We love a good spud, and it’s the soft, floury new potatoes that are best. You know the ones: with a pale yellow interior, like freshly churned butter, and a thin, pop-in-the-mouth skin.
Super Early Potatoes
Potatoes can be classed as first earlies, second earlies, or maincrop. Look for varieties of ‘first early’ potatoes, which are the quickest growing of the lot. These can be ready as soon as 10 to 12 weeks after planting.
Chitting Potatoes for an Earlier Crop
In many regions potatoes are sold as ‘seed potatoes’ which first need chitting – or sprouting – to encourage a head start. Chitting can begin as soon as you can find seed potatoes in the shops, so as a first task go out and buy your potatoes…right now!
To chit, place them into old egg cartons or similar containers, blunt end facing up. Keep them on a cool, bright windowsill. This is important because you want thick, sturdy shoots to emerge, not the weak and spindly ones that sometimes occur when there’s not enough light and/or the temperature is artificially high. Ideally you want the shoots to be at least 1cm (0.5in) long by the time you plant them, though it isn’t the end of the world if they’re not – aiming for thick, sturdy shoots is more important.
Growing Early Potatoes in Pots
The earliest ‘new’ potatoes found in the grocery store are usually grown on sun-facing slopes in mild climates. In Ireland this means the (relatively!) sun-kissed fields of Southeast , flanked by warming seas and blessed with rich, soils.
For an early crop you want to mimic, as best you can, these sorts of conditions. This means growing them in containers in a protected, suntrap spot or, ideally, inside a greenhouse or polytunnel. These conditions will warm the potting soil the potatoes are growing in and substantially speed up their rate of growth.
Your extra-early potatoes will need regular watering (one of the biggest mistakes is to let the potting compost dry out) and, once they’re producing lots of foliage, an occasional liquid feed for good measure. If you’re able to move the containers you could pop them outside when the weather warms up, though as long as conditions don’t get intolerably hot you may as well leave the potatoes growing where they are.
Protecting Potatoes from Late Frosts
If you can guarantee a frost-free environment, there’s no reason you can’t grow your earliest potatoes at least one month ahead of those growing outside.
Keeping the stems and foliage (called ‘haulms’) safe from frost is the crucial bit if you don’t want to see your hard work undone. A few layers of horticultural fleece or plastic on a cold night will keep a light frost at bay and avoid a check to growth. If you’re able to lift the pots, consider placing some mats or newspaper inside a garage or shed and lifting your containers under cover for the night. Whatever it takes to keep Frost away!
With any luck you will be able to enjoy your first golden spuds as soon as early summer or even late spring.