Potato Dreaming

I have a fond memory, a memory I fondle like a childhood, of sowing tomato seeds in a glasshouse whilst it snowed outside. We haven’t got any toms in yet, which is a sore point I won’t pick at, but on Monday I arrived, having cycled up the River Lea against a northerly blizzard, to find Clare’s gardening class setting out potatoes to chit.

You feel slightly foolish doing it: it feels like an act of faith rather than experience: in fact it’s both.

The weather – not the occasional pretty snow, but the relentless gloom and damp, is getting me down, so let’s turn to potatoes. At one point in my life, I thought I’d never grow them again: too much of a ‘farmers’ crop’: cheap and cheerful, economically viable only if you work in fields and tractors, not with gardens and trowels. But now, with twelve acres…well, they won’t keep us in jobs, but they will vigorously break up the ground in the fresh field, and suppress opportunist weeds. So, spuds have returned, and it’s a wonderful world.

This year we have Pentland Javelin as a disease resistant first early; Milva as the second early, which has triumphed in organic taste and yield tests; and Arran Victory, an old (1918) blue-skinned late maincrop from the great Isle of Arran stable. They chit now, and soon they will look outstanding with their tall broad leaves, dainty yellow-beaked flowers, and their cool firm tubers drawn from the earth like nuggets of gold. Except for the blue ones.

There is a pleasure to be had from growing, harvesting, eating potatoes that feels almost primordial, which is deceptive given that on this island we’ve only cultivated them with any enthusiasm for the last couple of centuries or so.

There’s something very, very primordial about algae and moss though: they are the pioneers in the conversion of water and rock to soil, the very foundation of life. Truly awesome, but sometimes you want to slow down even that slow process for a bit, like when they are starting to nibble away at the 1/2 acre of glasshouse  you’ve just inherited.

My Top Tip for moss and algae removal from glasshouses is to hold out for a really miserable, chilling wet winter’s day, when the only sensible place to be is inside the glasshouse, then borrow a pressure washer and spray it around until you’re quite shivering from the ‘great outdoors’ experience. Then console yourself with the thought that what you’re doing is not so much an act of faith as one of denial: ultimately these simple organisms will take the glasshouse, ‘paving’ the way for scrubby succession. Better enjoy those potato moments while we still can.

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