We take the potato for granted. It is so firmly rooted in our cuisine that we are blasé about how much we depend on it, yet there is so much more to this lowly vegetable than meets the eye. One of the most intriguing things about the potato is how adaptable it is to different climates and soils. Its natural home is in the mountains and high plateaux of South America, yet it grows equally well under the damp, grey skies of Britain, whether you garden on clay, sand or loam. Its history, too, is fascinating. Is there another domestic vegetable that can claim to have boosted the health and prosperity of so many nations? Its influence has been enormous, and it remains one of the easiest, most rewarding vegetables we can grow.
Rich in vitamin C and potassium, potatoes are an essential source of nutrients and fibre and a staple of our diet today. South Americans have been eating them for at least 7,000 years, but we in Europe developed a taste for them relatively late. The potato arrived in Europe after the Spaniards conquered the Inca Empire in the 1530s, but initially it was received with deep suspicion and distaste. Seen as fit only as fodder for animals, it was associated with the devil, partly because it was thought to be poisonous. It wasn't until much later, in the eighteenth century, that these myths and superstitions were swept away, as war and hard times forced the potato into the human larder. In Germany, Frederick the Great of Prussia issued an order in 1774 for his people to grow potatoes as an insurance against famine, and gradually other countries followed suit.
Britain was slow to catch on to the benefits of the potato but food shortages caused by successive wars eventually catapulted the government into action, and in 1795 a pamphlet was published on the cultivation of potatoes to encourage people to grow them. After this, the rise of the potato was unstoppable, and the correlation between the potato and the prosperity (or otherwise) of a nation was undeniable. Suddenly farmers were able to produce larger quantities of food on their land and, because they were protected against famine following any failure of grain crops, fewer people died of starvation. The nutritious potato also helped to reduce diseases such as scurvy, tuberculosis and dysentery. But as the Irish found out, relying too heavily on this wonder-crop could also have disastrous effects. From the late eighteenth century onwards, the potato became the main food source in Ireland, with over half the population entirely dependent on it. When the crop was devastated for the first time by blight – the fungus Phytophthora infestans – in 1846, and again in subsequent years, the result was a catastrophic famine in which over a million people died.
Today, more and more of us are choosing to grow our own vegetables – and potatoes are one of the most straightforward crops you can grow. Plonk a single seed potato down in the soil in March, and in three or four months' time it will multiply to produce a crop that will feed a family of four twice over. There are many varieties to choose from; it comes down to selecting the ones that work best for you in taste and yield. The varieties that have done well for me over the last few years have been 'Belle de Fontenay' (first early), a delicious old French variety with pale waxy flesh; ‘Nicola' (early maincrop), another waxy potato with long, smooth oval tubers; and 'Cara' (maincrop), a floury potato with good blight resistance that is good baked. 'Pink Fir Apple' and 'Anya' are both known for their distinctive flavour and are good for salads. For high yields, ‘Lady Christl' (first early) is supposed to be one of the best, popular with exhibitors due to its smooth, uniform tubers.
Potatoes will grow successfully in most soils, but best results come from a well-dug, fertile soil that has been enriched with plenty of well-rotted manure or compost in autumn. In a vegetable patch, potato plants pro vide excellent ground cover, reducing weeds as their foliage spreads, and they also break up the soil on previously unworked ground. The received wisdom is to chit your seed potatoes for a few weeks before plant ing-that is, place them in a tray with the ‘eyes' uppermost in a cool, light place to start sprouting. I have always done this but it isn't essential. Earlies, which mature in 10–16 weeks, can be planted in March if it isn't too cold and the soil is workable, while second earlies (16–17 weeks to harvest) and maincrops (18–20 weeks) are usually planted a few weeks later. Dig a shallow trench about 10cm deep and place earlies 30cm apart in rows 60cm apart (second earlies and maincrops should be planted 40cm apart with 75cm between rows). After this, potatoes require little time and effort, although ideally they should be earthed up every few weeks to prevent the uppermost tubers turning green as they are exposed to light. If the spring is exceptionally dry, the plants should be watered thoroughly every two weeks to increase yield and also to prevent common scab, a disfiguring but non-serious disease that won't affect yield or taste.
Blight is still an unavoidable threat for any potato grower. Likely to strike in wet summers, it attacks the leaves first, showing as brown spots, and then passes down into the tubers, which develop brown patches and quickly start to rot. There is little you can do about blight other than choosing blight-resistant cultivars: the "Sarpo' varieties developed in Hungary are thought to be among the most resistant, but not immune. If your crop is affected, digit up and burn the plant remains to minimise the chances of the disease spreading. But don't let blight put you off. The benefits of growing potatoes far outweigh the problems, and the moment when you push your fork through the soil to dig up the season's first and sweetest new potatoes is one of the high points of the vegetable year.
Feature Image: Pexels
This originally appeared on House & Garden UK | Author: Clare Foster