, she’ll lightly water them, place them on a sheet of polythene somewhere cool but frost-free, and then wait. Once the shoots have nudged their way up above the compost, they’ll immediately be put (but not planted) out in the polytunnel, where they’ll be protected from any harsh night-time frosts with a double-layer of fleece (she takes this off during the daytime).

Only when the shoots are 5” to 6” high (roundabout mid-

February), will they then be planted in the polytunnel (18” apart into flat, raised beds). “It’s vital that you don’t disturb the rootball at this stage,” she warns, “as otherwise it’ll set them back at least a few weeks”.

After that, it’s a question of vigilant frost-protection and watering – “but don’t saturate them”. Also, don’t plant them anywhere that tomatoes (members of the same Solanum species) have grown in at least the last year. Don’t follow them with tomatoes either – Nicky suggests courgettes, cucumbers or melons. Plant a few marigolds, wallflowers or Limnanthes douglasii (the poached egg plant) nearby to distract early aphids. And then wait. After eight weeks, Nicky can’t help digging gently with her fingers to see if she can fish out a couple of the bigger ones.

Finally, don’t waste your time searching for the Mayan Gold potato, the one that Nicky says is a potato to die for. Bred by the Scottish Research Institute (scri.ac.uk), and scientifically proven to have lots of what the Japanese call umami (one of the five basic taste sensations), seed potatoes of this Phureja variety it seems are not to be got here, for love nor money. Nicky’s are what you might call contraband, smuggled over from the UK a couple of years ago and lovingly overwintered as seed potatoes ever since. But then, you’d expect nothing less of a true potatophile.

WHAT TO: sow, plant and do now

SOW:(In small amounts, in gentle heat, to move to a cooler but frost-free spot before planting out in polytunnel from late-February onwards, using fleece at night for frost-protection): Sugar pea (Delikett), broad beans, carrots, oriental salad mixes, Mizuna, rocket, Swiss chard, spinach, Ragged Jack kale (for baby leaves), lettuce, white turnips, leeks and onions

PLANT:Very early, chitted potatoes (in 2-litre pots indoors, to move to cool, frost-free spot before planting in polytunnel mid-February onwards, using fleece at night for frost-protection).

DO:Start planning this year’s vegetable plot, order seed (catalogues or online), weed polytunnel crops, sort through stored vegetables and discard any rotten/frost-damaged ones.

  • For more details, visit nickykylegardening.com. For seed potatoes of some of the early varieties try Mr Middleton Garden Shop (mrmiddleton.com). The UK-based online garden centre Dobies (dobies.co.uk) stock a relative of Mayan Gold called Mayan Twilight, which they’ll deliver to Ireland (watch out for pp costs).
  • The OPW’s Victorian kitchen garden is in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Café and Ashtown Castle. The gardens are open daily from 10am to 4pm
  • Next week: Meeda and Brian choosing what vegetable varieties to grow, from this years seed catalogues
  • FIONNUALA FALLONis a garden designer and writer