I remember vividly seeing on television the literally earth-shattering images of the Mount St. Helens volcano erupting in the United States in 1980. This gigantic explosion caused the collapse of a large portion of the mountain together with the ejection of millions of tons of volcanic dust which settled over eleven US states. In the immediate vicinity a wasteland was created with the land buried in a massively destructive deep layer of ash, however in further outlying agricultural areas, some remarkable effects were reported from a lighter deposit of the rock dust. Farmers noted a huge increase in yields — even to the extent that abandoned and unproductive orchards suddenly started producing viable crops again.
What had happened as a result of the eruption was nothing short of a natural ‘re-mineralisation’ of the land. For thousands of years peoples have settled on the slopes of volcanoes (sometime with disastrous results, as in Pompeii) due to the exceptionally fertile and productive soil, rich with minerals and trace elements. Glaciers are another natural method by which soil was created and made fertile. During the last ice age the crushing action of ice on volcanic rocks ground away the strata to produce many deep rich soils, that still feed human populations today, 10,000 years later.
For those of us who grow substantial amounts of our own food, keeping the soil replete with macro and micro-nutrients (or trace elements) is an important way of making sure that we also ‘mineralise’ ourselves for health and well-being. A tiny but very significant percentage of vegetable and fruit crops is made up of minerals, but most modern fertilisers replace just the basic NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium), neglecting the vital trace elements, such as magnesium. The taking of crops from the land without efficient replacement of these nutrients, together with natural leaching from the action of weather, means that many soils are now nutrient deficient, which in turn implies that the whole food chain is similarly depleted.
Recently I discovered that rock dust can now be obtained that does the job of a ‘mini Mt. St. Helens eruption’ when spread on the soil — it puts back the mineral goodness that plants and ourselves need to thrive.
In the spring I top-dressed a bed for my maincrop Kestrel potatoes using about a handful per sq.m of rock dust, raked in prior to planting. I did see a very noticeable increase in plant health and vigour — the tops appeared ‘super green’ and lush, but the yield from one root, at well over 2 kgs, I thought was definitely impressive. Next spring will see me ‘dusting’ the kitchen garden once again!
Spreading Rock Dust at about one handful to the sq. m
Raking into the surface prior to planting
Potato Kestrel in growth
Yield from one root of Kestrel grown on the re-mineralised ground
It’s National Chip Week and what better time to think about ordering potatoes?
Potatoes are easy to grow and extremely satisfying – and you don’t need a massive garden to get a good crop! There a lots of varieties to choose from and it can be a bit daunting, especially if you don’t know your earlies from your maincrops. You’ll find a wealth of information on our website to help you choose the right potato variety.
Potato selector guide
Potato Selector Guide
This comprehensive guide tells you when to grow the different types of potatoes and then goes on to list the varieties available and how best to cook them.
Video – How to grow potatoes
Take a look at our ‘How to grow potatoes’ video for expert guidance on getting the best results from your seed potatoes.
These mouth-watering recipes will give you some inspiration once you’ve grown and harvested your potatoes.
Click here to see our full range of seed potatoes
Gardening with children
From a small seed a mighty trunk may grow. Aeschylus.
Working in horticulture brings with it a certain responsibility – that of everyone else’s gardens! Friends, family, passing acquaintances and even complete strangers will freely ask your horticultural advice at any given opportunity – and that’s ok. I rather like it!
This week I received an email from my sister, who has twin girls aged 2. They are just at the stage where the big outdoors holds a certain appeal and quite rightly, she wants to start them gardening young – probably in the hope that they will be mowing the lawn by the age of 10!
“I’m thinking of doing some gardening with the girls in the spring – probably just some tubs and containers of veg and a few flowers for them to water. Going to ask for a mini greenhouse for Xmas. Any recommendations? And also any good varieties of seeds that are easy for us to grow? Just seen the “Explorer” seeds on Thompson & Morgan website. Like the look of the mini carrots and the ladybird poppies Also thought about some sunflowers, climbing French beans and stuff like that. Any other suggestions??”
Well this made me think. Under usual circumstances I would give a textbook reply – mumble something about sunflowers, and that would be sufficient. But now that I am expecting a little girl myself, things have changed quite significantly. This time I actually thought about it properly.
