Kick-starting the growing year

Our ‘Guernsey Gardener in London’, Paul Savident, ponders on the planting of seed potatoes...

FOR me, March is the month that really kick-starts my growing year. While we already have garlic, onions, broad beans and overwintering brassicas in the ground and growing well, this month is the one where our planting of seed potatoes begins, and if the weather is warm enough carrot and parsnip seed packets will be to hand, waiting for just the right sunny day.

Throughout most years of dad growing at Martyndale in St Peter’s and Le Pignon in Castel, he earnestly followed the traditional way of planting and growing potatoes. When seed potatoes arrived, usually around early to mid-February, dad would place them in used tomato trays in the greenhouse, nestled in newspaper so they didn’t touch each other; at Martyndale they were placed by the window in the garage as this was sheltered though got good sun. Tucked in their trays they’d get the light they needed, though not the cold they didn’t. Slowly, over the next six weeks or so, chits would form… dark and green and strong.

A day or two before planting, dad and I would make straight furrows with our spades – heaving up soil on each side of a line of pegged twine. Nights in Guernsey were rarely cold enough to warrant covering the furrows, though in London an unexpected frost can take hold and chill the ground down an inch or two, making it necessary to fleece if the growing area is prepped in advance.

On an afternoon off or between dad’s shift work at the White Rock, he and I would walk the furrows, placing the warm-to-the-touch seed potatoes regularly along the base, about two feet apart (we had the luxury of a large growing space), rubbing the weaker chits off with our thumbs as we went. With a full row done, the bottom of each furrow would be covered with some of the heaped soil, fully burying the seed potatoes… then on to the next row, systematically following the routine. Over the coming weeks and months, the heaped sides of the furrows would be turned back over to cover the growing tips of the potatoes – as it’s from the stem above the seed potato that most of your harvest will come.

At some point in the month, potentially even February if the weather was right, we’d spend an afternoon at Le Coudre, uncle’s house at the crossing of Rue du Bordage, Rue des Clercs and Rue du Coudre in St Peter’s. Uncle’s huge field (or at least it looked huge to me as a young boy) seemed to be a mainstay of potatoes for a good many of the local community. On this afternoon, many of his neighbours would appear, and the planting of seed potatoes would begin.

Seemingly endless hessian sacks stuffed with seed potatoes would be lugged across the field, already scarred with the trenches into which the potatoes would go… trenches that had been top-dressed with nutrient-dense seaweed a month or so before. As the hours wore on, row by row the field would be planted – quiet conversations going on between grouped individuals, laughter as a joke was told then loudly re-shared to all with heartier laughter following, the sounds of spades against soil, and the sweaty sight of brows being mopped by bare-armed workers if the sun was particularly strong, as it so often can be in March. Every now and again, auntie would come up to the field with a tray or two of tea, while around and about hipflasks would be hoisted with something stronger to quench the thirst.

Pleinmont was always a favourite walk for the family and around this time of year the fields of the headland and those nearby were used largely for growing potatoes. Regimented furrows were everywhere, gliding across and through every field. As the summer wore on the potatoes would grow ready for their heavy crops to be harvested as the evenings really began to draw in. The farmer would employ a host of casual labour, with messages of paid work and pin money being spread by word-of-mouth rather than social media – one of the casual labourers would be my mum, with payment added to her bottom drawer for use when times were tight. If dad was free, then he would be there as well… with his money still ending up in mum’s bottom drawer.

In the late ’80s, while working at St James, I organised an exhibition of the work of the fabulous local photographer Fiona Adams, better known by many as Fiona Le Tissier. Sadly, she is no longer with us. For many the highlight of the exhibition was her most famous shot, that of the cover of the Beatles ‘Twist & Shout’ EP, though for me the photo that hit home was of the disciplined ridges of a field of recently planted potatoes at Torteval. This single photo, which hangs in our dining room to this day, says so much of Guernsey at a particular period, and of the people who lived in those times of such manual labour.

Thankfully, my own planting of potatoes is nowhere near as arduous. Once we’d moved to Basmarie at Grandes Rocques, dad changed the way of growing potatoes. It was out of necessity rather than desire as the space to grow vegetables was so very limited. Instead of furrows dad would simply plant them in a deep bucket and top them up as they grew, or in the greenhouse he’d dig a single hole for a single seed potato – results were the same.

I plant our potatoes in a raised bed and do the same for our carrots and parsnips too. In fact, these crops are intertwined as we have two raised beds; one year one will be planted with potatoes and the other sown with carrots and parsnips – we rotate the beds year-on-year.

It seems to have become tradition for many home growers and allotmenteers to follow the guidance of centuries of Irish potato farmers and plant seed potatoes on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March. Though I do not religiously do this I try and stick as close to this date as possible, so this year I planted our seed potatoes on 19 March, following a return from a lovely break in Wales.

Like last, we are growing Colleen potatoes this year – and I didn’t know until recently this variety originates from Ireland. It’s an early type that holds well in the ground until needed – it’s quite waxy so serves well as a salad potato while also being a good all-rounder as a baked potato or as oven chips. It was our first year growing them last year, and they have already made themselves a favourite at our plot and on our plate.

When planting, I do what dad did in his last years of growing potatoes. With my trowel, I dig a narrow hole in the raised bed, about 10 inches deep, and place the seed potato at the bottom, turning the soil back in and firming down. I always place out the seed potatoes first on the surface of the compost to space them, and when all are planted, I rake the compost smooth and top-dress with organic chicken manure pellets. A really good watering then begins to break down the pellets so that their nutrients can enrich all below.

In three months, I hope to be harvesting tasty, waxy early potatoes which we’ll simply steam, with any leftovers being popped in the fridge when cool to make into potato salad or use in an omelette. That first tasting of early potatoes is always something to savour. And as we sit down in our dining room to eat, with butter dripping off the forked spud, I look up at Fiona’s photo of the regular ridged rows of potatoes in a Guernsey field and am thankful I don’t need to do all the hard work that once needed to be done.

  • Paul Savident and his partner Richard Leighton-Hammond live in Hanwell in west London. As YouTubers they produce two weekly shows, Sunday Chat and A Week at the Plot. www.richardandpaul.com.

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