potatoes freshly picked out the ground

Gardening tradition holds that you should always ‘chit’ your seed potatoes to give them a head start. In other words, get them a few weeks before planting can begin in late March and spread them out in shallow trays or egg boxes to start sprouting. The ideal spot is a cool, light room that is both frost-free and out of direct sunlight.

As you probably know, potatoes have ‘eyes’ (all the better to see you with…), obvious little depressions on their surface from which the shoots – ‘chits’ – will grow. One end has a concentration of eyes and is called the ‘rose end’. Put this end uppermost in the tray. Laid out like this in massed ranks, they always remind me of that Antony Gormley installation where the floor was occupied by thousands of very simple clay figures.

Different varieties of potato will chit at different rates. If your potatoes do have some shoots before planting – one to two centimetres long being optimum – then they will get away slightly faster and crop slightly earlier. Having said that, their yield may ultimately be marginally lower. It’s swings and roundabouts, basically. Chitting can be helpful but it’s certainly not necessary. Warming the soil beforehand with cloches or sheets of black plastic can be just as useful in promoting early crops, if not more so. In any case, you only have to look at a shop-bought potato sprouting in a plastic bag at the bottom of the fridge to see that these things really want to grow, whatever the conditions!

Laying them out is always a good idea, however, if only because leaving them in a bag till planting time may cause them to rot or at the very least produce a hopeless tangle of shoots that will snap off when you try to separate them, weakening the tubers. It is also important that you buy proper ‘seed’ potatoes from a reputable supplier. They will be certified virus free. A random spud from the supermarket shelf may harbour disease and grow poorly.

There are scores of varieties to choose from. They are grouped according to how long they take to mature (generally between three and five months) and it is usual to plant them in order, so that they crop without a break. Plant ‘first early’ varieties from late March if weather and local climate allow and ‘second early’ and ‘maincrop’ varieties during April. Earlies grow faster and have that classic summery new potato taste; maincrops yield more and keep better.

In the kitchen it’s helpful to know the texture of a variety. A waxy potato such as ‘Charlotte’ is low in starchy dry matter, meaning that it doesn’t easily disintegrate and is therefore well suited to boiling or salad use. A floury potato like ‘Maris Piper’ is high in dry matter and perfect for roasting and frying. Others are somewhere in between and make good all-rounders.

I’m going to be planting some long-established national favourites such as ‘King Edward’ and ‘Maris Piper’ but there are some others that I really rate. ‘Linzer Delikatess’ and ‘Anya’ are both great-tasting salad spuds. ‘Arran Victory’ is a fine heritage variety that dates to 1918, has purple skin and roasts superbly. ‘Romano’ is a red-skinned all-rounder that keeps astonishingly well and ‘Purple Majesty’ makes blue mash – what more incentive do you need to try it?

About the author

Pete Wrapson

Pete has looked after Jamie’s garden in Essex for the last six years, growing organic fruit and vegetables for both the Oliver family and Fifteen Restaurant. A traineeship at Cambridge University Botanic Garden was followed by a stint in the organic kitchen garden at Audley End House before he landed the post at Jamie’s.

Pete Wrapson