Monday, April 11, 2011

Potato planting, Lazy Beds and 100 posts!

According to my blog control panel thingy,
this is post 100!!

This is a blog after all about an Irish Kitchen Garden, so I think there is one particular vegetable that is associated with us as a nation - the potato.

Before writing about growing them, I want to touch on the potato in Irish history.

On April 2nd 2011 with many other descendants I attended a commemoration for the 100th anniversary of the 1911 census. The commemoration took place in Shannadonnell.
It was at the house of my Great Great Grandfather, Tom Joyce, who lived through the famine.
The homestead consists of a few ruins, and in the surrounding gardens you can see the old traces of lazybeds.
At the commemoration a poem. Peace by Patrick Kavanagh, was read out, and bought to mind a couplet in another poem.
The Wayfarer by Padraig Pierce, his last poem, written on the eve of his execution in Easter 1916.
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown,
And soon would reap; near to the gates of heaven;
This refers to the potato ridges, the remains of which can still be seen, that reach up into the hills of Connemara. My father always felt it was a specific reference to Shannadonnel which is by mountain track close to Rosmuc, where Pierce had a cottage.

It makes one think - has a nation ever been so blighted or shaped by a single crop?
And that one hundred years, one week and two days later, I am sitting in Connemara filling out a new census form for a new Government, and planting potato's in the same way as Tom would have done.

As a nation, when Tom was a young man, we faced our darkest days from the summer of 1845. The Irish potato famine was not simply a natural disaster. It was a product of social causes that still had resonance in 1916, as it does today.
Like the current financial crisis, when the right conditions arose, despite clear warnings, a weak and distant government failed to deal with the problem in a realistic way, believing their own hubris.
Between 1801 and 1845 there had been 114 commissions and 61 special committees dealing with Ireland who - without exception -  prophesied disaster.
Like today the root cause of the disaster was the failure by the political caste and the reluctance to admit and fix the problems of Laissaiz-Faire, the prototype of modern market economics, which at the time was regarded as the only viable economic system.
The inadequacy of relief efforts by the government worsened the horrors of the potato famine.

Initially, the Government believed (as they do today) that the free market would end the problem.
In 1846, in a victory for advocates of free trade, Britain repealed the Corn Laws, which protected domestic grain producers from foreign competition. The repeal of the Corn Laws failed to end the crisis as the Irish lacked sufficient money to purchase foreign grain.

About half of Ireland's population depended on potatoes for subsistence. The result of this was The Great famine, the most severe in the history of European agriculture, from 1845-1848.

Irish peasants subsisted on a diet consisting largely of potatoes.
A "blight of unusual character" devastated Ireland's potato crop, the basic staple in the Irish diet. After potatoes were dug from the ground, they began to turn into a slimy, decaying, blackish "mass of rottenness."
"Famine fever"--cholera, dysentery, scurvy, typhus, and infestations of lice soon spread through the Irish countryside. Observers reported seeing children crying with pain and looking "like skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that there was little left but bones." Masses of bodies were buried without coffins, a few inches below the soil.
Over the next ten years, about a million died from disease and starvation, another 2 million left for Britain, Canada, and the United States. Within five years, the Irish population was reduced by 25%.
The 45/48 famine was known as the great famine, or An Gort Mhor. The failure of one commodity, the primary food crop, led to starvation and disease.
Other commodity crops such as grain were exported in large quantities to service debts due to absent politician's - a tiny percentage of the population.
We see the same thing today where our tax's are spent to bail out the bank's and speculators.

A hundred years before, in 1740/1741, there was another famine – the Year of the Slaughter.
10% of the Irish population are estimated to have died.
However – the government at the time took pragmatic action, docks were closed and food exports reduced and curtailed to alleviate the famine and a greater disaster than might have been was averted.
The 1740/41 famine, for example, did not result in the mass death and emigration of the 1848 famine.
So we have already seen when the accepted economic model collapses due to reluctance to change from ill-advised economic concepts and political distance, then people on this Island suffer shortage's and emigration - Tout ca change tout c'est la meme chose - Despite the last election, the current Government still pursues the failed policies of the last lot - Ave! Duci novo, similis duci seneci 

Anyway, on with the guide on how to grow potato's the traditional way - using lazybeds.
These are the traditional way of growing potato's, giving the advantage of providing more heat and drainage to the crop, First thing is seed potato's, and best advice is always to buy certified seed.
You can get these in any decent garden centre.
If you are developing a garden or keeping unusual varieties as I am, you can also save your own seed.
You can also take a chance and use potato's that have run to seed, but these may be more susceptible or even carry blight spores.

Now, if you are starting out, you can put the seed into the ground, it will grow, but there are two simple way's  to improve yield - Chitting and Splitting (say that fast after a few pints)

To ensure a good crop you should ‘chit’ your potatoes before planting them. This simply means getting them to produce nice little sprouts – just like they do when you’ve kept them in the cupboard for too long.
Chitting potatoes is rally good for producing good crops of early varieties and can also make a difference to maincrop harvests.
Set your seed potatoes out in egg boxes or trays with the ‘rose end’ facing up. (The rose end is the end with the most ‘eyes’ in it.) Place them in a light, frost-free room – the greenhouse or spare room is fine – and leave them be for a few weeks. It takes about four to six weeks for potatoes to sprout shoots, by which time you’ll be ready to plant them out.

You can increase your seed stock by cutting them carefully. If the seed potatoes are small to medium sized, plant the whole potato.
If they are large sized, you can cut them in half, or quarter them. Each section should have two or three 'growth eyes'.
Top left, Axona - certified seed.
Bottom left, Mr. Littles Yetholm Gypsy - home saved seed.
Bottom right, Orla - certified seed.
Top right, Mona Lisa - shop rejects.

