One day, whilst deep in a meditative trance, I connected with the spirit of Peter the Red, the chief of a tribe of Vikings that lived in my village over 1,000 years ago. During the ensuing conversation he challenged me with a particular task - an actual 'Mission from the Gods'!
'Tecwyn' he said, 'Your mission is to grow 1,000 kilos of potatoes and help save the planet from complete annihilation'.
'You can use a tractor and put diesel in it, but no chemicals, pesticides or artificial fertilisers!' He added.
I did try to ask him why this would prevent the annihilation of the planet, but he changed the subject.
Much of the ensuing conversation was to do with growing potatoes, but he also told me how he succeeded in travelling over the Atlantic ocean and discovering the awesome potato vegetable in the Americas. Many of us were taught at school that it was Walter Rayleigh that brought back the potato to the civilised world, but Peter revealed to me that this was simply not true and that people on the island of Ynys Mon had been growing potatoes long before then - it was because it was kept a very closely guarded secret by the indigenous Druid farmers.
Although most of the Druids have now gone, my island, Ynys Mon, is now famous for it's production of the most exquisite potatoes in all of Middle Earth. The Druids were experts in plant breeding or 'genetic manipulation' and much of their religion was based around this mythological vegetable. They changed the South American vegetable into something almost unrecognisable to those Americans and it is no surprise that they are still grown here on the fertile limestone soils. Indeed, such is the fame of the island's 'spuds' or 'tatws' that travellers from over 100 miles away are still to this day lured to the island by the intoxicating smell of freshly harvested tatws. Long queues can often form at the bridges, packed with cars and their occupants eager to sample the indescribable flavours of the island's produce.
Step 1: Ploughing the Field
Thanks to Peter the Red, I have been given permission to use a tractor - mine is an International Harvester 454 built in 1975. The first step in my potato mission is to plough the field and for this I have a separate instructable here: How to Plough a Field. Ploughing should be done as soon as the ground is dry enough in the Spring, never plough when the ground is water logged or you will get 'Soil Compaction', which is when the soil structure gets destroyed by inappropriate use of heavy machinery.
Step 2: Rotovating
Since we seem to be using technology from about 40 years ago, the Howard 'Rotovator' is now used to break up the crude sods of earth created by the plough. Again, only do this when the ground is nice and dry and it is a massive false economy to get over excited at the start of the season and do things to early. Much better to slowly come out of hibernation like a big sleepy old bear.
There is not too much skill involved in using the Rotovator, but it's a good idea to set the machine up so that it breaks up at least one of your tyre tracks by having it offset to one side. With this in mind, we would then have to rotovate in the same direction each time, to keep the tyre tracks at bay!
Sometimes, particularly on newly cultivated land, we may need to go over the filed with more than one pass. In this case, the field is left for a couple of weeks to allow weeds to germinate and then rotovated for the second time, annihilating those new weeds in the process. We should then end up with what is called a 'stale bed', stale meaning 'no weeds'.
Step 3: Planting
Planting can be done by hand, but hauling 25 kg sacks of potatoes around is literally back breaking work and you are very likely to end up immobilised in pain at the end of the planting session. Much easier is to use a machine and 40 year old technology is cheap! My planting machine is fairly simple, it gouges out a shallow trench and scoops up potatoes from inside a hopper and places them nice and gently in that trench and covers them in a bit of soil. This is all done on a flat field, but accuracy of driving the tractor is vital. This is a precision job! The rows of potatoes must be exactly the same width apart as the ridging plough used in the next step. Also, the tractor wheels need to be set at the same spacing's as the ridger. Sounds complicated? Not really! Just think about what the ridger is doing in the next step.
Sometimes, the planting machine will have an adjustment for spacing between each seed potato. Basically, 'new' potatoes are grown closer together than the 'main crop'. Consult the specifications for the particular variety you are growing.
The timing of potato planting is absolutely vital. The common mistake is to plant too early and what happens is that the potatoes just sit there in the ridges doing nothing whilst the weeds are busy growing above them and spoiling everything. Ideally, the spuds should have some shoots coming out of the tubers and the soil temperature should be at least 10 degrees C. Some varieties of spuds, like 'Cara,' have very strong shoots which are not easily broken by the planting machine and are ideal for planting 'just in time'. Do the planting like this and the potatoes grow really quickly and completely outstrip all the weeds. Plant too early and you'll have 1/2 an acre of extremely laborious weeding to do! A warning though - plant too late and you won't get the tangled mess of sprouted seed potatoes out of the sack.
