Rare species of the humble spud take us back in time


URBAN FARMER:An unusual collection was among the highlights of the first ever Potato Day at Sonairte

EXACTLY how does a potato end up with the particularly unlovely name of Ringerikspotet? That was the question I pondered late last week as one of the many visitors to the first ever Potato Day in Sonairte, the National Ecology Centre in Laytown, Co Meath (sonairte.ie), where some of the potato expert David Langford’s collection of rare and heirloom potato varieties were on display. But apparently I shouldn’t judge a horse by its cover, or rather a potato by its name.

“Ringerikspotet is a Norwegian heritage variety,” explained David, as he put the final touches to the colourful display with the help of Sonairte’s Kathy Marsh. “It’s actually very tasty.” But not so the prettily named Bambino, another potato in the Langford collection. “Quite vile,” says David with a grimace of disgust. “You can’t boil it, you can’t roast it, in fact, you can’t do anything with it. It tastes worse than Arran Banner, and that tastes horrendous.”

But isn’t Arran Banner, which was first bred by Donald McKelvie back in the late 1920s, one of those hard-to-get heritage potato varieties that everyone wants to grow? “Yes, that’s right, I’m always being asked about it –but only by people who haven’t yet eaten it,” laughs David.

So what, I wondered, does he consider to be the tastiest of all the potatoes in his collection? “Oh gosh, thats a question almost impossible to answer,” he replies carefully. “Probably Golden Wonder, but only at this time of year after it’s been stored for a good few months either in a clamp or in paper sacks. Many people, you see, don’t realise that proper storage improves the flavour immensely. Skerry Champion is another super spud, as is Pixie, Peru Red, or Highland Burgundy Red which makes the most delicious chips or roast potatoes. It really depends on what you want to do with them.”

Having spent a lifetime amassing a personal collection of more than 180 different varieties, some of which – such as the very rare Irish Apple – date as far back as the second half of the 18th century, it seems there’s very little that David doesn’t know about potatoes. “I first started collecting them when I was living in north Scotland back in the 1970s,” he explains. “I had a friend, a man called Jack Main, who did a lot of work in the Scottish Islands and Highlands and he used to bring me back unusual varieties that we grew on an allotment. After he died, I eventually moved to Ireland (David now lives in Swinford, Co Mayo) and continued collecting. And then people started to send me rare potatoes from all over the world. One man even drove all the way from Belgium.”

Langford grew his collection of rare potatoes in his back garden until 2006, when he happened to meet the then-head gardener of Lissadell, Dermot Carey, on a visit to the Organic Centre in Leitrim. “We got chatting and I mentioned that we’d be interested in growing some of the varieties in the walled kitchen garden in Lissadell,” remembers Dermot. “He said, ‘I can’t sell them to you but I can give them to you’ and so in the spring of 2007, he arrived with 150 different potato varieties stashed in the back of his station wagon. I picked out 24 varieties with an Irish connection, including the famous Lumper, and it started from there. By last summer, we had almost all of David’s entire collection growing in the walled garden.”

Although Lissadell, sadly, is now closed to visitors and Dermot is no longer its head gardener, the plan is that he and David will continue to maintain the collection in its kitchen garden on a voluntary basis. “It’s a significant collection of rare potatoes that Irish people should celebrate as a unique part of our gardening heritage,” says Dermot. “And my experience has been that most people find the stories behind the old potato varieties very interesting. For example, Kathy Marsh discovered that three of the potatoes in the Langford collection – the Lumper, Cups and Irish Apple – were grown in this part of Meath before the famine. Now they’ll be growing again this summer in the gardens of Sonairte. It’s a nice link with the past.”

Also interesting to many Irish gardeners is the technique of making a “lazy bed” for seed potatoes, as traditionally done in the west of Ireland where land is marginal. Having himself spent a few years living and gardening on Inis Mór, where he learnt the art of making a lazy bed from an Aran man by the name of Joe O’Brien, Dermot was on hand last Sunday to demonstrate the skill to Sonairte’s many interested visitors.

