One of my earliest memories is of potato planting on Easter weekend. Traditionally, in the UK potatoes would be planted on Good Friday and, as I remember it, the intoxicating smell of freshly dug earth would follow me all the way as I walked a couple of miles down to my mate Eddy’s house. Bear in mind, of course, that I’m thinking of a time 60 years ago when growing vegetables was an almost universal preoccupation among what Channel Four News likes to describe as “ordinary people” – I prefer a less patronising way of describing the vast majority of us. There are – or were- things that were done with no real idea why, apart from the fact that they needed to be done and they’d always been done. I think that’s a pretty good definition of culture – the way we do things round here – that’s to say right here in the West Country and not the way someone who lives in a flat in central London might see it. And so horiculture is a subset of culture as a whole and concerns the growing of things where we are.
But memories fade and cultures evolve away from the old preoccupations with putting food on the table and so we’re left with the urge to sow seed but not the accompanying local knowledge inherited from parents and grandparents. Which is a very wordy way of addressing the fact that crowds of allotmenteers on our site have been enjoying the unprecedented sunshine and warm weather this week. Last Easter the garden centres were facing bankruptcy and were only saved by the equally unprecedented hot summer. I wonder if we shouldn’t rather be worried than celebrating this latest evidence of climate change.
The earliest date for Easter – which is the only Christian festival tied to phases of the moon – is March 22nd, and the latest is April 25th. That’s almost 5 weeks, which is a very long time in the spring. Last season we had our last frost at the beginning of May and we would have lost all our tender runner bean plants if we hadn’t kept a large number in reserve. It was a gamble we lost decisively! So our response to the tradition of planting potatoes on Good Friday would need to be “it depends when Good Friday falls”, but the takeaway point is that in this part of the UK the answer has to be not yet! They’re safer being chitted.
It’s so distressing for new allotmenteers to experience the way that after all the winter digging and preparation the weeds appear to come back with renewed vigour, and it’s even worse to lose an entire crop to a late frost. Every year we see newly fledged allotmenteers losing heart and walking away from their plots. You can almost hear the bindweed laughing. I don’t want to make it sound more daunting than it is, but the best gardeners have patience and resilience built in to their DNA. Forget the ‘magical’ chemicals that do more harm than good. There are certain weeds that are desperately hard to eliminate, but resilience, patience and low cunning will see the back of all of them. Find out what they like most and deprive them of it – that’s the way. Often a winter under plastic sheeting or weed control mat will weaken them, but then if we pile on the pressure by hoeing and hand weeding and especially mulching, we can tip the balance in our favour. Better wait a year than waste a crop, and no-one will criticise you for it, in fact your neighbours will probably share their surplus with you in grateful thanks that your plot is no longer exporting noxious weeds on to theirs.
So for all those who are starting out on the adventure – good luck, and if enough of us share our accumulated knowledge, who knows? Maybe our children and grandchildren will know when to plant potatoes.