Try training your dog to plant potatoes. I can throw a potato onto the ground and my dog will pick it up and bury it. However, she has yet to learn how to get the spacing's right!
Step 4: Ridging Up the Rows of Potatoes
Potatoes are grown in Ridges, which is basically a deep and continuous mound of soil containing spuds buried within.
Ridges are created by the ridging plough which is a simple machine dating back to the 1940's. Mine was made in 1955 by the famous Massey Fergusson company which revolutionised agriculture with their amazing inventions.
There is no great skill to ridging other than very accurate tractor driving. Spacing between consecutive sets of ridges is key. Get this wrong and your potatoes will be left in the wheel tracks after passing of the tractor and not in the soil and the Viking Gods so worshipped by Peter the Red will strike you down with bolts of lightening!
Just before the potatoes start to emerge, the ridges can be carefully knocked down a bit - I did mine by hand with a 'tarmac rake'. This kills off any newly germinated weeds by exposing them to the sun. Let the spuds grow for a week or so and after the potatoes have grown to a certain size as in the second photo, the ridges can be re-formed with the ridging plough once more, creating more hardship for the weeds. Do all this properly and you will have NO WEEDS!
Step 5: Preparation for Harvest
From being a blaze of pretty white flowers, the plant foliage has now started to die back and the tubers underground will not grow any bigger. Before using the harvesting machine, the foliage needs to be cut off and this can be done with a flail mower or even a strimmer.
Step 6: Harvesting and Storage
This is the fun part and it's a great occasion to get some friends around to help and, afterwards, make a renewed connection with the spirit of Peter the Red by drinking lots of homemade beer!
Bribe your friends with promises of unlimited beer if they help you with the harvest.
Employ the services of a guard dog (or cat) to protect your spuds from rats.
Step 7: Final
So I guess you are all wondering what else Peter the Red said to me in my dream? Firstly, he explained to me that the motivating force that took them over and beyond the edge of the world was a combination of curiosity and sheer bravado induced by the consumption of their rather strong home made beer. Trips 'Over the Edge' were actually a bit of an error in navigation due in part to being constantly intoxicated but also due to their unrelenting desire to collect large quantities of very cold ice to keep their beer cool. They would sail North West to the 'Land of Ice', get a bit carried away with themselves and then sail on further to the West fuelled by their now nicely cooled beer. When they could sail West no further, they sailed South, only stopping for rest when they had run out of beer completely. This is how they ended up in South America - The 'Land of Potatoes'.
On landing their ships on the beaches, they were greeted by the locals bearing gifts of ...... Yes, you've guessed it ..... Potatoes ........ cut into neat little slices and deep fried in oil. Now that they were sober, they managed to navigate back the way they had come, sustaining themselves on a great horde of nutritious spuds. They did not care for the gold or trinkets and rather than weigh themselves down with useless rubbish, they gave priority to the spuds, knowing that they would be more valuable to them in the long run. It was not long after these successful 'potato raids' that the Druids started cultivating spuds on my island, keeping it all very secret right up until the time of the great charlatan, Walter Rayleigh.
Ok you might think the aforesaid hard to believe, but, seriously, Peter did give me a 'Mission from the Gods' and that mission does actually have some meaning in the overall scheme of things. The really interesting thing is the quantity - why 1,000 kilos? Why not 20 kilos or 200,000 kilos? The answer to this question lies within another question: 'Can technology be so good that it makes itself redundant?' Don't get me wrong I'm a big fan of technology, but it certainly seems to make the 'need for people' redundant, for example a tractor that no longer needs a driver and is just programmed to go by GPS signals. So if the need for people is not here any more, what is the point of this wonderful technology? And what if people don't want to buy vegetables that are grown on a massive industrial scale anymore and want to grow them themselves - how much technology would they want to use - maybe a spade? Maybe a trowel? Maybe a horse drawn plow? Maybe a tractor? Where do we draw the line or should lines not be drawn?
Lots of questions - Maybe I'll ask Peter the next time I see him?