Chitting potatoes . . . and a link to the past

20 kg of seed potatoes (2nd Earlies: Charlotte & Nichola; Main Crop: Maris Piper, Maxine, Cara) begin the chitting process in our conservatory high up on the fellside at Sparty Lea

We use the ‘no-dig’ protocol to grow our award-winning potatoes (High Forest Show 2017) on a southern exposure in Sparty Lea. It’s taken us some time to figure out how best to grow any vegetables at all up here, but we’ve persevered. This year is special.

Last year in early spring I had to tear down the remains of the wind-blown chicken barn we’d erected during the protection measures against wild-bird borne avian flu, which, flimsy as it was, had done its duty to be fair, but then promptly collapsed in the heavy winter winds. Then I uprooted the wooden footings and floorboards, and finally got back to the bare 50 square meter patch that alternates yearly between chickens and potatoes. The chickens had done a reasonable job of scratching out most weeds the previous year, and contributing their own fertiliser to the cause, but I still had to uproot a few nasty nettle and dock clumps. Otherwise the ground lay hard in clay clods underfoot.

On top of this ground, I spread dozens of garden-tractor box loads of excellent poo dropped by the front field furniture (Plough, a fine gentleman of a horse, actually, who is so much more than just a lovely sight), to a depth of perhaps 4 inches throughout. Then I covered the whole patch with a black mulch covering, pegged in at reasonable intervals, and overlaid with a few sturdy 4×4 beams against the high winds. And then, because I was too tired at that point to persist with planting, reasoning that the manure was too fresh, that the preparation had been finished too late into the planting season, and reckoning that we’d be away for an extended holiday during the harvest season anyway [whew!], I resolved to let it all lie nicely for planting next year! And somebody else took the prizes at the show last autumn.

So next year has finally become this year, and we ordered in a good supply of seed potatoes to plant as soon as the chitting shows satisfactory sprouts, perhaps by late March. The simple trick then will be merely to cut a small hole in the black mulch, through which I shall insert a seed potato down through the manure coating to the ground interface, replacing the manure gently over the spud, and waiting for the potato plants to emerge from the hole, unfettered by weeds, and growing great holms of potatoes beneath the covering, for harvesting from mid-August onwards, just in time for the show in early September. This year is special because all the hard work had been done already last year, and the manure is well-rotted and perfect now, I hope, to encourage great growth for potatoes at just the right planting time.

So all that remained of the preparation exercise, as we watched the latest little snowfall melt on the fellsides, was for Carrie to chit the potatoes (which means carefully arranging them in large egg cartons carried over from a delivery by Haydon Bridge Hens, the local supplier to the Co-op, on a greenhouse table so they’ll sprout in the sunshine of their own accord, over the next few weeks), and then we’ll pop them into their lovingly prepared bed so they can continue to grow. I know that opinion is divided as to whether chitting is worthwhile; for us, it feels like bringing the growing season that much closer to hand, and we look forward to seeing the sprouts emerge from the potatoes. Some 200 potato plants should be filling the little plot with great green growth by June, with copious blossoms by July, and with a hidden harvest to start eating from August. Of course, year-on-year, the alternating garden plots should become that much more enriched by accumulations of compost and manure, so in principle our vegetable plots should become that much more prolific the longer we garden. So tell the wind that! Half-height board fences protect the plants from most, but not all of the wind damage.

The main challenge this year, then, if we avoid deep frost after planting out the precious chitted tubers, and assuming the forthcoming weather will be reasonably kind, will be to figure out how to store the harvest against the rats or the winter freeze. Something to spend the remaining cold evenings pondering on, in front of the fire perhaps, so as to have a strategy for the autumn.

I’d never claim to be very good at gardening, to be honest, though it’s fun to work hard for a simple purpose, and to eat what your own effort has facilitated, at the appropriate time. And awards at the local agricultural show are encouraging too. It’s not the same, of course, as the subsistence survival a limb of the Nattrass family eked out here at Elpha Green at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, before they were forced to emigrate to the new lead works at Galena, on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin in America, during the lead miner diaspora of 1851 when the strike for fair piece-work pay in the mines was broken. But somehow gardening helps to connect us, in a very human way, across the centuries, perhaps in a shared effort of accommodating to the vicissitudes of the weather, and that too feels intensely moving.

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