Sunday 29 January 2012

20 Challenges and Opportunities for Potatoes

Another benefit to attending Potato Day is the talks by specialists that are run throughout the day. I attended the '20 challenges and opportunities for potatoes' by Alan Wilson. It was a really interesting talk, and I learned quite a bit I didn't know about potato growing in the UK, including some surprising facts. Here is a brief overview of the 20 challenges/opportunities Alan presented.

1. Decline of fresh potatoes: apparently in 1998 (UK) 71.8% of potatoes eaten were fresh, i.e. whether home grown or from supermarkets, with the remaining percentage being consumed as processed potatoes, i.e. hot or frozen chips. In 2010 only 38.9% of potatoes are consumed fresh. That's a massive decrease and says a lot about our relationship with food, as well as the impacts on our health.

2. Pasta vs. Potato: following on from point 1, we are also eating much more pasta and rice as a staple, instead of potatoes.With pressures on peoples time, these are perceived as being clean, easier and quicker to cook.

3. Value of food crop: you can eat less potatoes per meal to gain the same value in nutrition (see 4. below), compared to what you would need when eating pasta. Also, the amount of land needed to grow potatoes is much less than you need to gain the equivalent value from cereals.

4. Nutrition: potatoes are very nutritious and contain a lot of vitamin C. In the past, potatoes gave people their winter access to vitamin C, whereas now you can by orange juice etc all year round. They are also a good source of vitamin B6 and potassium and have no cholesterol. (The Potato Council has a useful page listing the healthy qualities of potatoes.) Furthermore, they are quite low in calories too.

5. Gardeners: gardeners have quite a few challenges in order to grow potatoes. From the lack of allotments available to the smaller size of gardens that come with new housing. However, gardeners are also the champions of potatoes, potatoes are very popular with gardners and they grow lots of different varieties which is good for diversity and food security.

6. Organic vs. Non-Organic: there is lots of debate over 'what is organic', but what is certain is that organic methods such as careful rotation and diversity in crops is the way forward and conventional growing needs to use organic principles if we are to maintain the crop.

7. GM: will it really solve the world's food problems? The irony is that GM claims to be 'blight resistant' yet there are lots of non-GM potatoes that already have this important feature. And we need to fix bad farming (i.e. monocultures), which GM won't do.

8. Water: a lot of pressure on this resource and it will get worse in future with the impacts of climate change. Potatoes need water, so growers need to be smarter about using this precious resource in the most effective and sustainable way.

9. Soil: the most important element. Fertiliser only goes so far, we need to build up the nutrients in our soil with compost and organic matter.

10. Biodiversity: unlike big farms, gardeners grow more than just one variety, use rotation methods and add nutrients to the soil via compost and green manures.

11. Nutrition for potatoes: whilst potatoes can get some nutrition from legumes (so a winter crop of green manures before planting potatoes the following spring has some use), water and potassium more important. Again, building the soil very important.

12. Wastage: gardeners consume 95% of their crop, the remaining 5% lost to pests (i.e. slugs), greening or a fork through them when digging up. 50% of crops are wasted by conventional farming. I'll say that again, 50%. So gardeners growing potatoes lowers the carbon footprint of agriculture.

13. Lifestyle: we only spend 8% of our disposable income on food. It was 25% in the 1950's. We have less time for growing and eating and are quite detached from our food system.

14. Perception and knowledge: people think potatoes are fattening - they are not! There is a perception that because they come from the soil, they are somehow dirty. Some even perceive potatoes as an old persons food. Clearly a lot of education is needed around people's knowledge of potatoes.

15. Varieties, pests and disease: more varieties are available with different levels of resistance to pests and diseases, yet only 1.5% of 21 old varieties* available are grown by industry.  *these are any varieties that go back more than 50 years.

16. Culinary knowledge: with 1400 varieties around, there is a lack of knowledge about how different potatoes have different culinary uses. TV chefs just use 'potatoes', not telling you what varieties they use.

17. Varieties: over 1400 varieties of potatoes available to the UK potato industry. Awareness of the different varieties available is increasing.

