North East gardeners hail the potato

PUBLISHED: 14:12 22 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:37 20 February 2013

Alan Romans with a tray of his vegetable seeds

Alan Romans with a tray of his vegetable seeds

Although introduced in the late 16th Century, historians have dispelled the myth that the potato was brought home by Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, <br/>as Linda Viney reports

The potato, a starchy tuberous crop from the Solanum of the nightshade family, has been on the staple diet of Europe since the 18th century when a cheap, non grain food was required.
It could easily be grown on the agricultural land surrounding most towns. Potatoes could be stored without expensive processing and cooked quickly and cheaply.

Although introduced in the late 16th Century historians have dispelled the stories that it was introduced by Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, as it would never have survived the long round the world voyage undertaken by the explorers.

The showing of potatoes started in Victorian times and it is believed the first produce ever to be shown by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) were potatoes.

All over the country Potato Days are held and the North East is no exception. The Durham Organic Gardeners Association, who hold regular meetings promoting organic gardening, are holding two days, the first on January 30th at Bowburn Community Centre, near Durham, 10am until sold out, and the following day, at Natures World, Middlesbrough, again 10 am until sold out.

The main elements to the day give people the opportunity to buy heritage varieties of seed potato so you can grow your own. You will be able to get advice from the experts on growing potatoes so whether you have a large garden or small backyard.

And if youve tried growing your own, youll know nothing tastes better than a freshly harvested spud.

With a choice of varieties to suit all tastes the first thing to do before planting is they need chitting. This is the process which allows strong green shoots (chits) to develop on the seed potato before planting.

Dormant or just sprouted tubers are set up in trays with the sprout end up (egg boxes are ideal). Placed in a frost free place - either greenhouse or windowsill - this gives the potato a quicker start. They can then be planted in a well dug soil adding organic matter. Once the first flower appears tubers are forming and then you can harvest and enjoy the crop.

Another popular event celebrated in February are Snowdrop Days when gardens open giving the opportunity to see these special delicate flowers which herald the start of spring.
Snowdrops are regarded as a sign of purity and are also called February Fairmaids, Dingle Dangle, Marys Taper and Candlemas Bells.

They are also an early valuable source of nectar for the humble bumble bee.
It has been known that well over 100 has been paid for a single bulb - probably not quite reaching the tulip mania of its time but who knows. The fanatics will often be seen bent double with magnifying glass peering down to these delicate flowers, whooping with delight if they are lucky enough to discover a rare specimen.

There are varying ideas whether snowdrops should be planted as bulbs or in the green i.e. just after flowering while still in leaf, whichever the best way to create a white carpet is to divide large clumps into just five or six bulbs without damaging the roots and replant immediately. They are hardy and once established will give pleasure for many years to come.

How many New Year resolutions did you make and not keep? Well this month really think about taking care of the environment by growing organically and recycling what you can in the garden. Plan the garden and make sure there is plenty to see in the winter.

The bark of trees come into their own and shrubs like the Sarcococca confusa will be covered in fragrant flowers by mid to late February.

What lovelier flower than the shy hellebore with its nodding flower just begging to be lifted up, showing off its beauty. Whether a novice or long standing gardener do ask an expert for advice and follow, they will listen to you - understanding and communication is vital. After all no-one is too old to learn.

If you love a particular plant or shrub and find it is too big for your space a good nurseryman will be pleased to advise on alternatives.

Tips for February

If you haven't been able to brave the weather so far, it is time to get the pruning out of the way before birds start looking for their nesting sites.

Overgrown deciduous trees and shrubs, as well as those looking out of shape should be tackled now. It will also improve their health.

Buying compost in bulk can save a lot of money so why not get together with neighbours and share. Peat substitutes which will benefit the environment are becoming increasingly available.

Dispose of any old chemical garden aids safely by taking them to you local authority waste disposal site. Old ones can do more damage than good.

To cheer a gloomy day, start planning what you are going to have in your containers this year. It is purely a matter of choice whether you go for delicate pastels or bright vibrant colours. Look in the catalogues, which are brim full of great ideas.

On a fine day, start preparing seed beds and cover them with cloches which will keep the worst of the weather off and start warming the soil.

There are many now readily available in the garden centres and nurseries.

If you have left the seed heads and stems of the perennials for winter interest you can start tidying these later in the month, allowing the new growth to appear without damaging it later.

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