Setting off for a grand tattie adventure

View of a garden
Enchanted bag garden in July

As promised, this one is going to be about my tatties, my spuds, my ziemniaki.

Why would anybody go to all the effort of growing potatoes at home? This had been my sentiment exactly. After all – they are such a basic, and some might say – boring – staple, available in the shops all year round, and dirt cheap! This is the case here, in Fife, as it is the case in my native Poland. Spud is a spud is a spud – can you make it more exciting or improve on it by growing your own?

My first real inkling that not all spuds are born equal was brought on by the encounter with what passes for them in Australia. Not sure if it’s the soils, the climate or the variety but the product is watery and tasteless as a mash, and don’t even try making them into wedges!

And then there were passing remarks of my gardening friends – you cannot beat a fresh tattie taste straight from the ground. And the fact that many indeed grow a patch of their own here (I don’t remember potatoes being such a popular allotment/garden crop back in Poland, despite being equally popular in the kitchen).

Lots of bags with seed potatoes
Full selection of tatties at Bridgend Centre at Freuchie

And then the trip to Freuchie Bridgend Garden Centre earlier this year blew me away – 100 or so potato varieties on sale! All shapes and sizes! And COLOURS!

When I realised that they can be grown in bags or containers, virtually anywhere, I was pretty much sold on the idea of having a go.

It took a while to organise myself this spring so by the time I was buying my seed potatoes at the Bridgend in mid-May, only a fraction of varieties remained. Not surprisingly, they all turned out to be of the maincrop kind, which is supposed to be planted later, and grown for longer.  Since, I have learned about the mysterious designations of first earlies, second earlies, salad potatoes,  maincrop, and even autumn planted Christmas potatoes. Also mystified? Here are the definitions. Apparently, it’s the earlies and the salad tatties which are best for bags, as they are more compact and can be harvested gradually (hence the harvest ‘flap’ on my designer bags). Lessons learned…

I could pretend that I had done lots of research on the selection – but the fact was that I just grabbed 4 of the varieties whose names seemed to have some Scottish roots (I thought that locally bred ones should perform well in the climate). And interesting colours – at least on the surface! And certainly not the ones available from the supermarket. Here they are:

  • Apache – a modern variety by a Perth breeder from 2010 (Stroma x S. phureja seedling). Very cool red and white colouring of the skin. Stays so after roasting whole – yay! Small with a “sweet, buttery, almost chestnut like flavour”. Noms!
  • Isle of Jura – Another modern variety bred in Scotland in 2000. Easy to grow and great disease resistance. Bog standard all rounder.
  • Highland Burgundy Red – A heritage variety from 1930s – said to resemble some of the old type potatoes which are still grown in South America. Amazing red skin and red flesh surrounded by a thin outer layer of white. And it stays so after cooking. Another winner! Boiling gently or using for chips/wedges recommended for best colour retention.
  • Arran Victory – heritage variety bred on Arran in 1918 by Donald McKelvie and named so to commemorate the end of WWI; vivid blue/purple skin and the bright white flesh; floury and great for mash. Unfortunately the skin fades on cooking:(

I have been doing some research in preparation for this post and to my amazement I found out that Scotland is the centre of seed potato production in the UK (about 80% of UK’s total) – with Fife and Angus being at the epicentre. Something to do with the climate being less favourable to the disease-spreading aphids and absence of some of potato diseases common on the continent, such as ring rot. It sounds like seed potato production is very tightly regulated in the UK (not really surprising, given the disaster caused by potato blight in mid-19th century in Ireland as well as here in Scotland). So getting yours from certified source, even for home gardens, is recommended. Although in theory the shop bought tatties would work equally well – provided they have not been treated to suppress sprouting. Until recently, such regulation prevented trading in pre-1950s ‘heritage’ varieties, which carried significant disease burden accumulated through the years of vegetative propagation. But those seem to be making a comeback due to microplant tissue culture techniques, allowing vegetative reproduction of true to type varieties while purging the stock of the diseases (Potato Council’s Seed from Great Britain booklet explains it all – PDF). In fact, it seems to be a Fifer, Alan Romans, who’s been responsible for much of this revival among the home growers (he used to trade seed from Kettlebridge but around 2013 he seems to have sold his collection to Thomas and Morgan). I am keenly awaiting arrival of his The Potato Book which should help me with much more judicious selection of varieties for the next year (disappointingly, neither Fife nor Dundee library carries a copy). Anyway, it is quite reassuring that even the seed potatoes (and potato experts) have low food miles when you live in Tayport!