So here was my reply:
“Regarding your gardening plans, I would suggest that you get a fairly solid mini greenhouse – it will certainly protect your young plants from the worst of the weather, particularly if you position it in a bright, sheltered spot. The plastic covered ones aren’t warm enough to grow seedlings early in the season but you can start them off on a windowsill, and then move them to your mini greenhouse once the weather warms up a bit. Or you could get a cold frame!
Strawberries – grow your own!
If you want to get the girls interested then I would suggest that you try:
- Sunflowers (seeds are easy to handle, fast growing)
- Marigolds (colourful, reliable, quick growing, and deadheading is fun!)
- Cherry tomatoes (quick growing, bite size so they can eat them straight off the plant)
- Strawberries (low maintenance and can be eaten straight from plant)
- Beans (runners/ climbing – whatever they like to eat!) (Runners make a really impressive display in a massive container on the patio!)
Potatoes – grow in bags to save space
Carrots – yeah, they are ok but they do take quite a while to get going and there isn’t much fun to be had! Better to do some bags of potatoes on the patio. Emptying spud bags out and digging about in the soil to find the tubers is some of the best fun to be had in the garden – EVER! I still love it at my age!
Also try some direct sowing (i.e straight into prepared ground – literally throw and sow!).
Californian poppies – just throw and sow
Try Eschscholzia (Californian poppies) – they are good and colourful. We also do a nice butterfly mix to attract some wildlife to the garden. ”
So hopefully next year there will be plenty going on in my sister’s garden for her girls to enjoy and get involved in, but none of it should be too high maintenance. However her question has made me realise the limitations of my own garden when it comes to entertaining little people – but that’s a whole different subject that is best saved for another post!
Potato Setanta – voted best roastie
Tasty red-skinned potato comes out on top
When certain employees at Thompson & Morgan received an internal email from Paul Hansord, managing director, asking them to meet him in the staff canteen, they were unsure of what to expect.
Surprised to be greeted by the distinctive and delicious smell of roasting potatoes, they took their seats for what they assumed was a meeting. But instead of an agenda, they were presented with a plate.
‘I really didn’t know what was going on,’ said Chloe Farmer, head of design. ‘I thought Paul wanted to discuss the Kitchen Garden catalogue.’
In fact, Paul Hansord had assembled a team of potato tasters to carry out ‘blind’ taste tests on 7 varieties of potatoes. He wanted to find out which variety made the best ‘roasties’.
Potato Setanta – voted best roastie
Over the next hour, the lucky seven staff members were treated to a potato feast. Not knowing the variety names, they were simply asked to rate each ‘roastie’ according to their taste, colour and crispness.
‘It was difficult to taste the difference between some of the roast potatoes’, commented Vicky Ager, T&M’s direct marketing manager. ‘But one of them really stood out – it was just so delicious!’.
All 7 taste panel members, including Colin Randel, vegetable product manager and a renowned authority on potatoes, agreed that one potato outclassed all the others when it came to that fabulous roast potato taste.
‘The golden crisp skins with that melt-in-the-mouth buttery flesh made my mind up straight away’, said Colin.
Thompson & Morgan’s potato tasting team
So it was Setanta that was the unanimous choice of the taste testers. Boasting famous variety ‘Rooster’ as one of its parent lines, Setanta produces a high yield of medium-sized, oval, red-skinned tubers with medium yellow flesh. It has the reputation of being relatively pest and disease-free, as well as drought tolerant, so will appeal to the home gardener as a hassle-free variety to grow.
‘Setanta wowed the T&M blind taste test with its perfect roastie taste …. It’s the only roast potato I’ll be growing this year!’ said Paul Hansord on announcing the winner.
Setanta is available to buy online, priced at £4.99 for 20 tubers and £8.99 for 40 tubers.
Sue’s (Very Unscientific) Potato Trials
Harvesting potatoes is my second favourite garden task, beaten only by lifting parsnips! You can feel your excitement building as you lift each tuber from the ground, gently rub it clean of soil, and watch your hoard of spuds grow minute by minute. In my small town garden I tend to opt for potato bags that can be easily moved to give them sufficient space – particularly as the top growth starts to get a bit wild. The other advantage is that you can just turn the bags out and harvest your crop without the need for all that digging!
