This is much too long and includes nothing enlightening. But it’s written now and I had already made the collage and it will make me smile when I look back on it, so in it goes….
You just might like to move on quietly or make a cup of tea before reading ;)
Potatoes: my first crop of this year and only the second time I’ve tried growing them.
The first attempt started late last summer. I read that it was possible to have freshly dug, home-grown new potatoes on the table on Christmas Day. I was intrigued and had to try it. I invested in some potato growing bags (not necessary and not purchased by choice – they came with the potatoes); some specially prepared seed potatoes (I think they are kept in cold storage) and some potato fertilizer (it seemed important to give them the best possible chance). I planted everything towards the end of September. It worked: I had potatoes by Christmas. Not many I must add, but we certainly could have eaten them with Christmas Dinner had we wished. They were the most expensive new potatoes I’ve ever had.
Come the spring I was determined to give it a proper go and of course now I had the bags and the fertilizer. I was curious to see what yields were possible and how expensive (or otherwise) the grow-your-own option really was.
I chose three varieties: swift – a first early; charlotte and maris peer – both second earlies. The swifts went in first and a few weeks later I added the other two. I picked out the swift seed potatoes by hand. For reasons I forget now, I bought 1kg bags of maris peer and charlotte. This meant I had far more than I intended but they were all chitting and I couldn’t just throw some away. Hence I ended up with the greenhouse floor littered with bags of all shapes and sizes: about 15 in all I think. I used the 3 canvas bags, every large tub I possessed and finally – empty compost bags – just as effective as the specially-purchased expensive green canvas bags. Within a very short time green shoots were poking through. Exciting!
Our two compost bins are still busy doing their thing and we have no home-produced compost for use just yet which meant I’ve been using shop-bought stuff. For so many sacks and tubs of potatoes – all needing earthing up – it became ridiculous. Alongside the seeds and seedlings which also needed compost, I couldn’t keep pace with demand. Money is tight: I grumbled to myself; it would have been cheaper to have waited and bought commercially-grown new potatoes in due course. Still, I persevered – but I was a skinflint. Frankly I’m amazed the potatoes grew at all. I planted many more to a bag than advice suggested and gave them meagre amounts of compost in which to grow. Then – when the mess in the greenhouse was more than I could bear – I decided that some bags would be fine outside. Almost a disaster! But I think these particular potatoes were remarkably forgiving. Karma perhaps? I didn’t throw the excess seed potatoes away and in return they thrived despite my ignorance and lack of nurturing conditions.
For thrive they did. The plants grew tall. They produced flowers! I’ve never seen potato flowers before; they are really very pretty. I know it’s advised to pinch them off so the plant is not wasting energy in producing them but once again – I hadn’t the heart. They were VERY pretty…
A few weeks back I saw a gardening programme which suggested using grass clippings as earthing up material. Aha! Here was a way around the lack of compost problem! So B was instructed to pile the grass clippings on the greenhouse floor and I packed them around the stems of each plant. Then I got nervous: surely the grass clippings would become slimy and nasty with my copious applications of water? I also noticed significant ant activity around this time – particularly in the bag and tub housing the swift potatoes. What might ants be doing to the potatoes? The problem with growing potatoes, I decided, is that you have no idea what might be going on with them in the smattering of compost under their slimy grass blanket. Precious time and water was being utilised; the greenhouse was chaotic and screaming to have a semblance of order restored to it. Was it worth it? Was all this space and effort essentially tending some rotting tubers and a thriving ant colony?
Finally last week, I had more time. And my need to establish order was paramount. Ready or not – it was time. The moment of truth had arrived for the valiant spuds and frankly by then, I didn’t really care whether I’d managed to grow anything edible or not!
Swifts first. First bag upended. Ants, ants and more ants. Thousands of ants – possibly millions of ants – all very angry, all spreading rapidly across the floor and some demonstrating their anger by biting. HARD. Gingerly I poked around and yes! There were potatoes – perfect potatoes at that : unharmed by hand or ant or slimy grass It took much less time to gather the potatoes than it did to dispense with the ants. Many kettles of water later I can report that the ants have now left the greenhouse. What are ants FOR, I mumbled to myself, as I trudged back and forth bearing jugs of steaming water with which to drench the floor. (A rhetorical question.) And what made them decide that MY particular canvas bag was so enticing? I couldn’t face the other ant colony. Once was enough. The other tub of swifts was ‘swiftly’ moved outside and left to one side. Maybe the few surviving ant brethren from colony no.1 might spread the word and suggest that their neighbours relocate pretty smartish…
Next, the charlottes. These were actually the last to be planted and the greenhouse guides suggested they might really have preferred a few more weeks. But I was ruthless – and desperate! The first bag was upended….. potatoes! Many potatoes! Many perfect potatoes! What fun picking them out and unearthing more and more as I rootled through the compost and grass cuttings. And the grass was NOT slimy. It’s true that for the last week or so I stopped watering – having been swamped with revision and all but given up on the potatoes which I felt had had their day. The grass had matted together to form something akin to a crust and to my surprise, most of the potatoes – and almost all of the biggest ones – were clustered in the grass. Might this be due to the nitrogen boost I wonder?
The maris peer yield was smaller and the potatoes look less perfect. These were the unfortunates that got frosted a few months back. I wonder if that experience played a role in the lower yield and reduced quality?
Finally the only remaining batch was the ant-infested tub of swifts. I couldn’t face that experience again so I sweet-talked B into assisting. A tentative poke at the surface of the soil… It looked as if the entire tub was moving! Carefully, he upended the tub into the wheelbarrow in the middle of the lawn. Whoa…. ant explosion! Angry as hell – and still biting. HARD. B probed gingerly. The yield is naturally smaller with swifts – their benefit lies in the speed with which they grow. But we got a good amount and they were of good size.
The potato harvest was complete. I had a large trug full of new potatoes: thin, creamy skins only lightly dusted with earth and promising taste and texture within. Then came the grand weigh-in….. 12 pounds of potatoes! Even B was impressed! Well done me! And well done seed potatoes! And yar boo sucks to the ants! B promised to find a suitable spot to store them and the bounty is now housed in a string bag and hanging in a cool, dark corner of his precious
Was it worth it? Yes. Will I do it again? Definitely; I’ve learned a lot and I think I can improve the yields still more.
And there’s a final twist to this rambling account. Just a few days before the grand harvesting we discovered the blackbirds’ nest. The nest is at the front of the house; the wheelbarrow filled with ant-colonised compost is mid-way down the long back garden. Within 48 hours I watched the male blackbird fly to the wheelbarrow, fill his beak with ants and return to the nest. I have no serious quarrel with ants; quite the reverse really. I admire their industry and community-ethos. There had been no pleasure in destroying the first ant colony. This colony had the opportunity to make good its relocation. And Chuck and his babies would thrive on those that he selected as food. All part of nature’s rhythm….. I take quiet pleasure in that :)