We are in an area which suffers yearly with potato blight (Phytophthora infestans) and once you have had this terrible potato disease in your allotment or garden then it seems like it is with you permanently! There are still some copper based products that haven’t been taken off the market yet that have some control with regular applications, but if you are against chemical control or want to try another method then this is a way I have found around the problem.
Lifting last year’s earlies
I did this as an experiment a couple of years ago and also successfully last year and have set my stall out to do so again this year. It is as simple as this. There are some very good quality first early potato sets available and T&M does a good range of varieties of these. They need no longer produce the small papery skinned types of years ago, which many of us remember from our younger days coming in to shops before the maincrops. Nowadays varieties such as Rocket, Pentland Javelin and Arran Pilot can produce large tubers comparable with the maincrops and the best bit of all is they mature and are ready for lifting before the dreaded blight strikes!
Early salad spuds ‘Rocket’
I prefer the variety ‘Rocket’ myself. I have found that, in our area and my type of soil, this grows perfectly – it shows some resistance to slugs and produces nice large tubers. I am also trying Pentland Javelin this year, as this has some resistance to eelworm, which we do get among the spuds sometimes down the allotment. Last year I tried Rocket and Arran Pilot, which both matured ready to lift before blight arrived and again produced some really nice sized spuds. The two varieties I have bought for this year are set out in trays to start the chitting process, there is debate over whether the process of chitting is really required and from new growers of what chitting exactly is. It is simply the process of letting shoots grow before planting out and this can happen naturally, like when you find a potato in your veg cupboard that has fallen to one side and been there a while and has a shoot appearing from it. This is what chitting describes, albeit gardeners make them produce these by placing the tubers in egg trays or similar as in the picture. I find it does help with earlies but is not really required for maincrops – potatoes grown commercially are not chitted.
I have also started off some onion seed in the greenhouse, Bedfordshire Champion & Ailsa Craig. I start these off early to try and produce some nice large onions to keep through the winter. Kelsae is one variety many choose to grow as large as possible and these are very good for size and showing, but I find possibly due to the large size, they are very poor keepers and what I grow usually lasts over winter until the following year. I do though as a back up and fail-safe alternative grow some from sets every year. I find Red Baron produces rock hard tennis ball sized onions that are excellent keepers.
The allotment has been winter dug to help kill pests and help break down the large clumps and is now ready for 2014.
Allotment prepared for 2014
Read guest blogger Richard Barrett’s advice on avoiding potato blight
Why I like to grow potatoes
The potato started life as food for the poor but has risen in value to become a favourite vegetable for everybody. I like to grow my own potatoes because I then know in what conditions they have been grown. Commercially the plants are often repeatedly sprayed with fungicide to safeguard against blight and then the foliage is knocked back by herbicide before harvest. This seems a poor environment for food crop.
So I have my own potato patch, it is light soil that does not waterlog, has lots of sunshine and is free of tree roots. Also it the land around slopes away, so is not a frost pocket where the cold air can flow into. The soil is alkaline, this can mean the tubers may have scab on their skins, but this diminishes when potatoes are grown regularly in the same soil as a micro-organism builds up that prevents scab. That does not mean that I do not use crop rotation but often the same patch is used every other year. I make lots of cold compost, where garden waste is processed in a big heap and left to its own devices for a year. So I apply the compost to ground early in the year for the rain to wash the goodness in, any course particles can be raked off to go back into the new heap. Although cold compost contains viable weed seeds, this does not matter because the leafy potatoes will smother any weed seedlings. I will also apply seaweed meal to the soil so my plants have extra minerals for growing, these will hopefully enter the potato tubers too. Keeping the vegetable plot free of weeds and in good cultivation keeps pests like wireworm and slugs at bay.
