I love a good spud, and it’s the soft, almost creamy new potatoes that are best. You know the ones: with a pale yellow interior, like freshly churned butter, and a thin, pop-in-the-mouth skin.
The very first garden-grown potatoes are the stuff of legend – you just can’t beat them! They demand extreme reverence and to be elevated from mere side dish to main event. I serve them up with a big knob (or two) of butter on top that melts its way into the steaming pile, finished off with a sprinkling of chopped chives from the herb patch. Yum, yum…YUM!
Among many gardeners there’s kudos surrounding who can grow the very earliest potatoes. Like the first strawberries, there’s a real sense of pride at stake here! But just how early is too early? When can you safely plant these delicious tubers to steal a march on the season?
Super Early Potatoes
Potatoes can be classed as first earlies, second earlies, or maincrop. Look for varieties of ‘first early’ potatoes, which are the quickest growing of the lot. These can be ready as soon as 10 to 12 weeks after planting.
The secret behind exactly when to start them off lies in the timing of your last expected frost date. You can find out recommended outdoor planting dates for your area by using our Garden Planner – just add the Early Potato icon to your plan and click on the Plant List button to view the recommended planting dates for your location. Using this feature shows that outdoor planting in my part of central England begins in early April, with the first tubers lifted in July. That’s reasonably early, but not early enough! So how can we cheat the seasons and get our spuds sooner?
Chitting Potatoes for an Earlier Crop
In many regions potatoes are sold as ‘seed potatoes’ which first need chitting – or sprouting – to encourage a head start. Chitting can begin as soon as you can find seed potatoes in the shops, so as a first task go out and buy your potatoes…right now!
To chit, place them into old egg cartons or similar containers, blunt end facing up. Keep them on a cool, bright windowsill. This is important because you want thick, sturdy shoots to emerge, not the weak and spindly ones that sometimes occur when there’s not enough light and/or the temperature is artificially high. Ideally you want the shoots to be at least 1cm (0.5in) long by the time you plant them, though it isn’t the end of the world if they’re not – aiming for thick, sturdy shoots is more important.
Growing Early Potatoes in Pots
The earliest ‘new’ potatoes found in the grocery store are usually grown on sun-facing slopes in mild climates. In Britain this means the (relatively!) sun-kissed fields of Cornwall and Jersey, both flanked by warming seas and blessed with rich, chocolatey soils.
For an early crop you want to mimic, as best you can, these sorts of conditions. This means growing them in containers in a protected, suntrap spot or, ideally, inside a greenhouse or polytunnel. These conditions will warm the potting soil the potatoes are growing in and substantially speed up their rate of growth. You can find out the best spacing for container-grown seed potatoes, and other tips for growing them in our article How to Successfully Grow Potatoes in Containers.
Add a greenhouse or polytunnel to your plan in the Garden Planner and then add your early potatoes 'inside' the structure - this will automatically extend the sowing, planting and harvesting dates for the potatoes so you know exactly when to start them off. If you're not using a season-extending structure, just edit the recommended dates as shown in the Adding Plants and Varieties video.
Your extra-early potatoes will need regular watering (one of the biggest mistakes is to let the potting compost dry out) and, once they’re producing lots of foliage, an occasional liquid feed for good measure. If you’re able to move the containers you could pop them outside when the weather warms up, though as long as conditions don’t get intolerably hot you may as well leave the potatoes growing where they are.
Protecting Potatoes from Late Frosts
If you can guarantee a frost-free environment, there’s no reason you can’t grow your earliest potatoes at least one month ahead of those growing outside. In my garden that means planting them at the beginning of March.
Keeping the stems and foliage (called ‘haulms’) safe from frost is the crucial bit if you don’t want to see your hard work undone. A few layers of horticultural fleece or plastic on a cold night will keep a light frost at bay and avoid a check to growth. If you’re able to lift the pots, consider placing some mats or newspaper inside a garage or shed and lifting your containers under cover for the night. Whatever it takes to keep Jack Frost away!
With any luck you will be able to enjoy your first golden spuds as soon as early summer or even late spring, perhaps served up with some sweet baby carrots and a scattering of tender broad beans. Delicious moments like these, dear friends, are what growing your own is all about.