Potatoes are a key crop on the plot. Integral to my five year rotation, spuds take up about a fifth of the ground each season. I don’t measure crop yields so I’m unsure of the actual quantity grown, but my best guess is that well in excess of 600 kilos are harvested in a ‘normal’ season. I grow all the standard potato categories. As well as ‘first earlies’ (dug immature as ‘scrapers’), ‘second earlies’ (harvested for late summer/autumn use) and ‘maincrops’ (grown for winter storage), I grow varieties for specific purposes, for example salad. The aim is to have home grown potatoes for use in the kitchen all year round with sufficient surplus to supply a seasonal veg box scheme and sell at the gate.
Over the years I’ve tried many different potato varieties. Like all organic growers I’m looking for those that are reasonably resistant to common pest and diseases. Blight resistance is the number one consideration when it comes to disease, but low susceptibility to less devastating afflictions such as blackleg and scab are also important. Pest wise some immunity to potato eelworm is helpful as this is present, thankfully at fairly low levels, on areas of the plot. More important is slug resistance. On a field scale slugs may not be too much of a problem, but in the cosy confines of the plot mollusc damage can be ruinous if you’re partly growing to sell. The punters don’t go for holey spuds!
What many people do like is something a bit different from what’s available in the supermarket so I always try and have a couple of varieties of non-standard shape or colour. Flavour is another important factor in deciding what to grow. There’s not much point in cultivating a variety that has next to no taste. Other varietal characteristics I take into account are length of time it takes to reach harvestable size, whether it will cope with my moderately heavy loam soil, whether it is prone to suffer in drought (I don’t want to pump water at my spuds like neighbouring farmers) and whether available as organic seed.
Each year I grow at least ten different types of potato. Most are old favourites, stalwarts that have stood the test of time, but I usually have at least a couple of new ones ‘on trial’ to see how they measure up. What follows is a listing of my current Top Ten. This is arranged in approximate order of maturity, beginning with the earlies and ending with the maincrops. Varieties denoted by an asterisk are those where I’m able to obtain organic seed potatoes.
Not the greatest flavoured early potato but in my experience no other variety is as quick to produce harvestable tubers. I usually plant three batches at two week intervals from mid-February in my large greenhouse. In most seasons this will provide the first harvest from the second week of May. I only grow Rocket under cover. Outside it is susceptible to slug damage if not lifted promptly. For me, this is the variety to grow for the ‘earliest’ early potatoes.
A first early like Rocket, Accent is a better all-rounder with superior flavour and good skin quality. I use it to ‘follow on’ from Rocket, planting outside from late March to lift from late June. Unlike Rocket it appears to have good slug resistance. It’s the main variety I use for fresh dug potatoes through mid-summer.
This is my alternative to the well-known Pink Fir Apple. I prefer it because it seems much less prone to blight and slugs, but also because yield is better. An April planting usually gives harvestable tubers by mid/late July. This is a flavour variety, especially good steamed or for potato salad. It sells quite well at the gate, despite the knobbly tubers which can deter the more conservative potato buyer. Anya is my standard ‘novelty’ variety suitable for use from July through to Christmas.
This is a new entrant on the list, grown for the first time last year. A second early, it has attractive, red skinned tubers that store well. I was especially impressed with its blight resistance potential. When blight struck an adjacent bed of a susceptible variety early in the season Alouette’s foliage remained largely blight free for weeks. It’s too early to tell whether this will feature regularly in the top ten, but I’ve high hopes it’ll perform well again this season.
A second early, this is surely one of the best potatoes you can grow on a domestic scale. Its qualities include high yields, good slug resistance, generally good skin quality (scab can be an occasional problem in dry conditions) and excellent flavour. It’s often regarded as a salad potato but can be used for a variety of purposes. I usually lift the crop by mid-August ensuring the ground vacated can be used for a follow on crop. Stored, Charlotte will keep until March.
If I had to choose a list topper this’d probably be it. Kestrel is another second early. It’s an attractive potato, white skinned but blotted purple around the ‘eyes’, that has the potential to produce large, good shaped, tubers. Its biggest virtue from me is its exceptional slug resistance. Providing it’s not left in the ground too long, beyond early September in most years, there’s usually not a trace of slug mining. In the kitchen it is good for baking and general use. Its only weakness is minimal blight resistance. Fortunately, because it’s quick to ‘bulk up’ (produce edible sized tubers), this isn’t too much of an issue as there’s usually a harvestable crop to be had even if blight occurs as early.
This is one of a number of maincrop types I grow. In all such varieties blight and slug resistance are critical. Maincrops don’t produce sizable tubers until late summer when slug activity can pick up if soil conditions are wet. In a good season Dell yields high quality large tubers that make a very well-flavoured baking potato. Its downside is its tendency to spraing. This is a disorder causing brown streaks and hollows in the flesh of tubers that are undetectable from the outside. For reasons unknown the problem has become more prevalent in recent seasons, so much so that Dell may soon drop out of my top ten.
This is a variety I’ve only recently begun growing on the recommendation of a commercial organic potato grower. It’s a late maturing variety similar in appearance and habit to the well-known variety Cara. Based on one year’s cropping it seems to have excellent disease and slug resistance. Last year, when blight took down the foliage of the second earlies, the adjacent Carolus rows remained green for a long time. What’s more, when harvested in September, slug damage on the tubers was low, with probably no more than 10% of the tubers affected. It’s a variety I’ll be growing a lot more of this year.
Sarpo Axona *
The Sarpo varieties have revolutionised potato growing for a lot of small scale organic growers because of their exceptional resistance to blight. Axona is probably my favourite of the Sarpo types as the tubers seem slightly more regular in size and consistent in yield than those of its cousin Mira.
Sarpo Mira *
This is the most well-known of the Sarpo family of blight resistant potatoes. It and Axona are very late maturing varieties that I don’t plant until mid-May and leave until October to lift. Both are very good keepers in store. I can usually keep them until mid-May. So far with me blight resistance has remained strong, the foliage staying erect and green into autumn. Slug resistance is also generally good especially considering the crop is lifted so late when slug activity can be high. The downside with Mira, and to some extent Axona, are erratic yields (while some plants carry a huge crop, others produce just a few potatoes the size of marbles) and a tendency to produce over large tubers with hollow centres. Some also consider the flavour inferior although to me, mashed, roasted or baked, this seems perfectly acceptable.
Mr Fluttergrub is the pen name of someone close to the heart of WWOOF UK. Based in the north of England, he’s a very experienced grower and has agreed to write a regular column for us. We would be interested to know if his suggestions work for you or if you have other ideas for your region. Get in touch using email@example.com and we’ll pass your comments on.