Saturday, 7 July 2007

Red, white and blue heritage potato harvest

Clockwise from bottom left: Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy, Salad Blue, Highland Burgundy Red, Witch Hill

Yesterday we actually had a period of about three hours between bouts of rain (wow!) so I went out and harvested all the Witch Hill potatoes and a few plants of each of my other heritage types. They are almost ready for harvest anyway, but this is kind of an emergency measure ... now that blight has arrived in the garden I need to gather some tubers before they get infected. I'm relying on home-saved tubers for my crops from year to year (because these varieties can't be obtained easily and certainly not as seed potatoes) so I need to rescue some smallish tubers which are still healthy enough to survive indoors till next spring. If the blight gets to them they'll rot in storage.

I've got a very nice colourful crop. None more so than Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy, which I'm growing for the third time and it continues to keep itself at the top of my favourites list. I still get an immense thrill from seeing these glowing pink white and purple swirly things appearing out of the soil and it remains the most striking looking potato I've ever seen. And it's thrived in my garden and given me abundant yields, all in beautiful condition. I'll be very interested to find out whether John shares my enthusiasm for it or not when he harvests his crop!

Witch Hill is a creamy white potato also known as Snowdrop. It's thought to have originated in the English midlands some time around the 1880s. It's a favourite of the staff at the Heligan Gardens (their raving about it in their book was the main reason I was so keen to try it) and apparently also beloved of those who maintain the spud National Collection.

My harvest of Witch Hill

If you were reading my blog last summer you may remember the measly collection of tiddly scabby spuds I got from last year's Witch Hill crop. It was pathetic. I'd bought them as microplants the year before and got only six tiny tubers to show for it. Those six tiny tubers grew into fairly decent plants but were relentlessly eaten down to the ground by slugs, resulting in the aforementioned scabby specimens, which at harvest time were barely enough to fill an eggbox. But I had high hopes that if I kept them and replanted them they would be big enough to produce a full size crop this year ... and they have. So, it's taken three seasons to get from microplant to decent yield, but I now have some very lovely Witch Hill potatoes and not a scab or a wireworm to be seen.

A lot of hassle for a potato crop? Yes. But Witch Hill, along with Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy and many other rare heritage potatoes, is only available in the form of microplants. In Europe it's illegal to sell seed potatoes of unregistered varieties such as these. They've only recently been made available thanks to Alan Romans who is taking advantage of a loophole in the law by selling them as ready-started plants rather than seeds, propagated in a laboratory to ensure they're virus-free. They can be found in several catalogues now including Thompson & Morgan, but they all originate from Alan Romans so you may as well save some cash by buying from him direct.

A closer view of Salad Blue and Highland Burgundy Red

Want to save your own seed potatoes to plant again next year? Here's what to do. When you harvest the crop, choose a few firm healthy ones which are about the size of a bantam's egg. (If that doesn't mean anything to you, think something a bit smaller than a hen's egg.) Size isn't really that important though ... the main thing is to select the ones that look as undamaged as possible. A few scabs aren't anything to worry about, but avoid any that are cut or nibbled by critters. Either leave them to dry and then brush the soil off, or wash them carefully, taking care not to harm the tiny sprout-buds in the eyes (they are fairly robust unless subjected to overzealous scrubbing). Allow them to dry and then put them in a bright place for several days to 'green' them up a little. A window sill or a dry place outdoors will do nicely. This process helps to trigger dormancy, so the spuds have a better chance of getting through the winter without premature sprouting. Then store them in a dark, dry, airy place till next year. What I usually do is put them in eggboxes, or arrange them upright in a cardboard box with some kind of packing material to separate them, such as shredded paper, hay or sawdust.

The bottom line is, potatoes are survivors. They will grow on compost heaps, at the bottoms of sacks, in wetness, in drought, in darkness and just about anywhere else. They can take root from peelings and cut tubers. I've had decent crops from even the most pathetic looking specimens.

I've read in various places that you shouldn't save your own seed potato tubers from year to year because they are likely to build up viruses and get worse and worse over time until the crop fails ... therefore you should buy new certified virus-free stock each year. There may be some wisdom in that, but personally I've been planting home-saved tubers for years and have never had any problems. If anything the plants do better because they're adapted to my garden.

All these will make nice seed potatoes for next year. Front row is Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy with Witch Hill behind.

Another thing I've done many times despite all the finger-wagging advice to the contrary is plant supermarket tubers, i.e. potatoes intended for consumption rather than seed. I've never had any problems with them and the biggest potato yield I ever had came from some Tesco's Desiree which I found sprouting in a bag in the pits of my vegetable rack. Many commercially available potatoes are quite boring so you may not want to plant them, but if you see something unusual and want to try growing it, I don't see why you shouldn't. My crops of Salad Blue, Highland Burgundy Red, Shetland Black and last year's Edzell Blue and Fortyfold all came from Waitrose. (And where do Waitrose get them? That'll be down to Alan Romans again. He is truly a crusader for the cause of heritage spuds.) My one tip is to buy them in the late summer or autumn when they're in season and store them overwinter yourself. That's because potatoes bought "fresh" in the spring may well be old ones which have been treated to stop them sprouting in storage. And Waitrose don't seem to stock the exciting heritage varieties in spring anyway, so if you don't buy them early enough you may miss out.

Potatoes have beautiful flowers! Highland Burgundy Red with Salad Blue in the background.

5 comments:

Muppet said...

Hello!

I have nominated you for a 'Bloggers for Positive Global Change'.

Check out my post at http://tinyurl.com/ytpfrp for more details :o)

Emma

John Curtin said...

I'll be pulling so Yetholms this weekend and I'll let you know what I think!

Jeremy said...

I have to disagree with your advice about saving a few of the normal harvest to use as seed potatoes. You are far better off dedicating one or two plants to next year's seed and treating them appropriately. That means essentially removing the foliage earlier than normal and possible caging to prevent arrival of infected aphids. No matter how carefully you select, your way risks tuber-borne diseases and rots that could actually result in all your seed potatoes dying before next spring.

Anonymous said...

I emptied the contents of a potato growing bag on my flower border (after harvesting) several years back. There must have been one or two tiny potatoes still left in the earth.... Since then I've had several very nice crops of early potatoes without doing anything, except not managing to harvest all the spuds! Sooner or later I'm sure they'll fail, but for now, they're doing very well. The foliage looks nice in my border too.

Anonymous said...

We planted potatoes in the Spring but never "hilled" them. Lots of green small potatoes... guess they'll be next year's seed potatoes. Thanks for the info. LPT