This is one of those days that – for me at least – seem to carry a weight of memories which almost demand a moment or two of reflection. Traditionally potato planting took place on Good Friday, but there are a couple of flaws in that association. Firstly we now live in a determinedly post-Christian society when the majority of people have little idea of when Good Friday falls. The second problem is that the reason most people don’t know exactly when it is, is because – being tied to the moon’s phases – it wanders around all over the calendar. There are some early Easters when it would be inviting disaster to plant on Good Friday and others when you might miss a couple of weeks of delicious new potatoes. So the last week in March – in our part of the world – seems about right. The young leaves won’t be appearing above ground until the last frost has passed – although for us last year there was a late frost on May 3rd, and we lost all the runner beans, but the spuds were fine. Runner beans, for US readers – are a bit of a British obsession.
So today’s the day. This year we’re growing them on a 20 square metre piece of our neighbour’s allotment. He’s having a hard time at the moment and he’ll have the patch back when he’s up and running again. He’s an inveterate and very neat digger, and although he didn’t actually make a face when I described our plans not to dig it, I could sense he wasn’t keen and so, yesterday it was cleared, dug and fed. It’s spent the winter under plastic sheeting, so there were no weeds to speak of. Because it’s down at the bottom, in the wettest part of the ground, I’ve given it most of last year’s compost supplemented with two or three bags bought in to open up the texture with organic material. The biggest harvest during digging was a crop of green ‘bio-degradable’ caddy liners. It’s true, very slowly (I mean glacially slowly) they are breaking down but I can see it might take several years yet. True to my experimental self I returned a number of them back to the new compost heap to see if a second season will finish them off.
But why is potato planting so significant? Back in the day, and still happening in one of my old farming parishes to this day, the first Monday after Epiphany (6th January) was recognised as “Plough Monday” and celebrated in Church by the local Young Farmers who carried a old Ransomes plough into the church to have it blessed. It was a single share mouldboard plough such as might have been pulled by one or two horses – not a team of oxen! They (the young farmers not the oxen) would file in with storm lanterns and hand tools and celebrate the new season with some acceptably jolly hymns and a sermon with more humour than hellfire followed by tea and sandwiches. How on earth do you persuade thirty or forty teenagers to turn up at church on a freezing January night? For me, as for them, it seemed like the right thing to do – to mark the turning of the seasons in formal terms. So long as they had a reason – however obscure – for turning up, we all thought it was worth doing.
So is potato planting the horticultural equivalent? Does all the sowing that’s been going on in propagators and on windowsills for weeks, demand a formal marking of the new season? and doesn’t potato planting – occasionally associated with a Christian festival but more likely with a long weekend bank holiday – doesn’t that make the planting of potatoes the ideal candidate? Compared with sowing a row of seeds, planting potatoes is a much bigger deal. It takes longer, gives you backache and feels especially significant. Needless to say I didn’t have enough space – entirely my own fault. The 2 Kg of left over seed potatoes correlated exactly with the 2Kg of Arran Pilot seed potatos that I bought on impulse. What’s the point of all that planing if even I don’t follow it? So tomorrow there will be a discussion about which bed to raid. But spring is here, the equinox is past and the days are longer and warmer. Our autumn sown onions, which had been looking a bit sorry for themselves, have suddenly perked up and thrust upwards. The garlic, similarly, is looking well and the elephant garlic in particular looks like a stand of leeks (to which they’re related).
At this time of the year, as a postwar child, when rationing was still happening, and everybody grew their own vegetables, I can vividly remember walkng down to my friend Eddie’s house, and being intoxicated by the smell of fresh warm earth being turned. Planting potatoes is powerful by association, and this past week as our fellow allotmenteers have been getting on with it, there’s an unspoken but shared feeling that -with or without any religious ritual – this is the beginning of the allotment year, regardless of all the plants we’ve already sown and overwintered.