Grow your own

One potato, two potato, three potato four...

Potatoes are the world's fourth most important food crop (after rice, wheat and maize), providing a vital carbohydrate source throughout the temperate regions. Potatoes were originally introduced to Europe from central America by Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century, but potatoes were not grown in England until Sir Francis Drake brought a clutch of potatoes back in 1563. It took two centuries before potatoes were widely grown as a food crop.

...five potato, six potato, seven potato more.

Ireland's rich soil and high rainfall meant they got the biggest crops of potatoes and potatoes became the staple food. All the potato crops were virtually identical genetically because the potatoes had been vegetatively propagated over the generations from the same original handful of potato tubers. This meant all the potato crops were vulnerable to the same potato pests and diseases. In the 1840s a series of potato crops were completely wiped out by potato blight disease, resulting in a widespread potato famine.

Choosing potatoes

Modern potatoes are broadly grouped according to when they are harvested. The three main groups are 'first early', 'second early' and 'maincrop'. Just to confuse matters, the earliest 'first early' potato varieties are often labelled as 'ultra-early' or 'extra-early'. The 'first early' potato varieties are planted in March, grow rapidly and produce moderate crops of small potatoes in June or July before potato blight can take hold. The 'second early' potatoes are planted about a month later and lifted in July or August, producing larger harvests. 'Maincrop' potatoes produce the biggest crops, but take the longest to grow. They are planted in April, ready for lifting in August for immediate consumption, or can be left until September or October before they are lifted for winter storage. 'Maincrop' potatoes are the most susceptible to potato blight, however.