18. Quality: the importance of taste. Being aware that digging up potatoes at different times will change how they taste. For example, a salad potato (usually a 'new' potato) won't taste good as a salad potato if left in the ground too long.

19. Seasonality: we think of potato growing season as late March to October, but actually some varieties can be grown all year round (i.e. Rocket).

20. Values: the future of potatoes is in our hands. Do we value them as a crop? Do we understand they are good for you? Do we value what type of potato is grown for what culinary purpose?

I found many of these interesting and some shocking. Eating fresh potatoes is so normal to my circle of friends and I that it never occurred to me that a lot of people in the UK only eat processed potatoes. I was kind of aware that conventional farming throws away a lot of produce (because the supermarkets won't accept them), but 50% wastage is a bloody disgrace.

I have lots of other concerns about GM in general that Alan didn't raise. For example, who owns seed? I think seeds, including potato seeds, should be part of the global commons and not owned by multinationals for profit. And there is the health and environmental impacts of GM -  all those chemicals being sprayed onto GM crops cannot be healthy for neither people or the environment. This isn't a criticism of Alan (he only had 45 minutes and a lot to get through!), rather I want to remind people there are lots of questions about GM that should be considered.

As we are becoming more food aware, hopefully culinary knowledge of potatoes will develop. Some potatoes that are good for mashing are useless for boiling. And some that are good for roasting are bad mashers, etc. I choose the potatoes I grow very carefully to ensure that I have a range that cover the types of cooking I like. Hence in my list of pototoes, I included comments such as whether a particular potato was a good masher or salad potato, etc.

There was also a lot of hope in Alan's talk. Gardeners and communities are leading the way growing many varieties of potatoes (and other fruit and vegetables), which helps not only keep these different varieties available, but means that the gene pool for potatoes remains wide. Whether it is potatoes growing in different conditions (cooler or warmer environments for example), or for different qualities (bakers, mashers, salad potatoes), the fact that gardeners want and grow lots of varieties of potatoes, can only be a good thing for potatoes overall.

I purchased Alan's new book The People's Potatoes, which as well as giving useful information about growing potatoes, includes a synopsis of 400 varieties available in the UK. There is also a section with detailed information on his personal top 100. I've already started reading it and on first impression, it's a really useful reference for any potato grower and lover. For example, I knew about pests and diseases such as slugs, blight and scab, but from the book I also learned that aphids are a big problem for potatoes, as they are a key source for carrying diseases. And there is a useful bibliography with links and further reading at the back, which will be of use to those of us who are extra keen on learning more about growing potatoes.

For a 45-minute talk I learned quite a lot, and along with the other talks and cooking demonstrations (which I was unable to attend), it was another reason why going to Potato Day at Ryton is such a great experience. And yet another reason why I will return to Potato Day in 2013.  ;-)

Potato Day 2012

Happy at Potato Day

Recently described by friend Manishta as, "my version of Xmas", I went on my annual pilgrimage to Garden Organics 2012 Potato Day at Ryton. I love potatoes and I love going to Potato Day. Ryton generally has over 100 varieties from which to choose. This includes mainstream varieties such as Desiree and King Edwards (boring - they are in every supermarket so why grow them?) to heritage varieties such as Shetland Black and Salad Blue.

A few of the over 100 varieties available

As ever, I got excited on the drive up and walked very swiftly (I did NOT run) to the tent holding all the potatoes on arrival. I had a list of specific varieties I knew I wanted, plus room on the list for 'impluse choices' on the day. My final choices were:

Arran Victory (Late Maincrop. Heritage variety, good masher and yields)
Casablanca (2nd Early. Wonderful mash)
Charlotte (2nd Early. Great salad potato and for mash)
Pink Fir Apple (Late Maincrop. Such lovely salad potatoes)
Red Duke of York (1st Early. Excellent baker and storer)
Sante (Maincrop. Great for baked spuds)
Saxon (2nd early. New choice, I like the name..., meant to be good for baking, boiling and roasting )

I also order separately from JBA Seed Potatoes, as I knew they wouldn't be at Ryton:

Amour (my first time trying, meant to be an all rounder resistant to blight)
Ryecroft Purple (heritage, a good baker and roaster)
Stemster (Maincrop. v. reliable, high yielding, good baker and all rounder)

And I picked up for some friends who I'm encouraging to grow potatoes:

Casablanca (2nd Early. Wonderful mash)
Salad Blue (2nd Early. Heritage variety, for mashing and chipping, also an impulse by for me)
Shetland Black (2nd Early. Heritage variety, good for mash and boiling)

It's serious business choosing each potato

One of the great things about Potato Day at Ryton is that you can buy individual tubers. This means it is easy for gardeners to chose and try of lots of different potatoes. The diversity of sowing different crops also means that  if one variety is hit by pests and diseases, it's likely that the others may well survive. I've had occasions in the past where I've lost one crop to blight, but the potatoes right next to them weren't effected at all. Proving once again that diversity, and not monoculture, enhances food security.

Potato Day is quite social. I ran into Emma from Cultivate (above, choosing some Bambino seed potatoes), who is as mad on potatoes as I, as well as Master Composter Martin Stott, who has often run free composting workshops at Barracks Lane Community Garden, for whom I freelance. It's also fun to chat to fellow potato fans about your favourite varieties.

Cultivate's Emma carefully checking her potato list

After the serious, but fun activity of choosing potatoes, I took the opportunity to wander about Ryton gardens. As the weather has been so mild, there was lots more to see than usual at this time of year. The small organic garden (4.5m x 6m) was looking inviting, with its lovely rounded 4-bed rotation system edged by bricks. It also has a small pond (for frogs etc), a cold frame, a compost bin and a rainwater collection system; displaying what can be grown in a small but bio-diverse home garden.

The small organic garden 

The 'All-Weather Garden', was a polytunnel full of salads, Chinese cabbages and herbs that can be picked throughout winter. As mentioned recently, my long-term plan is to have a polytunnel on my allotment, and it was good to get a sense of what I'll be able to grow and eat once I do have one.

The All -Weather Garden

The layout of the Elysia Biodynamic Garden is lovely, with a mix of annuals, perennials, fruit and vegetables grown.

Elysia Biodynamic Garden 

There is also a new display garden at Ryton, the Cuban Organoponicos. Based on the types of urban gardens and food systems Cuba created after the fall of the Soviet Union, it displays a mix of fruit and vegetables that can be grown in small spaces using recycled materials.

Cuban Organoponicos garden

Visiting all the different gardens at Ryton made me realise I really must return for a visit in Summer, to see them in full bloom and cultivation.

Returning to potatoes, I attended a really engaging talk '20 challenges and opportunities for potatoes' by Alan Wilson, which I've written about in a separate blog.

As ever, I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Potato Day. Now it's time to get on with chitting the taties and to look forward to getting them into the ground. Will I like the new varieties I'm trying? Will my old favourites be pushed aside for new taties on the block? Stay tuned.

Monday 23 January 2012

The achievement of black plastic

After three years work, Kevin and I have finally cut down the worst of the brambles and the 2nd half of the lottie, not yet in cultivation, is now covered in black plastic.

This feels like quite an achievement, though one might wonder why in the hell I would celebrate putting down black plastic? It simply means that after a lot of very hard work, aching backs and scratched arms and pricked fingers, the brambles are seriously becoming EX-brambles* and the land has been reclaimed for growing.

In the space of the afternoon, the last quarter of the lottie went from being covered with brambles to being covered with black plastic. Thanks to some help from our friend Manishta a few weeks ago, we had already started cutting down the brambles in this section. You can see the pile of cuttings to the left.

 voila! brambles cut down

After a couple of hours work, much tea and pastries, the clearing was done.

take that brambles - plastic-fantastic

Then came the black plastic. Never has black plastic been such a welcome sight. The big bulge (ooooh, that sounds rude) is the large pile of brambles that we are drying out so we can have a bonfire with them.

