Gardening: Play the tuber tombola

Get a gentle kick from unearthing baby potatoes, rooting around for the smoothest and roundest. Sarah Raven picks out some of the tastiest and shows you how to grow them from scratch - in egg boxes
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THERE IS a real satisfaction to growing your own potatoes. As you root around in the soil underneath the plant, you encounter lovely round forms. They're like presents in the sawdust of a tombola. You get a couple of handfuls of little eggs around the edge of the plant and a decent bowlful of big ones nearer the heart of the roots.

The ones you want to grow are the small, waxy salad potatoes, to eat whole, hot or cold. Go for a first and second early variety and a small main crop, if you have room. The earlies need less space to grow than the main crops, so they're better suited to average-sized gardens. Some tasty earlies grow well in containers. The first earlies are ready for eating in mid-July, the second earlies two to three weeks later; both should be eaten as they are harvested. The early main crops are ready a month to six weeks later.

I like to grow `Pentland Javelin', a white, waxy-fleshed first early salad potato, with a sausage-like shape. `Charlotte', one of the biggest salad potatoes with creamy, yellow flesh and a delicious earthy flavour, is an excellent second early.

For a main crop, try the old English `Pink Fir Apple', a superb, nutty- tasting potato that looks like one of those knotted animal balloons magicians make at children's parties. Disease-free stock is like gold dust this year, as last year's crop suffered badly from potato blight in the wet summer and autumn. `Belle de Fontenay' is the next best thing, an early main crop with a delicious flavour, and stores well through the winter. With this combination, you can produce salad potatoes to last six or seven months or more.

If you have room for only one potato, heritage first early `Red Duke of York' can be eaten as a small salad potato through July and August or grown to full size for storing through the winter. It is perfect for containers, as are other first earlies `Pentland Javelin' and the short, bushy, but high-yielding `Swift'.

A seed potato will sprout and produce 10 or 15 others at the tips of its roots. You can buy them at garden centres, but they may have been hanging around too long and have long sprouts. Seed suppliers such as Marshall's (01945 583407) and Mr Fothergill's (01638 552512) have a wider range of healthy, cool-stored varieties. Order 1kg (15 to 25 potatoes) rather than 3kg bags, so that you can try more varieties. Your potatoes will need "chitting" as soon as they are delivered in March and April. This means standing them up in egg boxes with the end that has the most eyes towards the light. Keep in a cool, light, frost-free place and the eyes will gradually push out chunky, pinkish shoots. If placed in too warm or too dark a position, the shoots will be long and spindly.

To plant 1kg of seed potatoes, clear a 15-20cm (6-8in) deep and 12-15ft (4-5m) long trench with a hoe, and place early potatoes 30cm (12in) apart; `Pink Fir Apple' and main crops at more like 45cm (16in). Push them in with the sprouts uppermost and cover over, heaping up the soil about 30cm (12in) above them. Your next row should be about 60cm (24in) distant. Water them well.

Shoots should appear above ground in three or four weeks. Cover these with soil until the frosts are over. When the plants are about 20-25cm (8-10in) high, use a hoe to pile the loose soil against the stems, making a flat-topped ridge about 15cm (6in) high. This allows the lower stems to produce potatoes and prevents the young potatoes near the surface turning green and poisonous in the light. "Earthing up" also helps support the plants. Water generously for half an hour once a week. This is particularly important for earlies.

Once the plants are in full flower you can harvest the crop but until the autumn, when you should dig up the lot, don't dig more than you want to eat at one time. A 1kg bag of earlies produces about 10kg, `Pink Fir Apples' and `Belle de Fontenay' a bit more.

You could also grow one variety in pots. Any large container will do. Place four or five potatoes 15-20cm (6-8in) from the bottom and 8cm (3in) apart and cover them with a peat or coir-based compost. As the shoots appear, pour in more compost to cover them up to the top of the pot and then leave the plants to bush out and flower. If you use a pot, you'll have to knock the whole lot out at once and eat them within a couple of weeks if you want them at their best. Mr Fothergill's does a plastic potato barrel with panels at the bottom which slide up, so you can pick your supper without disturbing the rest. It's not beautiful, but it is a brilliant idea.

This week

1 If you started sowing half-hardy annual seed a couple of weeks ago, some of your seedlings will have germinated and will soon be ready for pricking out. When the seedlings have two or three pairs of true leaves (which look like leaves on the mature plant), they are ready. Remove a clump of seedlings and compost from the tray and gently tease out individual plants with their roots. Handle them carefully, only touching their first pair of leaves, not the roots or stem. Place them in individual pots of compost. Firm the compost around the plant and water again

1 Christopher Lloyd's `Gardener Cook' (pounds 20, Frances Lincoln), on growing and cooking vegetables, is excellent for tips on which varieties to choose. `The New Vegetable and Herb Expert' by Dr D G Hessayon (pounds 5.99, Transworld) is good and practical, with superb pictures