Andy Callow and Bethan McIlroy Tell Us More About the NOGs Potato Day

Photos: Dani Bacon
Interview: Tracey Lloyd
Monday 05 February 2024
reading time: min, words

Some say January is dark and depressing, but for a lot of Nottingham gardeners, we actually spend it excitedly waiting for the big event of the month - the NOGS Potato Day. It’s like the gardener’s version of Christmas! Andy Callow and Bethan McIlroy tell us more…

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NOGS (Nottingham Organic Gardeners) have been holding this festival of tuberous delights for sixteen years and they offer a chance to try a huge range of different spuds, without having to fork out for large numbers. The group produces a list in advance with loads of information about each spud type, including when to plant it, how it tastes, best ways to cook it and how it copes with diseases. 

When I arrived, I found that those in the queue had printed out the variety sheet from the NOGS website and turned it into the gardener’s version of a wish-list for Santa. There was a real buzz as they waited to get in, and apparently queues had started to form at The United Reform Church on Edwards Lane in Sherwood well before the advertised start time of 10am. 

Anyone who thought potatoes just came in red or white skinned egg-shaped lumps, will have discovered their mistake as they entered the room. Sat on a wide ring of tables, more than thirty different varieties were on display, with a huge range of shapes, sizes and colours. 

Familiar varieties like King Edwards sat alongside Pink Fir Apple which looks rather like an alien from a kid’s cartoon - long potatoes covered in knobbles with pink patches, but no resemblance to fir trees or apples. The colours can be surprising, too - several types had brightly coloured spots and some had been cut open to reveal that the flesh was bright red all the way through. If you like the sound of those, you need to look for Heidi Red which definitely lives up to its name. 

The NOGS team runs like a well-oiled machine now, some having done this for sixteen years, so it all went surprisingly smoothly. Tubers cost twenty pence each or six for one pound, and mixing and matching is welcome, so it’s as useful for someone with a few patio pots as it is for those who want to plant an allotment full. They were getting through them at a huge rate, with 800kg of potatoes disappearing into bags as I watched, the team refilling the boxes as fast as they could. 

Everyone on the team was doing a great job with their appointed tasks, but I managed to draw NOGS Chair Andy Callow and Bethan McIlroy from the spud team aside for a quick chat. 

They give you a lot of bang for your buck in terms of space to yield ratio and they can be eaten in so many different styles. A homegrown potato is just really tasty!

Do you think potatoes have a particular appeal to gardeners?
AC: Oh, yes! They’re easy to grow with good yields and work well in pots. They’re great to grow with kids too. Some say they’re great for clearing new ground, but I think that’s because you kill the weeds when you earth them up, so it’s still plenty of work!
BM: We have a talk about potato growing just now for new growers. They give you a lot of bang for your buck in terms of space to yield ratio and they can be eaten in so many different styles. A homegrown potato is just really tasty!

Do you get first pick and which varieties are your favourites & why?
BM: Yes as a little perk of helping at potato day the volunteers get to pick their varieties first. My favourite varieties are Heidi red, Jazzy (great salad spud) and Marvel (good yield and great for chips/wedges).
AC: Actually, getting the first pick is not so much needed these days. In the old days when we were in the room above the Gladstone Pub, you used to need sharp elbows and it was a bit of a jumble sale, but we’ve learned every year and the team we have is amazing. They make sure there’s plenty of choice and we’ve increased the amount to reflect last year’s increase in demand. My favourite of all the varieties they’ve chosen is Swift – which I really like now I’ve learned to steam rather than boil it. I like to follow that with Charlotte. They both crop early, so I get the potatoes up in time to leave space for other veg to go in. 

What’s the most popular type with the punters?
AC: Charlotte, definitely!
BM: Yes - Charlotte is always our most popular, selling out after the first hour even though we always order extra. Children and parents like the novelty of the coloured potatoes even though their yield is lower. It’s fun to eat a purple potato!

Do you think organic potatoes perform better?
BM: Organic growing focuses on soil health and sustainability, organic spuds haven’t been sprayed with chemicals which is much better for our health and that of the planet so for me it’s a win, win! 

Last year, we were treated to some potato-based comedy sketches from the team. Do they have plans to top that?
BM: We might have plans to continue our Potato themed comedy sketches, they were definitely a product of Covid when we all needed a laugh. The versatility of potatoes does give a lot of scope for jokes. We have been showing last-year’s comedy sketches in between our potato talks today and the audiences are still laughing!

Leaving Andy and Bethan to get on with running the show, I picked up some onion and shallot bulbs to go with my treasure trove of tatties. At the checkout, I remembered NOGS’ decision to keep the costs the same as last year. They are keen to ensure the potatoes are affordable for everyone, so they’ve resisted the urge to hike the price, unlike many sellers. 

I definitely appreciated that because it left enough change for a visit to the Potato Day café for a cuppa and well-earned slice of cake, as well as a few purchases from the local producers' stalls. On the way out. Andy tells me that Potato Day has been even more popular than last year, showing me the now empty tables, sold out of spuds by 12.30pm. It looks like local gardeners can rely on it cheering up January for years to come!

NOGS Potato Day took place on 27 January 2024


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