Gardening: Busy month getting ready for spring

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February is a busy month with lots to do in the castle gardens. We’ve been scrolling through the exciting seed catalogues selecting for the year. We’ll also be visiting the ARUNDEL SEED SWAP, a popular annual event, hosted by Greening Arundel - agenda 21 members; this is a great place to come and swap your seeds, plants, old gardening books, mags and to have a chat with other gardeners, its well worth a visit! This will take place on Sunday February 26 at the Norfolk Hall on Mill Road Arundel from 1pm to 3.30pm.

A couple of weeks ago our seed potatoes arrived and we have placed them in egg boxes within our old potting shed, which is light and warm. It’s exciting to see their eyes beginning to grow; it takes the small stems or chits about 3-4 weeks to develop. At the end of the month we will plant out our first early potatoes, the varieties we are using are ‘Swift’ and ‘Rocket’.

Potatoes form an important part to our staple diet, it’s easy to forget that the origin of the potato spans thousands of years.

The potato is indigenous to Central and Southern America with its roots in the windswept Andes Mountains, an area of fluctuating temperatures, poor soil conditions and high altitudes, original potato plants were found growing over 15,000 feet up the mountain sides! It was the early Peruvian farmers who discovered the potato some 7,000 years ago.

But it was not until 1537 that the potato was discovered by the ‘Conquistadors’ in Peru and it took a further 30 or so years before it was brought back across the Atlantic to Europe.

It wasn’t until the 1780s that the potato reached Ireland and became a very important crop for its resilience to climate change; it could also feed up to 10 people in only 1 acre of land, making it very popular and dependent upon! Sadly around 100 years later, in the 1850s, a potato blight caused by a fungus known as ‘Phytophthora infestans’ spread from Europe throughout the country forcing a countrywide famine which resulted in cutting the population by half and causing a large emigration of the Irish to leave the ‘Emerald Isles’ to survive, ironically this was back across the Atlantic to North America. It was not until 1883 that an effective fungicide was found by Alexandre Millardet, a French botanist, which eradicated the blight.

The potato is in fact a member of the Nightshade family and its leaves are poisonous. If a potato is left in the light for too long it turns green, the skin contains a substance called solanine which causes the potato to taste bitter and can make one quite ill if eaten.

Issy McKinley, our kitchen garden horticulturalist, sources our seed potatoes and highly recommends a second early variety ‘Hunter’ which lends itself well to organic growing and a main crop potato ‘Setonta’, a blight and drought resistant variety. We generally use Savari potatoes, named after a Hungarian breed of hardy potato which is the highest known resistance potato to blight and common viruses. There is even a Savari research trust in North Wales which selects the best strains for commercial crops. We grow the red varieties ‘Sárpo Mira’ and ‘Sárpo Axona’, two wonderful firm varieties with good storage qualities and handsome foliage throughout the growing season.

A few tips from the castle garden team:

Lift and divide your snowdrops now, replanting deeply.

Continue to mulch your beds as it sounds like may have a dry summer!

Continue to warm your ground with plastic sheeting or cloches ready for sowing later on.

Early sowing under glass gives you the option of exotic fruits such as melons.

Martin Duncan - Arundel Castle Head Gardener