Annie, potato trial supervisor extraordinaire
Once a fortnight I run a horticultural Q&A session on Thompson & Morgan’s Facebook page and every spring I receive a heap of questions about growing potatoes. So this spring I decided to conduct a few experiments – just for my own curiosity really, but I think the results are worth sharing.
Growing potatoes in bags – the traditional method
The trials were pretty simple really; a comparison of yields to answer the following burning questions:
- Do larger tubers produce more potatoes than smaller tubers?
- Will I get more spuds if I plant more/ less tubers in a potato bag?
- Does the old wartime method of cutting tubers in half really work? (The theory is that so long as both halves have decent chits then they should grow as two separate plants, thereby making your seed potatoes go a bit further. Once cut, they need to be left so that the cut surfaces can dry out a bit before planting.)
- How does the ‘Lasagne’ method compare to the traditional ‘earthing up’ technique?
Growing potatoes in bags – the lasagne method
Now, I realise that this requires some explaining. Up until last year we always recommended that potato bags should be filled by one third, a layer of potatoes placed on top, and then more compost added so that the bag is two thirds full. Some weeks later, when the foliage has appeared above the soil, the bags would be topped up to cover the stems and mimic the normal earthing up process used by gardeners for many years. However one of our directors had tried a different technique; the ‘lasagne’ method! Basically the tubers are planted in layers and the bags filled up all in one go, with no earthing up to be done later.
More vs less tubers
By mid April the seed potatoes were chitted and ready to plant. I chose a second early variety, ‘Charlotte’, just because they were on a special offer – I love a bargain! On a damp, grey spring morning I planted up the following bags:
Control/ Earthed up: 3 medium sized seed potatoes, earthing up method (no experiment is complete without a ‘control’ test to compare the others tests to)
Lasagne Method: 3 medium sized seed potatoes, ‘lasagne’ method
Large tubers: 3 large seed potatoes, earthing up method
Small tubers: 3 small seed potatoes, earthing up method
Less tubers: 2 seed potatoes, earthing up method
More tubers: 4 seed potatoes, earthing up method
Halved tubers: 1 seed potato cut into 2 halves, earthing up method
Large vs small tubers
The results are in!!
Now I must admit that this year I didn’t have the time or energy to give my garden the attention it deserves, so the trials received a splash of water now and again when I remembered. Not that they went short of water – this summer was one of the wettest I can remember. In fact, I was fully expecting blight to ruin the crop, but by some miracle they were spared. Nonetheless, from chatting with other gardeners it seems that this year was not the year of the spud! In fact, this year yields were shockingly poor, although what I harvest have was of very good quality.
So… excuses made, here are the results:
Large tuber results
Small tuber results
Large tubers vs. Small tubers: It didn’t seem to make any difference at all. In fact, the smaller seed potatoes produced one or two more tubers than the larger ones!
Conclusion: Who said ‘Size matters’? The results show that it doesn’t
More tubers results
Less tubers results
More tubers vs. Less tubers: Once again, there was very little difference. Actually, the potatoes from the ‘Less’ bag seemed slightly larger so maybe it’s better to use fewer seed potatoes per bag and spread them across more bags for maximum yields.
Conclusion: Give your seed potatoes some space. Sometimes less is more!
Halved tuber results
Halved tubers: Now this bag was a surprise. Call me a sceptic but I really didn’t hold out great hopes as it only contained one seed potato (2 halves) in total. Whilst the potatoes harvested were not the biggest, the yield was still comparable to that harvested from the other bags.
Conclusion: Larger seed potatoes can be cut in half to maximise yields, so long as both halves have eyes.
Control/Earthed up results
Lasagne method results
Control/Earthed up vs. ‘Lasagne’ method: The big success story of my trials. I wasn’t expecting this, but the lasagne method was the only bag that outperformed the control bag quite significantly!
Conclusion: In future I will be using this method. It’s much quicker and easier to plant the bags up, and the yields speak for themselves.