Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tiny Tip: Chitting Seed Potatoes

Just for the record, few of the tiny tips I share on this blog are of my own invention, and even those have probably been figured out before by many others. I discovered this one in The River Cottage Cookbook, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who I believe has become a hero of mine in the last month or so. Hugh has done just about everything I am doing, everything I would like to do, and much more besides, in pursuit of food sovereignty. And he did it all at least a few years ago.

One of his little tricks is to take seed potatoes and set them up in empty egg cartons for the chitting (or pre-sprouting) before planting. This makes a lot of sense. The stability provided by the egg carton will allow all the sprouts to grow straight up, giving each potential plant a head start. Sprouts are fragile and liable to break off if the potatoes are allowed to do their chitting in a bag. Not only do seed potatoes in a bag get jostled on the way to the garden, but retrieving each piece from the bag presents difficulties with long sprouts, as I know from past experience. Having them stabilized and out in the open simplifies things considerably.

Hugh goes so far as to remove all but two of the sprouts so as to concentrate the vigor of each plant. I probably won't be quite so meticulous. Each potato can be cut into several seed pieces, so long as each one has a sprout on it. If you want to chit your potatoes (not everyone does), they like plenty of air, a moderate amount of light and moderate indoor temperatures.

I've got two and a half pounds each of four different potato varieties to plant this year. I'm abandoning the fingerling La Ratte which we grew the past two years, even though the flavor is superb. We simply don't enjoy scrubbing so many tiny potatoes to prepare our meal. I'm also giving up the ever reliable Kennebec, though probably only for this year. In their places I'm giving space to the Carola, which rumor says will produce additional clusters of tubers higher along the main stem if the plant is well hilled during growth. And we're going back to the All Blue potato we grew two years ago. It was an easy to harvest spud, and we found we missed its cheery purple color over the winter months. We'll continue on for a third year of growing the silken, creamy-textured Sangre, and our 2009 new trial, the German Butterball, which became an instant favorite with my husband.

I'll post about this year's potato bucket experiment just before planting time in my area. Stay tuned.

Are you planting potatoes this year? What varieties? Any special techniques?


Ken Toney said...

I love the River Cottage Cookbook, and do the same thing to sprout my seed potatoes. This year, I'm growing All Blue, Cranberry Red, Onaway, Russian Banana Fingerling, and Butte.

Do you buy new seed potatoes each year, or use your own? My potatoes didn't last through storage to use for seeds this year. Just wondering what you do.

Sandy said...

I actually started some a month or so ago indoors: I had a handful of organic blue potatoes that had sprouted in my pantry, so I put a bit of soil in the bottom of an extra recycling bin, and plunked them in there. They grew like gangbusters (I have a sunroom so they get lots of light and warmth). I filled in as they grew, and reached the top in no time. They look like a shrub already. I'll be doing some outdoors as well, though I'm not sure of the variety. I'm using stacked tires for those: add a trie each time the plants outgrow the stack, then when you harvest, do it one tie at a time. I read about that somewhere online. This is my first try.

Sandy said...

that would be: add a TIRE...not TRIE...

Lise said...

I'm hauling my potato trash can across the street to an abandoned lot where it will get more sun. I plant potatos in the bottom of it, then keep adding compost and soil through the summer as the plant grows higher and higher.

Sense of Home Kitchen said...

I loved this tip, I have struggled to get the sprouted potatoes out the bag.

This year I think I will just plant red potatoes, they grow so well here and can be used for just about everything.

Yukon Gold also grow very well for us, but I am short on space, and they tend to get mushy if even slightly over-cooked.

Now I will check out the "River Cottage Cookbook", hadn't heard of that one before.

Aimee said...

I am growing potatoes for the second year now. Last year I planted red bliss, yukon gold, and some non-descript white variety I can't remember. This year I am planting a LOT more potatoes - they are so delicious fresh from the ground! I am planting mostly yukon golds, as they were my favorite last year, and I am also planting russets. This may be wrong, but I am just buying big old bags of potatoes from the grocery store to plant - so much cheaper than seed potatoes. That's what I did last year and it seemed to work just fine.

timfromohio said...

"any special techniques?" - yup, thanks to your blog we are trying out buckets! Just picked up another bunch of free buckets from the cafeteria here at work. We grew them for the first time last year in rows, but really like the bucket idea so we're giving it a try. Ordered from Seed Savers Exchange. Looking forward to seeing your bucket setup for this year.

Anonymous said...

I think the advice is to stand the potatoes "rose" end up, that's the end opposite the end that was connected to the plant. You can usually see the remains. It also means that the pots are standing tall, and not "sideways". If you look at Hugh F-W's Cookbook you will see what I mean. He doesn't actually say anything about it. Not sure if it makes much difference in the end!!


The Afton Vision said...

This is a more general comment rather than specific to this post...I just found your blog and so enjoy it and could lose, ahh...spend, many hours reading your posts and your links.
I'll be back.
I'll also add this link onto the small blog roll on the blog that my daughter and I have recently started...interested in a lot of the same topics.
Barbara at

Leigh said...

