Jonathan Self: ‘Our early potatoes aren’t going to be that early’

Between a late start and back-breaking work, Jonathan Self tries his hand at growing the humble spud.

‘Show me your garden,’ said Alfred Austin, who made a better plantsman than he did a Poet Laureate, ‘and I shall tell you what you are.’ Actually, I know what I am: indolent. I see myself as being like Isak — the protagonist in Knut Hamsun’s 1917 Nobel Prize-winning novel Growth of the Soil — living a peaceful, simple, industrious existence close to Nature. He was a man who found that ‘the majesty of the earth and what was above the earth filled him with a deep devoutness many times a day’.

Indeed, Isak wanted nothing other than to work his land — to plant and harvest, clear and tend, hew and draw. Whereas the truth is that, although I like the idea of gardening, and enjoy it once I get started, beforehand I am inclined to procrastinate and postpone. Which is a rather convoluted way of explaining why our early potatoes aren’t going to be that early.

Local lore has it that they can be put in as soon as the first wildflowers — this year, celandines, primroses and violets — begin to appear in the woods and hedgerows. This, thanks to the Gulf Stream, occurred in mid February, meaning the initial crop would have been ready to lift towards the end of May. Nevertheless, if the weather is good, we may yet be devouring quantities of steamed new potatoes by the beginning of July.

My mouth is watering already. Ever since I discovered potatoes are a health food — offering the perfect balance of carbohydrates and proteins, as well as almost all the other nutrients one needs to survive — I have not rationed myself. The more so as A. A. Milne believed that ‘if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow’.

‘I made a bit of a hash of my chitting, so the chances are we won’t be able to tell the potatoes apart’

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I have planted three varieties: Charlotte, because they have the same name as my favourite (actually, only) daughter, and because I love their firm, yellow, waxy flesh; Duke of York, which are dry and floury; and Swift, for their buttery taste and texture. Although, as I made a bit of a hash of my chitting, forgetting to label the different egg cartons in which I had left my seed potatoes to sprout, the chances are we won’t be able to tell them apart.

You won’t be surprised to hear they have been planted in what my neighbours call ainneors, or lazy-beds. This is the first year I have tried my hand at creating a lazy-bed and it is clearly a misnomer, for they involve a great deal of backbreaking work.

Invented in these parts by canny farmers perhaps as long as 2,000 years ago, they were employed as a way of utilising shallow and infertile soils. Indeed, their ghostly remains are still to be found in exposed and mountainous regions all the way down the Atlantic coast.

I began my own by marking out the beds — about 2ft 6in by 12ft — on what passes for our lawn. I covered each bed in a thinnish layer of manure, placing the seed potatoes in a herringbone pattern, roughly a foot apart.

Next came the tricky bit. Using a fiendishly sharp spade, I cut flaps either side of the beds, folding the turf over the top (apparently, this spells death to weeds) and leaving a sort of mini-trench along the edge. Finally, I dug out more soil and sprinkled it over the turf.

You know that painting The Angelus? Originally, Millet called it Prayer for the Potato Crop. Well, when I had finished, I stood like those two peasants and prayed for my spuds.