Foraging in Autumn
Join Clare from Feasting on Weeds as we forage at the Ulster Folk Museum.
Follow along with this year's potato harvest, from farm to fork.
Growing food is a year-round process. It involves tending to the soil and crops through every season. For farmers, following the rhythms of the year can help to produce a healthy, full harvest - weather permitting! We followed our Heritage Farmers Robert and Pamela as they grew this year's crop of potatoes.
We grow potatoes at the Ulster Folk Museum because they are an iconic part of Irish cuisine. They were introduced to Europe in the 1500s during the colonisation of the Americas, where they had been cultivated for thousands of years. Potatoes became popular for many reasons: they are incredibly nutritious; large amounts of potatoes can be grown in a relatively small plot; and they also could be used for feeding animals.
Ploughing the field is the most important part of growing potatoes. It is essential to produce a good crop. Ploughing loosens and turns the soil to make it easier to sow. While those farming large amounts of land may today use tractors to plough, in the past this task was accomplished by hand with tools, or sometimes with the assistance of a horse. Ploughing usually occurs early in the year, or in the wintertime of the previous year. A good frost is ideal for ploughing, as it helps to break up the ground.
Planting potatoes are called 'seed' potatoes. The seed potato can be sliced and planted, or planted whole. Some farmers were even recorded leaving small, undersized potatoes in the ground to seed for next year's harvest.
Prior to intensive agriculture potatoes were planted in lazy beds, ridges of soil dug with spades. To make a lazy bed, soil was dug and placed over the ground in rows. The soil was topped with manure, into which seed potatoes were planted. More soil was then placed on top, creating the ridge. Potatoes are also planted in 'drills', which are raised parallel rows of earth into which potatoes are planted at even intervals.
There are different varieties of potatoes, each with its own unique tastes and characteristics. Some heritage varieties of potatoes include:
Some current popular variety of potatoes are Navan and Maris Pipers.
Planting potatoes usually takes place in the spring, after ploughing. Planting can take place over a number of days or weeks, as different varieties of potatoes take different lengths of time to grow.
While the potatoes are growing, sometimes it is necessary to 'churn' the soil. A harrow is dragged over the drills to knock the top off, letting the potato come up quicker.
Harvesting the potatoes usually starts in August after Lughnasadh, also known as Lammas Day. Prior to mechanised agriculture, this would have been the work of young women and boys. Digging forks loosen the soil and unearth the fully grown potatoes. They can then be gathered by hand.
Traditionally, the harvest season for potatoes lasted through October. When November came, winter crops such as wheat or rye were planted. In certain parts of Ireland, the potato harvest was found to last into December. This would have only occured in places with temperate weather, and particularly amongst people experiencing poverty.
After a potato harvest, a common method of storage was to create a 'potato pit' - in Irish, poll-prátaí - also known as a 'bing'. This pit could be 4-6 feet wide, and as deep as a few inches to a foot. The potatoes were added to the pit in a round heap. Each layer of potatoes was separated, whether with rushes, ash, or sand, to prevent rotting. The pit was then covered up, with potatoes being unearthed in succession when needed. This method of storage helped keep the frost at bay.
Although potatoes on their own can be a lovely meal, potatoes were added to different foods to make a hearty breakfast, lunch, or dinner. From potato bread to champ, the incorporation of potatoes into the Irish and British diets meant that people were getting a good source of carbohydrates, fibre, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Learn more about the traditional way to set potatoes in a lazy bed. These would have been used in areas with poor-quality soil and more adaptable for smaller areas of land. The lazy bed is made with a loy spade, turning sods over to the soil side ready for planting. Watch the process here!