TIps on Prize Winning Potatoes
1st Aug 2002
The show scene is imminent now and we should all be dreaming about those red cards that we hope to be winning. If you planted potatoes during April to early May, then varieties such as Winston should already have been harvested as they need only 11 to 12 weeks to achieve good size. More importantly though, if they have been grown well and given plenty of water when the tubers were developing, they should have a very smooth skin finish. Most potatoes today, grown for exhibition, are usually in polybags or polythene pots and the term harvesting in the first sense is to lift these bags from their trenches and store them.
There is no doubt that in the days when the potatoes were grown in trenches lined with straw and manure, it was vitally important to remove the haulms when you were sure that you had the potatoes in the right condition. This is true for bags as well and before removing either the haulms or the bags from the trenches, you need to satisfy yourself that you are likely to remove potatoes of the correct size. To do this you need to empty one bag, somewhere from the middle of the row, and if growing in trenches, you need to have a good feel around into the straw and compost.
Removing the haulms used to be looked open as paramount in order to get the fresh young skin of the potato to set hard so that you could eventually wash it clean with a soft sponge. If you have tried to wash a potato clean with a sponge when they have been harvested straight from the compost, it can be very difficult as the skin comes away very easy. Brython Stenner, who grew some marvellous potatoes in his time, always used to advocate the removal of the haulms with a sharp knife approximately 7 days prior to lifting.
The vibes that I am getting at the moment is that the top potato growers, who grow in polythene bags, no longer remove the haulms from the plants. They lift the bags from the trenches, together with the haulms and taking them under cover so that they can dry out with no risk of any rain getting at them. Another way is to position the bags on a clear area of ground and cover them over with some tarpaulin. It seems to me that these growers are getting even better size and better quality potatoes by leaving the haulms on to die back naturally.
Whichever system you use there will come a time when you need to select all your potatoes and this can be done just before your first show. Before this however I would like to suggest one thing to every grower, make sure that you have trimmed back your finger nails. Long sharp finger nails are the last thing you want when handling show vegetables with the smallest scratch rendering a good potato or carrot useless. Never forget that long finger nails may be fine for picking things up with but definitely not for picking potatoes.
Empty out all the bags and grade them roughly into, showable size and shape, the ones that are misshapen or too small, and the ones that are far too big. When you have done this you can then scrutinise each potato carefully once more and try and match them for different dishes. This will depend on the classes that you are entering and obviously the best potatoes will be kept for the most prestigious show that you intend to have a go at. If the schedule for a particular show asks for a dish of 4 tuber tubers you must store at least six just in case you have missed the odd mark or damage.
Storing is done in a number of ways depending on what facilities you have available, in the past I have used some old drawers, deep plastic trays, mushroom trays as well as plastic buckets. Make a layer in the bottom of each container with the same medium as they were growing in which will of course by then be dry, the potatoes are then bedded down in this material and covered over with the same compost. It is now very important to label each container so that you know exactly what the variety is, how many there are, as well as which show you intend to take them to.
I usually store my boxes in the shed or garage and cover each one over with black and white polythene, white side up to keep them cool, as well as keeping them absolutely in the dark. I have stored them in my polytunnel as well when room has been scarce but always cover them over with the black and white polythene.
Washing and Boxing
Only a few years ago we used to remove the potatoes from their containers the evening before the show and wash them in some tepid water with a drop or two of washing up liquid. These would then be dried with soft tissue paper and then wrapped up in some more soft tissue and boxed up ready to take them to the show. This certainly works as I remember Norman Hoskins giving me a biscuit tin, that had been sealed up, containing two dishes of potatoes, one white and one coloured. He gave them to me a week prior to the National Championships to stage for him as he couldn't get there, and when they were staged they looked nice and clean and duly one the class.
The point however now is, that to win at the very highest level with top quality potatoes, you need to wash them just prior to the show. Indeed I know of some who wash them at the actual show and Bill Hughes will make sure, if the show is far from home, that he can make use of washing facilities at his B&B in order to have his dishes in pristine condition.