Cutting seed should be done in a warm room. After cutting, leave the cut sets for at least one night to let the cut surface dries and forms a callus before planting them out.

I hope all readers do not have the same problems as I do. The ground which I am planting has not been cultivated for 30 years, and that needs a lot of reclaiming.
Even if you have only grass on a plot it is well worth giving it a close cut or strim before starting on the lazybed.
The first thing I had to do was clear the ground of rushes and briar's. Then it was draining. Gardening in Connemara can be very tough, especially when opening up new ground.
The soil is poor and waterlogged. This was partially caused when Galway coco 'improved' the road and managed to block loads of old gluts along the road.
This was quite a bit of work, but with the chillington hoe, a spade and a drag, I got through it and ended up feeling positively Dutch! Once the drain was in, I went over the ground again, clearing briar and rush.
Connemara canal!!

The drain was further extended to provide better water flow.
Once you have the ground cleared/strimmed/mowed it is time to set up the beds.

The beds I grow are 3 feet wide as is traditional. Normally the gap between ridges is 1 foot, but I go for 18 inches. So, using lines you lay out the bed.
Next is the base, this suppresses weeds beneath the spuds and provides nutrients.
I use a mix of seaweed and farmyard manure, but compost or pelleted chicken manure can also be used.
Lay out the fertilizer as evenly as possible along the planned lazy beds.

If, like me this year, you are laying out beds on virgin grassland, I would urge you to apply supernemo's to the area. This is because you will have a lot of wireworms, cutworm's and other pests in the ground that will devastate a crop.
I know from experience that last year, on virgin grassland, the potato beds treated with supernemo did very well. The Kerr Pinks sown in a different bed and not treated were destroyed and I did not find nemasys at all as effective as supernemo.

If you are in a wet area, it is also well worth treating the area with nemaslug. Snails will burrow into potato's and destroy them as well.

It is best to leave the manure or seaweed on the ground for a few days before setting the seeds.
The next step is laying out the seed. With the three foot lazy bed system, it is basically a 1 foot/30cm elongated grid. The seed potato's are layed out 1 foot/30cm apart.
Starting from the edge inwards it is 6 - 8 inches in to the first set, then 1 foot to the second, one foot to the third and 6 - 8 inches to the other side of the lazy bed.
Along the length of the lazy bed, the next row is 1 foot along.
lazybed potato spacing
The next step is, using a spade or chillington hoe, cut into the soil along the edge of the lazybed. Then move your line out to the other side of the drainage channel. I use a gap of 18 inches/45cm, but traditionally it was 12 inches/30cm.
Cut along this line as well, and turn in the sod, breaking it up gently and covering the tubers. Trim and whack in the sides as best you can to give the lazybed shape and form.
Cut out and lift in sod, break up.
Repeat on other side of ridge
cover up and tidy the sides

Repeat the process
You will have spare space at the end of the bed to grow something else. My Dad would stick cabbages at the end of each lazy bed.
From my research, it seems that horseradish is a good companion plant for potato, so I will propagate my plant in the ridges this year. So, here are 3 of 5 planned ridges.
And this was what it was like before.
So, even without rotavators and powertools, you can create even from the roughest ground a space for food.

Some might ask why go to the bother when good spuds are cheap and available, especially if space is limited - and it is a valid question.
My answer is threefold.
Firstly, I like to grow my own, and new spuds straight from the ground are delicious.

Secondly, I feel it is important to keep heritage varieties going, so I have taken on board Mr Littles Yetholm Gypsy's. Mine are possibly the only seedbank of the type in Ireland.
It's not just the name that I liked, it's a bit of history. The type comes from the Border Village of Yetholm in Scotland. It was the Gypsy capital of the borders. Local farmers - the Little Brothers - developed it.
It is unusual because it is the only potato to show red, white and blue skin. A boiling potato, the flavour is a mealy and quite delicious.

Thirdly, for me, it gives me a rewarding way of opening up new ground. Rather than just drain and turn the soil for its resulting field of mud, this way I open up the ground, clear it, drain it and have a reward at the end.
Part of my local rights is being able to collect beach sand to mold the potato's later in the year.
This will also improve the condition of the soil after the crop is harvested, and with relatively little more work, the space will be developed into bed's next year as part of a crop rotation program.

Anyway, if you found the blog of use I welcome any comments you might have - please feel free to do so.

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  1. Congrats on 100 Simon! Will have a read later ;)

  2. Thank you for the detailed drawings and instructions on foming the lazy beds. I thought I remembered how they went, but just wanted to check before going out a hacking into the Leitrim sod...well, stoney sod, to be exact! Your details are very helpful and practical, so here goes...

    Our soil is lighter than yours in Connemara, as we are high up and like I say really stony. I imagine it was just backbreaking for you turning your beds as it looks incredibly soggy and heavy. Mind you, your yield is probably higher than here too.

    Anyhow, thankyou!

  3. Thanks for sharing, I will bookmark and be back again

    Kitchen Garden

  4. Excellent article which has been most informative and useful. I think this technique may be of value in my part of upland rural Lancashire. Thankyou very much.

  5. the potato famine was a peasants famine ? was there not plenty of food in Ireland ..?

    1. Yes there was other food but the other crops e.g. corn went in rent to the Landlords. Much of it was exported. People who had money were able to buy food.

  6. This is highly informatics, crisp and clear. I think that everything has been described in systematic manner so that reader could get maximum information and learn many things.
    most popular beds


Thanks for commenting - its cool that you took the time