Summertime & the Potatoes are Flowering
Ripen in the Sun
In every garden and municipal border roses, irises, clematis and lupins are flowering, vegetables are maturing and in sunny corners, the blackcurrants are beginning to bruise over as the deep purple-black colour begins to appear; raspberries look anaemic and under developed strawberries look luscious and sweet but it’s only the side facing the sun that is ripe so far and somehow, while we are asleep, over the next few days and nights, these fruits will turn to sugar as they ripen into delicious, bursts of flavour and sensation on the tongue. All they need now is sunshine.
Floods, what floods?
Only a few weeks ago, on midsummer night to be exact, there was a thunderstorm followed by a tropical downpour in Stirling which resulted in flooded streets and roads. Canoes plying forth instead of taxis and teenagers swimming past the banks and clothes shops in the main street. Meanwhile, two miles away, there was no such rain and the water butts at the Big House were left parched and thirsting for a refill.
Thank goodness for the rain
Normally this would not be a problem but currently we have no water as the main supply pipe is cracked and until such time as we can repair it, the water is switched off. Thankfully for our potato crop, there has been a regular supply of rain since May and the plants are growing strongly in their raised furrows.
At last, we have found a plant that deer and rabbits do not eat so I hope you will bear with us if you find potatoes growing in/out of the ordinary places. We have grown them as a hedge in front of the herbaceous border growing beside the Wisteria and it seems to work surprisingly well as the plants tucked in behind them are finally flourishing away from nibbling teeth.
Pink Fir Apple Potatoes
Earlier last month Stirlingshire Young Archaeologists were carrying out a dig for us. The soil they removed was put in a large collection bag and since we cannot backfill the archaeology until October, we have planted ‘Pink Fir Apple’ potatoes in the soil gathered in the bag and anticipate a fine harvest there.
In the walled garden we are using potatoes to begin clearing the ground which has been weed ridden for decades. It’s not the actual presence of the potatoes that clears the ground, but rather the amount of cultivation required as the plants grow bigger and the soil is drawn up around the stems to increase the amount of crop. All of this cultivation kills off any young weed seedlings and effectively begins to exhaust the weed seed-bank lying in the soil.
We have planted various rows of different potatoes – ’Arran Pilot’, ‘Sharpe’s Express’, ‘Catriona’, ‘Kerr’s Pinks’ and ‘Maris Piper’ some growing in soil, some growing in soil with manure, some growing in soil that has been dug and some in a ‘no-dig’ bed. It will be interesting to weigh the resulting crops and measure if there are any differences in the end result.
The Humble Potato
The humble potato, Solanum tuberosum, is anything but humble. It is a plant which has circumnavigated the world and is successfully feeding people in almost every corner of the globe, the fifth most important food crop worldwide with a history going back thousands of years.
From the Andes in Peru, the Spanish Conquistadores and later Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potato to Europe in the 1580’s and from there it gradually spread to other countries bringing relative security from famine. In an attempt to popularise the newly introduced potato plant in France, the famous French Queen Marie Antoinette wore the potato flowers in her hair, pinned among her curls and this became a very fashionable style amongst the ladies of the time.
Wheat, oats or corn, which grow above the soil, can be damaged and flattened by late summer storms bringing the risk of crop failure but the potato tuber growing underground is undamaged by this type of weather and should anything happen to the plant above ground, it has the resources within the potato to create a new green plant. However, potatoes are sometimes affected by a fungus called potato blight and if they contract this disease, it can wipe out an entire crop in ten days.
Most of us will have heard of the famines in Ireland in the 1840’s caused by failure of the potato crop and modern science has done much research on the causes of potato blight and preventative measures we can take to protect this valuable food crop which is the staple diet in many regions.
Know the Signs
If you are growing potatoes this summer, keep your eyes peeled (no pun intended) for signs of blight if the minimum air temperatures are at least 10°C and relative humidity is 90% or above for at least 6 hours. These are the ideal conditions for the Phytopthera fungus and if you notice any brown spots with yellow edges developing on the leaves, whip them off quickly and burn them, you might just save your crop if you are alert enough.