“The Aran farmer-fishermen have it down to a fine art,” he explained. “But even for someone with little or no experience, a lazy bed is a great way to turn a lawn into a growing area in just a couple of hours.”

Using taut string, Dermot marked off a long strip of lawn that was about 75cm wide, or “two-and-a-half-feet”, as he described it, measuring it out carefully with his boots. “The islanders wouldn’t use string because they’ve perfected the art of working neatly, but for beginners it’s a good way to keep the lazy bed the same width the whole way along.”

Once the bed was marked out, Dermot then covered the grass with a thinnish layer of manure on which he placed the seed potatoes, spacing them roughly 30cm apart and in staggered rows of two and then three (if they were bricks, you’d call it a herringbone pattern).

Next, using a very sharp spade, and working to first one and then the other side of the bed, he carefully sliced out a series of rectangles of grass, which were flipped upside-down (rather like opened doors) onto the waiting potatoes. This created a narrow furrow or trench either side of the bed (about 20cm wide) from which Dermot dug some more loose soil to finish covering the seed potatoes in the middle of the bed.

“There are a few important things to keep in mind at this stage,” he explained as he worked his way methodically down one and then the other edge of the lazy bed.

“The first is that you don’t cut or break the ‘hinge’ (the fourth side of the rectangle of sod), which is the point where the grass is flipped over on itself (the sod will quickly rot down into soil). Instead, you leave it intact to stop weeds growing through it. The second is that your spade needs to be really sharp – I’ve carefully run an angle-grinder gently along the edges of mine.”

The third, which Dermot was too polite to point out, is that the term “lazy-bed” is undoubtedly a misnomer. Along with that very sharp spade, a very strong back and a hearty appetite for hard work is definitely required. But then just think of the rewards.

If you missed Sonairte’s Potato Day, there’s still time to check out Potato Day at The Organic Centre in Rossinver, County Leitrim (theorganiccentre.ie, tickets €5 with children free), which will include both a display of David Langfords collection of potatoes and demonstrations on how to make lazy beds. It’s being held this Sunday, March 13th, from 11am-5pm, as part of GIY week’s very busy schedule of events (giyireland.com).

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, GIY plans to get over 100,000 people worldwide to take a pledge to grow something they can eat (facebook.com/giyireland).

* The OPW’s Victorian walled 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

Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer

WHAT TO: sow, plant and do now

Sow(in a heated propagator, to plant out later into a greenhouse, tunnel or outside): Aubergines (Bonica is best), alpine strawberries, Globe artichokes (early in the month, then they’ll still crop outside this year), French beans for cropping in pots inside (choose a disease- resistant variety suitable for early sowing), asparagus, celery, celeriac, tomatoes, chillis and peppers, physalis (Cape gooseberries). Also sow single tender flowers such as French marigolds, tagetes, etc, to attract beneficial insects which help with both pests and pollination.

Sow(in modules under cover without heat, covering with fleece on frosty nights, for later planting in the tunnel or outside): beetroot, broad beans, mangetout and early peas, late spring and summer cabbages, red cabbage, early Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, calabrese and summer sprouting broccolis, carrots (direct in soil for early tunnel crop), onions and leeks, spring onions, lettuces, kohl rabi, Ragged Jack and Cavolo Nero kale for baby leaves, radishes, Swiss chard, summer spinach, white turnips, salad mixes, and “soft” herbs such as parsley, dill, fennel, greek oregano and coriander. Where you’re not planting crops until May, it’s also worth sowing quick-growing soft green manures such as red clover, lupins, fenugreek, mustard and phacelia to help improve the soil and feed the worms – make sure varieties fit into your rotation pattern as far as possible.

Sowing details courtesy of organic gardener Nicky Kyle, nickykylegardening.com

Do: Finish ordering seeds, hoe young weeds where soil is workable outdoors. Chit potatoes – and plant chitted early varieties in two-litre pots in or direct into greenhouse bed for an early crop (planting to crop about 10 weeks) Don’t plant in soil where you’re going to grow tomatoes later – better to grow in pots, which can be moved outside later as space gets tight.