My depiction of war in the garden and use of historical references – such as the clearances – sprang to mind on Wednesday as I walked down the garden to see two thirds of the potatoes had been struck down with blight. My thoughts turned to A-level Irish history and accounts of the Irish potato famine.
The speed with which this has struck is breathtaking. We had not noticed anything particularly untoward a couple of days ago, but on Wednesday morning the rows of Kestrel, Setana, Belle De Fontenay, and Wilja were covered in tell-tale brown spots and in some cases the plants were already turning to mush. Even the Arran Victory had taken a “hell of a beating” and looked defeated. The only spuds that seemed to be surviving the onslaught were the Sarpo Mira: the spuds that we had intended to buy in bulk but – due to Lynn’s munificence when going to the potato day at the Consti club – we just ended up with two rows and an interesting array of other varieties.
In retrospect this looks like we were right all along, but who could have guessed that we would have SUCH a wet summer and anyway, isn’t it good to try a range in your first year? But all is not lost yet: the Sarpos still look mostly healthy today, despite the small brown patches on the leaves.
So what is this blight? I read that it is a fungal infection Phytophthora infestans that can also infect other members of the potato family, Solanaceae such as tomatoes. It spreads through the air and is particularly virulent in damp weather. If that does not fit your idea of a typical British summer, then you clearly do not live in these Isles. So in retrospect I should not be surprised by the turn of events.
Apparently it is possible to predict the occurrence of blight by “Smith Periods” – in which the temperature remains above 10 degrees along with 90% humidity during a 48 hour period. And that is exactly what we had in the previous two days: misty, drizzly weather that when I went into school the previous day to teach athletics to year 10 I had finally snapped and declared that I had had enough. No more cheery “crap weather again hey!”, or “anyone for tennis” laughing at the tennis coaches braving it in wind and rain. The weather was no longer a subject of ironic mirth. I was fed up with being constantly wet or changing lesson plans according to the position of the jet stream. Well thanks very much Jet stream – you can sod off back to Scandinavia, your work is done. My potato crop is ruined.
So that would explain the potato blight on Wednesday morning. I told Claire and we both trudged down the garden and cleared the tops off the plants. That is the beauty of the internet: I could google blight, and after getting a brief history of the Irish potato famine, I could get good advice on what to do if you do end up like a 19th century Irish tenant farmer. Get rid fo the infected foliage and hope it has not got into the tubers. We did that – though left the self-righteously healthy Sarpos to prosper a little longer. We had it done by 8 a.m. ostensibly so I could get to school on time, but, you know, I was convinced the blight was spreading before my eyes and we had to act now. To lighten the gloom I joked that either we got rid of this problem and saved our potato crop, or else we up sticks and emigrate to America…
So we await the outcome of our swift action. Dunno what spuds will be left, but I think we did the right thing. Dad’s reaction was that it must have been weed killer or something to have done them in so fast, but after sharing the results of my googling with him he takes my word that it was blight – and even understands about Smith Periods. By next week he will be telling me the same things as if it was he who knew all along about such things.
In the meantime I can feel like I am – in my father’s eyes – a grown up who is actually managing to cope with the vicissitudes of life in the garden.