Proud lottie holder 

The plot now

The first half is well into cultivation. In the third quarter of the plot we have started building raised beds and these will have the potatoes growing in them this year.  And the last quarter that we just covered? Well, we obviously still have to dig out the bramble and weed roots. But this will be where the shed, compost bins, and eventually (oh, dreams), the polytunnel will go. Oh, and a small area for an outdoor fire pit so we can cook some food we just dug up on the lottie.

In the meantime, the dream of finally putting up a shed is finally much closer. By the end of Spring, a shed I shall have. Black plastic - I love you!

*no ex-parrots were harmed in the creation of this lottie.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Mulching experiment: update 2

This is my 2nd update since first starting my mulching experiment in mid-November 2011.

For bed 1 (standard cardboard and compost mulch), the cardboard and compost mulch has broken down much more since December. You can see that in December it was covering over all the edges of the raised bed, whereas now (2nd pic) it is sinking down the sides as it breaks down.

Bed 1: Mid-December 2011

Bed 1: Mid-January 2012

Because of the unusually warm weather throughout December and part of January, I did get a few odd annual weeds trying to grow on the top, which I promptly pulled out. Otherwise, just doing it's thing, no bother at all.

For the 2nd bed (based on the idea of 'three-layer grow through mulch', see first post for description of my changes), it's a bit different. I think you can tell that the veg remainders mulch is starting to breakdown more,  just. Not sure the photograph shows it that well, but I can assure you it has. So far had no annual weeds have popped up, unlike bed 1. However, the old chard remainders that I had dug up and thrown on top, are trying to grow!

Bed 2: Mid-December 2011

Bed 2: Mid-January 2012

You can see the new chard shoots at the top (from the middle going towards the right). Yes, I had thrown a little used compost (from containers) onto this mulch, in part to help hold it down in the high winds. But I literally threw the old chard root on top, in no way digging it it. But the bugger wants to grow anyway. It's not a lone wolf either, as at the other end of the bed (not in the photo) some other old chard roots have started to sprout.

I suppose I'll pick the young shoots and then maybe throw the rest of the root into my compost bin at home. I don't really want the chard to grow in this bed, as this is going to be the brassica bed this year. However, I'm very impressed with just how much the chard wants to grow.

Overall, the 2nd bed is mulching down much more slowly, which isn't surprising given both the unusually warm weather until the last week or so. The cardboard underneath is also drying out more and so taking more time to break down as well. It will be interesting to see if the recent cold weather helps break it down quicker.  Will report back mid-February.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Making the most of enthusiastic bamboo

After sorting out the black bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra, we had to cut down in order to fix part of the fence that was knocked down in last weeks high winds, I've ended up with another lovely bunch of black canes. I've been musing over what to make from them, some pea and bean climbing frames, or another trellis.

I made my first bamboo trellis last September, and am now growing an evergreen honeysuckle Lonicera japonica 'Hall's Prolific' up the canes. The honeysuckle has taken off amazingly well, and even though it is mid-winter, it has masses of bright green new growth.

The black canes are not as black and shiny any more, but where the honeysuckle grows, you cannot even see the canes, so I can see eventually it will be a lovely green wall rather than the colder faded red brick and grey wall currently on view directly out of one of the kitchen windows.

Bamboo crammed in

The bamboo wasn't planted in the best place, squeezed in between brick paving and right next to the neighbours fence. So it's rather taking over, growing under the fence, pushing against it, which I think was part of the reason for the fence becoming weak.

However, it's a beautiful plant. I love the way it moves, the sound of the leaves, the fact it is evergreen, and is always elegant. I'm not that keen to take it out, so I'm making the most of this enthusiastic bamboo, gaining a yield at the same time as hopefully stopping it from taking over.

And now I have some more canes to play with.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Oxford Sow & Grow newsletter

For Oxford Sow & Grow, my garden advice business, I'm going to start sending out a regular newsletter with gardening tips and information on upcoming workshops.

If you would like to receive the newsletter, email me on and ask to go onto the mailing list. And no, I will never pass on contact details to anyone.

Don't know what Oxford Sow & Grow is? Check out the website!


There is an exciting new food initiative in Oxford, Cultivate. It's a new food co-op that is to be community owned, run and financed by people local to Oxford.

I'm personally keen on Cultivate, not just because I know some of the wonderful people involved in setting it up (!), but also because I think the model they will be working on is great. They will be running a VegVan that will come to any part of the Oxford area where locals want them to come. This means not just the better-off areas, but the less well-off areas of Oxford. If people want the VegVan to come to their area, they will be able to work with Cultivate to make it happen.

Cultivate will have 5 acres of land in South Oxfordshire, and will also work with other local organic farmers and veg box schemes to source the food they will sell in the VegVan. I like this as it will be local food people working together, not against each other, and will help build a more sustainable and resilient food system in the Oxford area.

The reason I'm particularly blogging about Cultivate now, is that they will be opening the Community Share Offer on Monday 16th January, at their launch event. So if you would like to find out more, do RSVP to them at

If you cannot make the event, you can also join their mailing list and they will keep you up-to-date with information on the share offer and other news.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Seed viability

It is the time of year when everyone is looking at ordering new seeds for the growing year. We should also go through our old packets of all seeds to see what we do and don't have, before we get carried away with ordering new seeds! I'm quite guilty of this. I get very excited when new seed catalogues come through my door and before you know it I've circled enough 'wants' to need a 5-acre farm to grow them all.

Many of our old seeds are still useful. You might ditch some, as you didn't like the taste of the variety, or it didn't grow well etc. And of course some might be out of date and are no longer viable (how old they can be before they no longer germinate).

To find out the viability of seeds isn't that easy. You can find lots of websites talking about viability, but not many list that many of the actual seeds a gardener in the UK may grow. I finally managed to find a really useful seed viability chart from Amateur Gardening magazine (January 2012 issue). I also found a printed copy of the Seed Savers Handbook list (Australian) which someone gave me last year.

I noticed some differences between the two, so have compiled an Excel document listing seed name and the number of years each suggests. Most of the differences are minimal, though I do wonder why one says Chicory has a viability range of 5 years, and the other 8. And Cucumber has been given 5-6 years by Amateur Gardening and 4-10 by Seed Savers! Maybe the different climates (UK and Australia) affect the viability of seeds? And I'm curious to know why Amateur garden left out Chard (which is known as Silverbeet in Australia), given how popular it is in the UK? I guess as it is the same family as Beetroot, the viability must be similar.

Anyhow, I thought my little documents might be useful for other people, so am including them here so others can download them if they find it helpful.

Download Vegetable seeds

Download Herb seeds

If you come across any further useful seed viability lists, I would love to know about them!

Sunday 1 January 2012

First day of the month in the front garden: January 2012

For 2012 I am going to blog about my front garden on the 1st day of each month. I'll follow how it changes over the year, how much food I can produce from the space, and how my development plans are progressing.

Front garden and path, 1st January 2012

I redesigned the front garden in 2010. It is a space of 5m x 4.46m and when we moved in January 2009, it was just a square with various plants haphazardly dotted around, with no paths and no clear idea of what the previous owner was trying to do; or maybe they weren't trying to do anything? You can read about the initial redesign and see how it originally looked in my post from April 2010. The new design has raised beds made from recycled scaffold boards obtained from building sites, and paths with permeable membrane and wood chips on top. This gives it an attractive look and makes it also easily accessible for doing weeding, planting and harvesting.

My overall aim for the front garden, which is based on permaculture principles, is to find a balance between obtaining fruit and vegetable yields, maximising output from a small but south-facing space, whilst including perennials and bulbs, raised beds and clear paths, to help give it some structure and make it attractive all year round.
Map of layout

The front garden is almost full south facing. The path/driveway leading to the front door (above) is a mix of asphalt and paving stones, all of which is breaking up and in poor condition. Although I have plans for this area to get rid of the eyesore and create a lovely path and beds, this is for the future. It's a big job and we need to get a new roof for the house this year! Gardening, sadly, doesn't always come first... In the meantime, last year I let the self sown flowers take over a bit (i.e. hollyhocks & primulas) and personally found this more pleasant that the asphalt, even if it did look a little wild, so will leave it to do the same this year.

It is  shaded on the west side by my neighbours, Fung and Simon's, front gardens trees and shrubs. These are kept largely under control, mutually agreed by myself and Fung and Simon, but do still mean that the west side does get shade in the late afternoon. I have planted two pear trees here and an am training them as espaliers. They are only 3 years only and in 2010 I started training the first espalier level on both. I think it will be hard for your to spot them in the photos; you can see 'Onward', just, between the first and 2nd posts. Underneath they are planted with strawberries, as I'm want to maximise the yield from that part of the garden, using forest garden principles. We got a good crop of strawberries from here last summer, so the later afternoon shade doesn't effect the yields coming from the strawberries. I've also under planted the pear trees with  a few perennials and spring bulbs, and added winter flowering clematis, Clematis Cirrhosa Freckles and Clematis Cirrhosa Ourika Valley to grow up the trellis so this will be prettier in coming winters (I hope!). 

Layout from front door

The rest of the front garden can get shade from the large flowering Prunus (on the left of the top photo). We have been pruning it heavily over the last two summers. It's been problematic as it was allowed to grow way too large for the space prior to us moving in, but is beautiful in flower and in autumn. I'm loathe to take it out, as it would be a massive job and expensive, and we do get the yield of small branches from prunings that we dry out and use for kindling. 

However, I am thinking it over, as I have been considering whether to remove both the Prunus and the ugly concrete fence on the street side, and plant a hazel nut hedge in it's place. The hazel nut hedge would act as the new 'fence' but also give me a yield in nuts; if I can beat the squirrels to them of course! In the same bed as the Prunus is a Phormium, which I'm not keen on and definitely want to get rid of. It's only staying there until I decided what to do with this border. In the meantime, I have added annuals (teasels) and perennials (heleniums) and some more bulbs to accompany the vinca minor that was already there. It's pretty but a bit of a brute and I found when I grew broad beans in this bed in 2010, that the vinca tried to smother them. So yes, this border definitely needs some rethinking.

The central bed has an obelisk that is beautiful and gives interest even in mid winter. So far I've grown a mix of vegetables (tomatoes and broad beans in 2010, both very successful with excellent yields, plus green manure) amongst annuals, perennials and bulbs. In 2012, the front half of the bed has broad beans and garlic. The back half currently has green manure, and perennial kale will be added late spring. I'll grow some heritage beans that will crop mid summer, up the obelisk, which is also under planted with heleniums that will take over from mid-summer onwards.

The bed next to the asphalt path (to the right in the photograph below) currently has rosemary, sage and irises and a mix of calendula, crocuses and muscari around the edges. In 2011 I used it to also grow a mix of beetroot, chard and spinach. I have planted autumn-sown broad beans for 2012, and will also add tomatoes in May. 

Front garden, 1st January 2012

There are also a few containers and planters in the front garden. The big blue pot on the left has a fig, which I am going to pass on. I brought it from our previous house in Witney in 2009, but don't need it as I have a large fruiting one we inherited in the back garden. I'm thinking of putting in a lemon tree in it's place. I thought a lemon tree might do well in this position, as with the south-facing warm brick wall of the house, it should have a slightly warmer and protected micro-climate. 

The large planter in front of the bay window has lavender and geranium phaeum, and I will add some sweet peas and nasturtium as I did in 2011. I have tried growing veg in the planter, but it gets so hot and dry that even with constant watering and feeding the yields weren't particularly good. So I planted it up with flowers and shrubs instead, and will concentrate my food yields in the raised beds.

Plans and potential yields for 2012
  1. Plant some perennial kale in the back half (closer to house) of the central bed. This will yield food and give winter interest.
  2. Obtain yield from strawberries, broad beans, garlic and tomatoes, plus ongoing yields from herbs (sage and rosemary).
  3. Investigate costs of removing prunus, concrete fence, and practicalities of putting in hazel nut hedge.
  4. Continue training the pear tree espaliers.
  5. Photograph the space at the beginning of each month and track how it changes over the year.

So now, on with the year!