From St Patrick’s Day onwards I start planting the seed potatoes in variety, first earlies first and then so on to maincrop, completing the process by Easter. I plant to a depth of six inches and leave all well alone until I see small sprouts of potato leaves appearing on the surface of the soil. Then in stages I start to earth the sprouting leaves forming a trench either side of the row, if frost threatens, then I earth up completely covering the new shoots, otherwise they can be left just showing. Early planting is worthwhile as the potatoes stand a good chance of cropping before blight emerges in late summer.
There are two types of blight, early blight which discolours the foliage inhibiting the plants to grow, but far worse is late blight which appears as black/brown necrotic spots in a humid August/September gradually defoliating the plants and then entering the tubers which rot from within, making the potatoes inedible.
The potato on the left is infected with blight
There is much written within seed catalogues about which varieties to choose. The best advice is to grow a range of varieties, that way you can reap the benefits of potato growing whatever the weather. Early blight is a nuisance but tolerable, picking off poor leaves can help the plant. When late blight appears you must cut all the foliage away to soil level immediately, yet there are some varieties such as Sarpo Mira that can resist blight, so the leaves of such can be left growing.
What is not mentioned in potato literature is the difference between thick and thin skinned potatoes. The tubers of thick skinned variety like Cara can be left in the ground where they remain fresh and full of moisture, then lifted as required for the kitchen. Whereas Orla is a tasty variety with beautiful foliage that resists early blight, but it is thin skinned and must be harvested as soon as possible or the tubers will be damaged by pests such as slugs and wireworm. Whatever varieties you choose, or method of cultivation, the potato is a very rewarding and nutritious vegetable to grow.
The harvest in
The potato plants on the left show the devastation caused by blight. The plants on the right are Sárpo.
Farmers should grow blight-resistant Sárpo potatoes
Gardeners and allotment growers can fight back against today’s accusations that they have ‘fuelled a national potato shortage’. According to the Potato Council, ‘grow your own’ gardeners are responsible for spreading the fungal blight that has devastated potato crops across the UK. But with gardeners and farmers alike having suffered one of the worst growing seasons in a generation – warm, moist conditions are ideal for the spread of blight – it seems unlikely that the blame can be put on any one set of potato growers. Ironically, in the past potato farmers were the ones blamed for causing blight problems for gardeners by leaving diseased plants and tubers in or on fields, enabling the fungal spores to reproduce and spread on the wind.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom, says Thompson & Morgan. A solution is at hand for home gardeners and allotment growers who may have experienced blight this year. They can grow Sárpo potatoes. On the official scale of blight resistance, Sárpo (pronounced ‘Sharpo’) varieties are the highest ranking. Sárpo potatoes were first bred in Hungary by the Sárvári family. Their work has continued through the Sárvári Research Trust in Wales, which further screens varieties to select the best resistance to new blight strains.
A mix of Sárpo potato varieties
Exclusive to Thompson & Morgan, ‘Sárpo Mira’ has fast become a favourite for home growers, along with its sister, ‘Sárpo Axona’. As well as being resistant to blight, they are unaffected by slug damage and don’t mind drought. And they store incredibly well too. Gardeners can expect high yields, even in poorer soils, whilst the Sárpo range’s resistance to disease and drought means no expensive chemical sprays or excessive irrigation.
The chairman of the Potato Council was quoted today as saying that it would be better if people just bought ‘healthy, well-produced potatoes’ from retailers rather than attempting to grow their own. The response from Dr David Shaw, director of the Sárvári Research Trust has been immediate and vigorous. ‘Why do gardeners bother to grow their own?’, he asks, ‘Exactly because they do not want to buy “well produced potatoes” sprayed every week with chemical fungicide’. Colin Randel, T&M’s vegetable product manager agrees. Both men, considered experts in the potato industry, say that if all varieties grown were resistant, blight control would be much easier. Many amateurs already grow Sárpo varieties, but until farmers grow them and supermarkets supply them, blight will continue to strike.
Beat blight with Sárpo
Buy 60 tubers of Sárpo Mira for £7.99 – you save £6.95
Buy 40 tubers of Sárpo Axona for £9.99 – you save £7.97