Spoilt for spuds, so get chitting

 

Life is all too short when you’re a greedy sort of gardener – there’s too little time and far too many different potatoes, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

IT’S EARLY FEBRUARY – that time of year when almost all good seed potatoes should be tucked up and chitting snugly in their egg boxes, and yet, like a lot of other gardeners, I find myself humming and hawing when it comes to deciding exactly which varieties I’ll be growing this year. Concentrate on blight-resistant earlies like the ever reliable, Teagasc-bred Orla and Colleen, I keep telling myself, and I should dodge the risk of the much-dreaded potato blight destroying the crop.

Confine myself to those maincrop potato varieties that are also considered to have the best blight resistance, such as the Hungarian-bred Axona, or Sarpo Mira (the tubers of the latter got top scores in recent trials for blight resistance), and I’ll similarly (fingers crossed) have nothing to worry about.

But the downside of this tactic, sensible as it sounds, is that it means denying myself the pleasures of so many other truly delicious potato varieties. I’d have to pass, for example, when it comes to growing one of the country’s favourite potatoes, the blight-prone Kerr’s Pinks, as well as the scrumptious Pink Fir Apple (another martyr), the dusky-skinned Blue Edzell and the classic, floury British Queen – the variety that a gnarly and very knowledgeable farmer so colourfully described to a gardening acquaintance of mine as being “hoors for the blight . . . ”

Established favourites aside, I’m also loath to stick to a few proven varieties while there are still dozens, hundreds, nay, thousands of other new or hard-to-get-hold-of varieties that I’ve never grown. Life, I’ve found, is all too short when you’re a greedy sort of gardener – too little time and far too many different potatoes.

Definitely somewhere near the top of my ever-lengthening must-grow list is the relatively recently introduced Phureja (pronounced fur-ekka) group of potatoes that includes the much-lauded Mayan Gold as well as Mayan Twilight, Mayan Queen Inca Dawn, Inca Belle and Chaski. Bred by the SCRI (now the James Hutton Institute) using Peruvian species of potatoes found growing in the wild, these varieties have been selected for their exceptional flavour rather than for their yield or their appearance. Recent scientific studies comparing them with traditional Solanum tuberosum varieties (Maris Piper, Record, Pentland Dell) have confirmed what gardeners’ taste buds already told them – that the Phureja potatoes all contain far, far higher levels of umami – the Japanese term for that hard to define, moreish quality that makes a particularly delicious potato so particularly delicious.

Modern introductions such as these aside, I’d also like to try growing the much-maligned Lumper at least once in my lifetime, for historical reasons as much as to experience first-hand what it tastes like. And then there’s Champion, the superbly tasty, yellow-fleshed, Victorian variety that’s not to be confused with Skerry Champion, and a potato that definitely figures on my must-grow-once-before I-die list – my curiosity being sparked some years ago when I received a beseeching email from an Irishman living in Italy, desperate to find seed of it. After that, there are the many other rare or historical varieties that I know nothing about, but simply like the names of, potatoes such as Edgecote Purple, Gawkies, Skerry Blue or Tinwald Perfection – seed of which you won’t find in any garden centre.

Many of these, I happily discovered, are still grown at the TOPS Potato Propagation Centre in Raphoe, Co Donegal, as part of the conservation of the National Potato Collection, which totals more than 400 different varieties, both modern and historical.

According to Gerry Doherty, TOPS agricultural inspector and officer-in-charge, the centre often has gardeners contacting it in search of seed potatoes of rare or hard-to-get varieties. Polite requests for seed of the aforementioned Champion are particularly common, as are enquiries about the red-skinned Ruby Queen. “We have a few regular ‘customers’ who come back to us every year and, while we have quite limited stock, we’d try to help out where we could,” says Gerry.

One person who certainly has a grá for floury spuds is all-round potato fancier Aoife Cox, best known for her award-winning blog, thedailyspud.com. Of the 10 different potatoes that she’s growing this year, nine are floury, the only exception being the waxy Linzer Delikatess. The others include Sharpe’s Express (“floury first-early perfection”), British Queen (“a favourite for mash”), Golden Wonder (for roast potatoes) and Highland Burgundy Red (“an unusual pink mash’).

Of course, Miss Cox, as can be judged from the title of her excellent blog, is a truly dedicated potatophile.“What’s not to love? Astoundingly versatile, highly nutritious, and with a fascinating history to boot. I could never get bored with them,” she says.

Date For Your Diary The Organic Centre’s annual Potato Day will take place on March 11th (11am-5pm). organiccentre.ie

How to chit potatoes

Place them in an egg-box or seed tray with the ‘rose end’ up (the end with the dormant buds) and leave them in a cool, bright room for four to six weeks. First-early and second-early varieties particularly benefit from chitting.

Most good garden centres carry a range of seed potatoes, including the following list of Irish suppliers:

thesecretgardener.com

mrmiddleton.com

fruithillfarm.com

This week in the garden

Where ground isn’t waterlogged, continue planting bare root trees and shrubs

Give your glasshouse/ polytunnel a good clean-out

Prune roses and finish winter pruning apple and pear trees

Order seed potatoes and begin chitting early varieties indoors to encourage a good early crop

Sow (in gentle heat and under cover) seed of onions, early leeks, early lettuce and some brassicas.

Where ground isn’t waterlogged, divide large clumps of well-established perennials