Q. Why shouldn't you tell secrets near a vegetable patch?
A. Because the corn has ears, the beans talk, and the potatoes have eyes!
And potatoes have eyes for another reason, it's where they grow their new shoots from. So, when looking to grow potatoes the amateur gardener should consider 'chitting', in order to get a nice healthy crop - for use in the kitchen and out.
Chitting. It's a strange sounding word isn't it? Could easily be confused with other words in common conversation, particularly if holding talks with a person with a strong accent. The word probably derives from the the 16th Century English chitte - meaning cub or kitten, which was then used in reference to something young, like a child. Chitting then, more than likely, entered farming parlance as a term for the shoots, or young seedling, of a plant. Perhaps an explanation of the actual practice of chitting is in order though, rather than a ramble down the path of obscure etymology.
Chitting is nothing to do with constructing a magical car1 in your garden shed, but more to do with preparing seed potatoes before the planting season (mid-Spring in general), and encouraging the growth of strong and sturdy shoots from said potatoes. With healthy potatoes grown the right way, you can get a great yield of spuds. However, if potatoes are not given the right conditions for growth then they can develop long white shoots, sometimes called chits2. These can often be found on wrinkly old spuds that have been left in the bottom of the fridge for too long. So, with chitting, the aim is rub some of the chits off, in order to have a small number of strong chits on a nice group of pomme de terres - rather than a stock of seed potatoes that look more like some cthulhu from the pages of a Lovecraft novel.
The easiest way to go about chitting is to buy your seed potatoes from your garden supplier and pop them all in either an egg box or seed tray. Place them in the tray upright, with their eyes pointing to the sky, as they'll want to see what's going on for the next 6-8 weeks - the length of time you'll need for the chitting process, before you plant your seed potatoes in your garden or allotment. When you choose to plant is up to you, but in the UK just after Easter is pretty good, so get some potatoes ready for chitting early February3.
You need to put all of your skyward-looking spuds in a place with a good amount of light that's cool, but not cold. It is important that they are kept in a frost-free place, otherwise the shoots will simply die off, causing the potato not to do its best once planted into the ground. If the place is cold, you can nestle your seed potatoes in some cotton wool to keep the little dears warm at night. A greenhouse or the windowsill of a shed are good places, but be sure they aren't in direct sunlight for too much of the day. This should encourage a small number of their eyes to sprout chits.
Once the chits have begun to sprout you can start the 'pruning', if you like, to help your seed potatoes grow some nice strong chits. Rub away some of the chits so that a handful become dominant - three or four shoots are a good number to aim for. Not all the eyes will actually sprout, so if you allow them all to start off you can choose the best chits to develop (be wary if you want to try and grow your own potatoes from supermarket-bought spuds though, as some are treated with chemicals to prevent sprouting). After some weeks have passed, the chits should have become nice and strong, and your potatoes will be ready for planting.
Whether it is a knobbly spud or a smoother one, or a bigger or smaller sort that you want from your crop, then chitting is something to bear in mind. Generally chitting isn't something that commercial potato farmers will do, as they have a high yield due to progressive farming techniques, but the amateur potato grower should chit before planting, in order to get good strong spuds which will help develop their potato plot. While chitting may produce a smaller yield of potatoes, the vegetables themselves will invariably be larger - perfect for those of us who love their jacket potatoes jumbo-sized!
NB: Some other vegetable and flower seeds can benefit from chitting too - like parsnips, sweetcorn or peas.