Potatoes with growing shoots in a bag
Sprouted or chitted Apache seed potatoes

Buying seed so late meant that they came pre-chitted (yet another tattie-growing term you will need to know) – and I could pop them in the bags straight away. I did not bother rubbing out the smaller ‘eyes’ since I don’t mind my potatoes dainty. Late planting also avoided the danger of frost damage, a consideration when planting earlies in April (if you’re not sure about the frost dates and when to start chitting – here is some help).

Now I needed some containers – and a LOT of soil. I ended up buying a twin pack of ‘designer’ potato growing bags alongside my seed. But I also decided to try out a low-tech, low-cost alternative of rubble sacks from a supermarket – customised by making a few holes at the bottom for drainage. They are slightly smaller and less well-balanced without the flat base but they do boast a much more pleasant blue colour. The standard recommendation seems to be at least 40 litre capacity, with 50cm depth and 3-5 seed potatoes per bag. But you can grow them in smaller containers – especially if you want to try out a large selection of varieties.

Selection of large plastic bags
Freshly planted potato bags

Doing my reasearch post-facto I realised that my maincrops might have benefited from a larger growing space – I have seen a recommendation of using 70 Litre tubs for those. Fortunately, it is unlikely that I will be patient enough to wait until they are supposed to be ready in October and I will be harvesting them before they reach their full size anyway. Although you can grow them in any container – old dustbins, stacked used tyres, wooden boxes – I opted for the bags so that I can fold them and pop them away easily at the end of the season in my limited storage space.

In order to fill in my 5 growing bags I needed around 200 litres of compost – ouch! Trying to be frugal and environmentally friendly, I took the advice from Vertical Veg’s Mark Ridsdill Smith on experimenting with use of municipal compost. It is available locally via Discovery Compost from Dundee – certified as tested and safe to use as a potting mix. At 60p a bag it is a real bargain but it is probably best to bring a buddy with you to help with the lifting. I added about 30% of well-rotted horse manure, ‘foraged’ from the defunct manure pile on the local pony pasture. This was going to add a bit of ‘life’ to my mix.

Potato plants overflowing the growing bag
Potato triffids – Arran Victory

What to do next? Well – the picture is worth a thousand words so here is the best video I found so far on how to plant and grow them in bags by GrowVeg. And here is the best overall growing advice. I earthed mine up when the haulm/shaws (the leafy bits) were much bigger than advised in the video – and with great trepidation, as it feels just wrong to cover plants with dirt! They certainly did not mind, though, and have grown into triffids, spilling out and falling over the sides of the bags just now.

They started flowering a couple of weeks ago – Apache surprising me with its pretty purple flowers. I am told this is a critical time for keeping them well watered and fed to encourage tuber formation. The former has not been the problem this season – I have not had to water them once! In fact, I am a bit worried that using liquid feed can add to the sogginess of the soil and cause them to rot. Note for next year – incorporate some potato slow release organic fertiliser into the soil mix before planting! The recommendation is for high potash feed (just like tomatoes), with maincrops being more demanding than the short-season earlies.

Like Ian for his tomatoes, I have been trying to make the comfrey ‘tea’ liquid feed for this purpose…but I am afraid I was too impatient with my batch and strained it too early so it came out quite weak. I have already used it up (applying at the rate of 2 litres per bag) and I think I will need to supplement with something shop-bought in the 4 or so weeks the next one takes to brew.

Damaged potato leaves
Pest attack on my tatties – any idea of what it is?

Potatoes have many pests and diseases – the most scary one still being the blight, which absolutely murdered the crops in a wet year a couple of years back, despite all the advances in breeding and crop protection. Mine have been looking quite well so far, apart from some minor slug attacks. Fingers crossed that nothing untoward is going on under the soil! Just this week I have noticed nibbling and scarring damage to the leaves at the tops of plants on a couple of varieties. I am hoping it’s nothing serious – any thoughts?

So – to sum up so far – I have been having fun with my tatties. Most of the work has been in fetching and mixing the soil and getting distracted with the research. The comfrey tea was an assault on the senses as well. I have enjoyed learning the tattie grower’s lingo, and delving into a rich local potato heritage. Really looking forward to this fresh-from-the-ground tattie taste now!

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