Good tip. I'm planting Red Pontiacs because they are supposed to do well in our Southern heat and soil.

Omelay said...

that appears to be a great idea. our potatoes should be in the ground today though.

Kate said...

Ken, I saved seed potatoes one year. But last year we had late blight, so definitely no saving for us this time. I'm told that viruses eventually run down the vigor of any potato line, which is why seed potatoes are grown from tissue cultures.

Sandy, I used to grow my tomato plants in tires to help warm them up. But then someone told me that tires leach lead. So I quit that practice. Hate to be a suzy-downer. Your growing project sounds great.

Lise, sounds like a very convenient method, much like a potato tower.

Sense of home, glad it's of use to you. Hope you like the River Cottage Cookbook. It's something I actually read cover to cover - unusual for a cookbook.

Aimee, supermarket potatoes can indeed be used for seed, though I understand that the results are mixed. Potatoes sold for food have usually been sprayed with something "harmless" that helps retard sprouting, though it's obviously not effective forever. Also, conventionally grown potatoes are typically rather heavily sprayed with all kinds of fungicides, pesticides, etc. But hey, if it's working for you, makes sense to stick with it.

Tim, my bucket collection is getting respectable too. I hope you'll consider making notes on your plantings (weight of seed potatoes, varieties, etc.) and consider sharing whatever results you obtain.

Peter, yes, I've read that bit of advice. In my case though, I plan to cut the larger potatoes in half or even smaller pieces. So it makes sense to lay the potatoes down on their long sides and let all the sprouts grow up as best they can.

Barbara, welcome and thanks for saying hello. I'll check out your blog as time permits.

Leigh, sounds good.

Karl, you must be in a warmer climate than mine. I'm hoping for a few weeks of mainly dry weather, so I can dig my potatoes into good soil.

Robin said...

I've got 5 old kitty litter buckets I got on freecycle filled with soil and compost right now. We planted fingerlings because we seem to have the best results with them and we can use them for grilling and roasting where we get max benefit from their flavor.

Plus we have a LOT of volunteers growing up in the veg beds - I usually just let them go and dig them up as the stalks die down. Like finding a little present in the soil :)

Our Family said...

I'm so glad I came across your blog. I was just wondering this morning about seed potatoes...is it too late for me to start?

Margaret said...

Much as I love Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall, chitting potatoes has been standard practice for generations in the UK.

now growing many things, but not potatoes as I have no room for them and no longer eat them.

Mountain Walker said...

Here in NW Montana the ground isn't even completely unfrozen yet. So we don't get to plant potatoes (or anything for that matter) until late May or early June. (However, I have seen it snow in June here!) I have been using the same red potatoes for years. We usually get about #300 pounds in the fall and eat them all winter from a storage bin in the ground. As we get closer to spring, we pick out the largest of the spuds left and save them for this years garden. We have been doing this for so long, I don't remember anymore what the name of the seed potatoes we use! The reds perform very well for us. I haven't had to buy potatoes for a long time. I know it's prideful but I LOVE just walking by the potato section at the store knowing I have a huge supply at home- chemical free and delicious!

Kate said...

Robin, I used some of those kitty litter buckets last year and they did just fine - no different than the larger 5-gallon buckets, as far as I could tell. I need to remove any stray potato plants that crop up this year since we had the blight last year. They could be harboring the spores.

Chrystal, probably not too late for you to start, though I'm not sure what climate you're in. I'm just chitting mine now and will plant in 2-3 weeks most likely.

Margaret, I'm sure HFW is much better known in the UK than he is here in the States. In any case, it wasn't the entire concept of chitting that he enlightened me on, but only the use of egg cartons to do it.

Elizabeth, glad to hear your seed potato stock has held up so well for you. I think it's great that you've achieved independence in that area, and not a prideful thing at all. I know the feeling too!

dltrammel said...

A timely post, I'm just about to order my first potatoes from SeedSavers and give them a try this year in the garden.

This may seem like a total noob question but what do you mean by "chitting"?

Kate said...

dltrammel, chitting just means allowing the potatoes to begin sprouting before planting them. It's not universally practiced. Some people plant their spuds without any trace of sprouting. But it seems that chitting them does give the plants a bit of a head start.

dltrammel said...

Thanks for the clarification, I hadn't heard sprouting eyes called that around here.

I'm planning to try planting potatoes in the tire method and a vertical box this year. Probably French fingerlings. Just see what the results are.

How did you store your harvest? I had heard boxes lined with loose shredded paper worked well.

Kate said...

dtrammel, I just keep my potatoes in the garage, in big baskets covered with dark colored towels to keep the light off them. So far that's worked for me. You might want to look into an issue I heard of with using tires in the garden. I was told there's a great deal of lead in tires, and that it leaches out pretty easily. Not sure if this is true or not, but I gave up planting my tomatoes in them after I heard that. Probably best to do a little research before taking my report though.