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Everything you ever wanted to know about potatoes

Seed potatoes - Jazzy 1KG from Suttons

The humble spud is a firm favourite in vegetable patches around the UK. Grown in shades of blue, red, pink, purple and cream and available in a whole range of shapes and sizes — there’s more to choosing the right seed potato than you might imagine! This nutritious and versatile crop satisfies cravings for everything from potato salad to creamy mash and extra crispy roasties. Here are the answers to some of the most common questions about potatoes, along with a few facts that may surprise you! 

What is a potato?

Potato ‘Arran Pilot’ from Suttons
A potato is a tuber produced underground by the roots
Image: Potato ‘Arran Pilot’ from Suttons

A potato is a tuberous underground storage unit used by the potato plant (Solanum tuberosum) to collect and store energy in the form of starch. The potato plant is a member of the Solanaceae family, which also includes aubergines, tomatoes and chillies. Potatoes are native to South America, where over 3000 native varieties grow in the wild. Internationally, around 50 varieties are commercially grown to produce a crop that is one of the world’s most important sources of carbohydrate.

How do you grow potatoes at home?

Potato growing bags from Suttons
Potatoes grow well in bags on the patio making them a good crop for smaller gardens
Image: Potato growing bags from Suttons

You can grow potatoes in containers or the ground. Simply plant your chosen varieties of seed potatoes, water them well through the growing season and watch them thrive. It’s important to start with disease-free seed potatoes from a specialist supplier. These have been specially produced to grow a genetic copy of the mother plant, ensuring you get the variety you want. 

If you’re growing your potatoes in the ground, they like a sunny spot and fertile, loamy soil. Earth up your plants as they develop, keeping them well covered with soil. For detailed, step-by-step advice, our guide to growing potatoes takes you through everything from chitting to storing your crop.

And if you prefer to grow your potatoes in containers, use a large heavy bottomed pot or a special potato bag filled with a good quality multi-purpose compost.

What’s the difference between first and second early potatoes?

Potato ‘Lady Christl’ from Suttons
‘New’ potatoes have thin loose skins that can be removed before cooking
Image: Potato ‘Lady Christl’ from Suttons

First early potatoes are planted in March and ready to harvest within 10 weeks of planting. They’ll provide you with a good crop of smaller ‘new’ style potatoes. 

Second early seed potatoes are planted in March or April, and can be harvested a few weeks after the first early varieties. Second earlies produce small ‘new’ potatoes, or, if left to grow for a bit longer, larger tubers that can be boiled, mashed, baked, roasted or fried. 

What is a new potato?

Potato ‘Accord’ from Suttons
New potatoes are best boiled whole and served with a knob of butter and fresh herbs
Image: Potato ‘Accord’ from Suttons

A ‘new’ potato isn’t a specific variety; it’s an immature tuber harvested early in the year. Traditionally lifted in June, ‘first early potatoes’ or salad type varieties are most often used. 

‘New’ potatoes are small and have loose skins that can easily be rubbed off. They generally have a lower starch content than more mature maincrop harvests, so have a sweeter flavour. Perfect for boiling and eating whole, they’re traditionally served with butter and mint. For exceptional flavour, try ‘Pentland Javelin’ and ‘Arran Pilot’, and if you’re looking for more inspiration, see our list of the best new potatoes to grow at home. 

What are second cropping or Christmas potatoes?

Potato ‘Nicola’ from Suttons
Plant late season potatoes in summer for homegrown Christmas roasties
Image: Potato ‘Nicola’ from Suttons

Second cropping potatoes are planted at the end of summer to provide fresh potatoes in time for Christmas. Growing your late cropping potatoes in potato bags makes it easier to move them indoors if temperatures drop below zero in winter. The varieties ‘Nicola’ and ‘Charlotte’ are both reliable choices. 

What is a waxy potato?

A waxy potato has a high water content and smooth, dense flesh which holds its shape well during cooking, making it particularly good for salads. ‘Waxy’ is used as a grading word to describe the potato’s flesh and help people find a variety that best suits their requirements. Charlotte and Maris Peer are some of the most popular examples of waxy potatoes.

What is a floury potato?

A floury potato has a low water content and looser flesh that doesn’t hold together during cooking. Floury potatoes produce the best fluffy roasties and are perfect for smooth mash. Maris Piper, Rooster and King Edward are excellent examples.

What’s the difference between sweet potatoes and regular potatoes?

Sweet potato ‘Beauregard’ from Suttons
Sweet potatoes can be grown in the ground or containers
Image: Sweet potato ‘Beauregard’ from Suttons

Sweet potatoes and potatoes share a similar name, but they’re not actually closely related at all! Here are some of the main differences:

  • Sweet potatoes belong to the genus Ipomoea, like morning glory. Potatoes belong to the genus Solanum, along with tomatoes.
  • Sweet potatoes grow like a vine, and climb or ramble along the ground up to 1.5m from the planting spot. Potatoes produce upright top growth that remains fairly compact during the growing season.
  • Sweet potatoes have a thicker texture and sweeter flavour than regular potatoes.
  • The leaves and stems of sweet potato are edible, best treated like spinach. Potato foliage shouldn’t be eaten.

Why can’t you eat green potatoes?

Green potatoes contain high levels of solanine which is poisonous when eaten. This is why it’s important to earth up your potato plants as they grow to keep the tubers well covered. Potatoes turn green with exposure to sunlight, so keep them out of direct light and your crop will be fine. 

Fun potato facts

Potato ‘Apache’ from Suttons
Potatoes come in a huge range of shapes and colours
Image: Potato ‘Apache’ from Suttons

Here are some quick facts that you may not know about potatoes:

  • A portion of new potatoes contains more Vitamin C than an apple
  • There’s more fibre in a jacket potato than a bowl of bran flakes
  • Watering your crop regularly helps produce much bigger spuds
  • Not only are potatoes healthy to eat, growing them provides excellent exercise! Earthing up, digging in manure, planting and watering all keep you on your toes. 
  • Potatoes produce beautiful flowers that contain potato seeds! The seedlings will not be true to the parent plant, but they’re fun to try to germinate and may result in something interesting.

Potatoes are easy to grow and full of nutrition. Remember to keep us up to date with your potato harvest! We love to see your photos. 

Lead image: Seed Potatoes – Jazzy 1kg from Suttons

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