Potato (solanum tuberosum)

Why plant

Potatoes are easy to grow and it's very satisfying when you find that single spud turned into a bucketful. And if you've got ground that's hard to till a great option is to plant potatoes... they help break up the soil. If you've plenty of room to grow and store you can have your own year round supply. But if space is at a premium best to focus on new potatoes... they're the tastiest and most expensive in the shops.

Interesting uses

* Did you know potatoes are one of the main sources of vodka? Unfortunately it's not legal to distill spirits in the UK without a license, but you could try making potato wine.

* Rub the cut edge of a potato against a wart, the high content of potassium and vitamin C will promote healing.

* Use a raw potato to shine your shoes.

* Keep your spectacles from misting up by rubbing raw potato juice on them.

* Root a geranium by gouging a hole in a potato, push a geranium cutting into the potato and plant the whole thing in potting soil. Soon you'll have a new geranium.

* Remove stains on hands by just rubbing with a potato.


Potatoes were first found and cultivated by the Aymara Indians around 5,000 BC on the high plateau of the Andean Mountains of South America. They developed more than two hundred varieties, the potato becoming the mainstay of thier diet.

When the Spanish Conquistadors sacked Peru in the 13thC they quickly appreciated the benefits of potatoes and they were soon a standard supply item on Spanish ships. Sailors who ate potatoes did'nt suffer from scurvy because of the high vitamin C content. In spite of its attributes it would take another three decades before knowledge of the potato spread to the rest of Europe. Even then its reputation as a food for the underprivileged and it's relationship to poisonous plants, being poisonous itself at times, meant there was resistance to it's general acceptance.

The potato finally achieved greater recognition in the 17thC when the Prussian Ruler Frederick the Great ordered the German people to eat potatoes as a deterrent to famine. But it only gained real popularity when adopted by the Irish in the 18thC.

Health benefits

Unfortunately the healthy aspects of a potato are very often hidden beneath the grease and salt associated with chips or french fries, or other fats or sauces such as butter, mayonnaise, cheese or tomato sauce. Such treatment can make even baked potatoes a potential contributor to a heart attack, whereas in it's unadorned state a baked potato is an exceptionally healthy low calorie high fibre food that offers significant protection against cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Potatoes as a good source of vitamin B6, vitamin C, copper, potassium, manganese, and dietary fibre. They also contain a variety of phytonutrients that have antioxidant activity. Among these important health-promoting compounds are carotenoids, flavonoids, and caffeic acid, as well as unique tuber storage proteins such as patatin, which exhibit activity against free radicals.


With about 450 varieties grown in the UK there's plenty of choice. Here are a few varieties...

* Maris Bard a soft waxy new potato suitable for boiling or chips

* Rocket another new potato, firm and waxy, suitable for boiling

* Estima a second early potato that's one of the most popular, makes a great jacket potato

* Nadine is another second early that turns into wonderful mashed potato

* Desiree a lovely red skinned maincrop potato that's a great all rounder

* King Edward surely one of the best known spuds, a maincrop all rounder as well

It's too long a list to do justice here to all the varieties you can choose from. To do a bit more exploring and get full information on varieties go to the Potato Council website.


There are three defined growing periods for potatoes as shown below.




New or Early



Second Earlies






If you want to get your potatoes off to an early start and you've got the room, buy about six weeks before planting and 'chit' them. This means allowing shoots to grow from the end where there are most buds or eyes. It's particulary beneficial to chit early potatoes. Set out the tubers with the bud end pointing upwards in egg trays or shallow boxes with an inch of dry peat in the base. Place the boxes in a cool, light (not sunny) and frost-free room. The aim is to grow sturdy shoots about one inch in length, so make sure there's not too much warmth or the shoots will be too spindly.

When ready to plant, dig a V-shaped drill about 5 inches (13cm) deep in a prepared seed bed that gets plenty of sun. If the soil is reasonably light you can make a hole with a dibber and carefully drop the potato in. For early varieties the potatoes should be planted every 12 inches (30cm) with the drills 24 inches (60cm) apart. For maincrop varieties plant every 15 inches (38cm) with drills 30 inches (75cm) apart. Cover with a handful of peat or fine soil to protect the shoots.


As soon as shoots appear above ground draw the earth from the sides of your rows over the plants. Keep doing this so you end up with about 6 inches (15cm) of earth drawn up along each drill. This prevents light getting to the tubers and turning them green. Green potatoes can give you an upset stomach.

Your potatoes will benefit from some feeding. Good results can be had from using liquid comfrey fertiliser because the liquid is immediately available.

In dry weather keep them well watered.


See the table above for when to lift your potatoes. About two weeks before cut any growth off at ground level so the potato skins toughen up, making them less prone to damage.

Place a fork deeply in the side of the drill, far enough out from the centre to avoid spearing any potatoes, and lift each plant. Try and pick a dry sunny day for harvesting. Leave the potatoes on the surface for a few hours to harden the skin and help them store better. Do try to get even tiny potatoes out or the following year they'll grow in the middle of whatever new vegetables you plant in that spot.

Hessian sacks are best for storing, you can buy these from many seed suppliers. Paper sacks are a good substitute. Don't use plastic bags since these trap moisture. Exclude light or the potatoes will turn green. Remove any that are damaged or diseased before storing and make sure no slugs get stored as well.

Ideally store at about 5°C, for example in a cool dark shed or garage. Make sure frost doesn't get to the stored potatoes. Check the spuds regularly... any ammonia or putrid smell indicates rot. If you experience this empty the sack to get the offending tubers out. Any that have been contaminated with moisture can be washed and used immediately.


'Proper' roast potatoes

Potatoes dauphinoise

Bonfire night baked potatoes

Boulangere potatoes

Spanish potatoes

Common problems

Potatoes are generally trouble free if you give them a good start and water when necessary. For guidance on common problems click here

1 comment:

  1. Good post, thanks. And some would say potatoes are boring!


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