How to grow the earliest new potatoes
If you have wondered how to grow the earliest new potatoes and get that fantastic taste when shop bought potato prices are ridiculously high, you need to start growing now! An early start, chitting sprouts, right containers, right compost and a bit of warmth will get you on the right track.
First of all, you need fast maturing varieties or ‘first earlies’ as they are often called. Now with over 40 years experience of advising and talking to gardeners I have found that old habits die hard and when it comes to which variety is best there is little agreement! Perhaps that is explained by the variation in soil type and its impact on flavour. However, to get the very earliest crop you need to grow in containers. With good potting compost that variable is removed!
There are hundreds of varieties to choose from but a word of caution! Some ‘seed’ potato tubers are being imported from countries who do not adhere to the strict disease regulations that we have in the UK. In some areas of Europe there are diseases such as bacterial ring rot which so far we have kept out of Britain. Please look or ask for the seed potatoes that are covered by the Safe Haven Certification Scheme. I’m told that some large retailers are importing or packaging potatoes in Europe that are not within the realms of this very important disease protection scheme.
Some variety recommendations
I can not cover all the varieties here but I will endeavour to give you my take on those varieties that you are most likely to find.
Many older gardeners still swear by the good flavoured waxy textured ‘Arran Pilot’. However its tubers are irregular in shape. But it’s the poor disease resistance that rules this one out for me. This variety will soon be a hundred years old and it can still mix it with the young ‘uns!
Foremost has floury texture too and nice uniform tubers that grow quickly. For me, the flavour could be a bit stronger. If boiled for a fraction too long you can end up with potato soup!
International Kidney will be more familiar to many under the name of Jersey Royal. It’s the same thing but unless it is grown in Jersey, it can’t be given that name. I’ve grown this one in containers before and found the flavour bland to non existent!
Lady Christl is an excellent variety to grow in pots and definitely one to look for. It has very good flavour, is uniform, has good disease resistance and is easy to grow. In the kitchen it holds together well when boiled.
Maris Bard is another old favourite and a good variety at that. It produces a very high and early yield and has firm white tubers when boiled.
I must confess that a good all rounder but perhaps not the earliest is Pentland Javelin. This Scottish bred variety has good flavour.
‘Rocket’ is aptly named and is indeed fast off the mark! It produces round consistently medium sized tubers that hold together well on boiling. The shallow ‘eyes’ [buds] that the tubers have lend this variety to scrapping the skin off easily. Although excellent for boiling, sauté and for salads, I find the flavour somewhat bland but it is a very early variety.
Having selected your variety, waste no time getting them started into growth! But wait a moment, you shouldn’t be planting them out or potting them up just yet! To start them off you can hit the ground running when it is warm enough to plant by having the buds already growing. This is called ‘chitting’ [potato growing is full of its own unique jargon] and is simply done by standing all your newly purchased tubers on end. Stand them so that the end of the tuber that has the most buds [‘eyes’] is uppermost.
Where’s best for Chitting?
An egg tray is great for this and should be placed on a cool but well lit windowsill. Check progress periodically and when the little eyes are 1cm long your tubers are ready to plant into a container. Remember that you are aiming for fat dark green or even purple coloured shoots. If they are thin, wispy and tall you have forced them too quickly and without enough natural light.
How to Grow the Earliest New Potatoes
There are plenty of suitable containers in which you can grow really early potatoes; they just have to be big enough, strong enough and have drainage holes for surplus water to drain out. The collapsible fabric bags that are on the market work well and need little storage space when the crop is finished or can be use for growing other vegetables later in the summer.
The quality of potting compost is in my experience much more important. This is not an aspect where you can cut corners! For a good crop it doesn’t matter whether you use peat free or peat reduced potting compost so for the sake of the environment why not use a peat reduced one? Soil based composts work well too.
Part-fill the container with compost, place three or four tubers in a big bag and cover them with about 15-20 cm of potting compost. Keep the compost bag nearby, since you will need to add more compost as the shoots emerge. When your container is almost full of compost you can then let the haulm [shoots] grow away.
I find that the best place to grow your very earliest new potatoes is in an unheated greenhouse, polytunnel or perhaps in a conservatory. Once the risk of frost is passed they can come outside.
Pots will need regular watering and a balanced liquid feed.
When the lower leaves start to go a little yellow or when the plants start to produce flowers you will know that it is time to harvest your delicious and earliest new potatoes! Of course, if you are careful, you will be able to knock the plant out of the container [easier with rigid containers] and just harvest those tubers that are ready, leaving the baby ones to grow on.
Which varieties do you find are best for your really early new potatoes?
I’ve written more on growing early potatoes here.