I was buttonholed by a gardening neighbour recently. He had read my recommendation of the old potato variety Sharpe’s Express. His first query related to my having referred to it as an “early variety”. I suppose it is fairly late as early varieties go, but what puzzled my friend even more was that I said it will remain in the ground, or in storage after lifting, something he imagined was only true of a maincrop variety.
He was wrong in his assumption, but correct in his assessment of Sharpe’s Express, which I find keeps longer than most earlies – we were eating the variety from store until just before Christmas.
Despite what is imagined, there is nothing magical about the difference between an early and a maincrop variety of anything, be it potatoes, peas or other vegetables. It is ultimately down to differences in growth rate and relative hardiness. The ability to grow quickly is an essential feature of an early variety and this is reflected in the names many of these varieties bear – “Express” is one, of course, but words such as “Foremost”, “Pilot” and “Rocket” among potatoes, and “First”, “Ambassador”, “Pioneer” and “Onward” among peas all reflect rapidity or being at the front.
With potatoes, the principle is that an early variety requires about 12 weeks from planting to first cropping, whereas a maincrop requires 20 or 22. This tends to hold even in very mild areas where the actual planting dates are advanced. In Warwickshire, I plant earlies around the Ides of March, but in the far south-west, February is the planting month. The maincrop is always planted later – in my garden, not before mid-April – but this is not simply to spread the season as far as possible; it is also because they are slightly less hardy and thus not equipped to perform in cold soil.
With some plants – peas most notably – you can tell the difference in hardiness simply by looking at the seeds. Some pea seeds, when dry, are rounded, whereas others are wrinkled. Those varieties with round seeds are hardier; wrinkled seed types should not be sown before April. To some extent, a comparable tendency exists in broad beans too, although here the round-seeded varieties are rather less hardy and are slower growing than kidney-shaped seed types.
But peas and broad beans highlight another facet of the difference between maincrop and early varieties, and suggest why I think “quick-growing” and “slow-growing” are actually better terms: some of the hardier, faster-growing varieties may just as usefully be sown not at the very beginning of the season, but at the very end. Their rapidity of growth can mean an extra crop is squeezed in before the temperature becomes too cold. And their hardiness might mean that seeds can be sown in the autumn to germinate quickly, while the young plants survive until the spring. In this way, there’s scope for a real head-start to be enjoyed and an even earlier crop to be obtained.
But back to potatoes, because this is the time to be buying, or – under lockdown – ordering online. Allow me to expand upon my Sharpe’s Express recommendation with the rest of my early varieties list: the floury but exquisite Red Duke of York, International Kidney (aka Jersey Royal) and Nicola. And for maincrops, try King Edward, Désirée, Setanta and Pink Fir Apple – that knobbly old thing with wonderful flavour.
Next week: John Burnside on nature
This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost