One potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato, more…
Looking out at the allotment this afternoon, the childhood ditty running through my head takes on a wry mocking tone and I wonder what possessed me to plant over half the beds with potatoes in the spring. I know the answer – the exhilaration brought on by having access to more growing space mixed with a fear of empty beds; two issues that need to be addressed if we’re to have a more balanced diet next summer.
Until last year, our growing spaces had been modest – a range of pots and three fairly small raised beds. I’ve planted potatoes in the ground and in containers over the years, but found that in the ground they took up nearly half the available space, even for a few plants and when I moved to containers, the yield, more often than not, was rather disappointing. So I swapped to growing salad leaves, cut flowers, soft fruit and chillies in the garden, alongside more unusual fruit and vegetables, and was rewarded with greater variety and better cropping. Potatoes – it seemed – were a crop better bought than grown.
But I never quite forgot the joy of growing the versatile, humble potato. This year’s empty spring allotment beds offered the opportunity to grow potatoes on a larger scale, maybe even to try more than one variety at a time (oh, the vegetable excitement!), so I began with my namesake ‘Nicola’, kindly supplied by Kings Seeds, and then added ‘Swift’ and ‘Jazzy’ in an impulsive seed potato buying frenzy that transformed the spare room into a chitting plant.
One advantage of an excess of potatoes is their ability to suppress an excess of weeds, and we have used the potato’s ground cover potential to its maximum this year. In one bed, potatoes helped to subdue overly-enthusiastic Jerusalem artichokes, whilst elsewhere they tamed annual weeds with ease. Only one bed, heavily entangled with bindweed roots, was outside the potato’s capable powers. Once we’d dug this area as best we could, we laid black polythene and planted potatoes through holes in the membrane. In any other year, I think this would have yielded good results, but unfortunately the scorching weather earlier in the growing season proved too much for the potato foliage, which was quickly scorched from beneath. The plants have still provided us with potatoes, but certainly in smaller quantities than if the foliage had had longer to develop, although this could be seen as a blessing under the circumstances…
The other beds have been more productive and last month we started harvesting, sharing our mammoth crop with family and friends. But my ambitious plans to harvest early and add late crops like courgettes and beans have been less successful. Submerged beneath design projects and writing work, I harvested later than planned and realised there are only so many potatoes a family can consume over a matter of a few weeks. Digging up the crop and storing seemed counter-productive as I find first and second early potatoes store better in the ground. So there they stayed and the late crops had to be squeezed into hasty gaps.
In early April, the flourishing potato foliage filled the allotment with its satisfying presence, but by early August this had become a stifling monocultural insipidity.
Unfilled ground: unfulfilled potential – looking at the empty beds in early spring, ten times as much space as we’d ever had before, I had an overriding desire to fill it all, urgently, in case the opportunity was lost. As potatoes fill large areas relatively quickly, early in the season, they seemed an ideal choice. In retrospect, it would have been better to have left more empty ground, employed my usual methods of crop rotation and waited until later crops were ready – perhaps sowing quick to mature vegetables like salad leaves and radishes in the interim. So my resolutions for the new growing year are as follows:
- to temper my potato impulses with a dash of common sense
- to plan realistically – taking account of work load/time pressures and their impact on my time on the allotment in the summer season
- to co-exist calmly with empty ground, or at least plan to use green manures and quick crops to avoid panic leading to an unintentional monocultural regime
In Other News…
The cutting patch is now producing an abundance of floral delights for the house and for drawing and watercolouring – dahlias, gladioli, rudbeckia, cosmos, salvia, cerinthe, didiscus and more. After an extremely prolific spring season with daffodils and tulips in every room for a few magical weeks, the success of the summer flowers means the cutting patch has earned a permanent place in the allotment.
The perennial bed is also thriving. Yacon, Daubenton’s kale, marsh mallow and sea kale have been added to the rhubarb, raspberries, currants, gooseberries and oca (not strictly perennial, but living happily alongside its hardier neighbours). In the garden I’ve planted Causasian spinach, hardy ginger, earth chestnut, perennial onions and spring onions to observe them and decide where they’ll thrive in the allotment in later years.
If flowers, fruit and perennial vegetables seem like an afterthought, lagging far behind potatoes in my allotment tales, it’s because this year they were. It’s an inequality I didn’t plan and don’t intend to repeat. Next year’s plans will include potatoes – for homemade chips, boiling with mint, thickening chowders, frying with spices and adding to Spanish tortilla, but I’ll be curbing any impetuous impulses and filling the allotment with timely crops, manifold crops, rotated crops – celebrating the return to biodiversity and learning when to fill and when to leave space.
I’d love to hear about how you go about planning your allotment/garden planting and how you use space to maximum effect. Do leave me a comment below – any suggestions and advice gratefully received 🙂
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