Religiously planting potatoes

The polytunnel is very slowly filling up with seedlings, strawberries and (our of frame) the first direct sowings.

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb

Traditional weather lore

And so it does here. Yet another Atlantic low has been raking across us for two days, returning us to winter, wreaking low level havoc and destruction across the allotments and driving all thoughts of potato planting out of our minds. On the allotment Facebook page, however, the annual question about when to plant potatoes has emerged like a sleepy bear waking from hibernation. It’s almost unanswerable without clairvoyant skills because the date of the last frost is like waiting for Godot. Maybe it’s already happened earlier than ever before; or alternatively, maybe there’s a Siberian frost lurking right now in the far north, waiting for the jetstream to drive it across Bath in early May. “Statistically” (you might say) it’s most likely to be around the end of April, but tender leaves have no regard for statistics.

The potato question was one among many I’ve been addressing; taking advantage of the awful weather to do some planning. I’ve also been reading (here we go again!) – Eliot Coleman’s “The Winter Harvest Handbook”, which is a book you need to read if you want to beat the hungry gap and grow fresh vegetables across all four seasons. Some books are go-to resources for detailed information like dates, times, varieties and tools. But because I’m British and not American, the act of reading becomes an act of translation and, (just to make it even more complicated), some of these biointensive techniques began life in the UK in the 17th century, moved to France in the 19th century long after they’d been forgotten here, and were then transplanted again – particularly into 20th century America where they were inflected by the New Age culture and cross pollinated by indigenous American horticulture. That immensely productive cultural hybrid introduced a whole new spiritual element in complete contrast to the aggressive materialism born of the blind ended agrochemical mistake. So for me, the principal take-home aspects of many of these books is the ethos, the culture.

I do much of our planning on the computer – why does that feel like a confession? – well it’s because the programme I use, although it’s not perfect, takes away the drudgery of inputting pages of basic data into a blank spreadsheet. The introduction of the polytunnel into the planning has driven us both back into the unknown. Neither of us has any experience of tunnels and so we’re both beginners once again and we need to make our learning as fast and profitable as we possibly can – which, sadly, can’t mean an apprenticeship (too old) or a course (too hard-up) – so it’s books rather than experience: which brings us to the question of sowing times.

However in the world of permaculture design, in which the tiny particulars of our plot of earth, situation, prevailing wind, water, warmth and sunlight are all added to the variables, textbooks can be a blessing and a curse. I regularly see magazines and blogs that declare unequivocally that “this is the week to plant/sow x or y”. The essential qualifier “on my plot” is more often than not left out – understandably because to fill out the details for every soil type, climate zone or frost pocket in the UK would make the article or post bizarrely complicated – not to mention deadly dull. Seed catalogues often escape the trap by using phrases like after all chance of frost is past, or sow in March or April.

So planning ahead can be dauntingly complex; but amidst the variables there are some reliable regularities that can really narrow down the options. I’m grateful to Eliot Coleman for drawing my attention to the cross quarter days and their significance for planning. In his fascinating discussion of day length in chapter five he mentions the marker days that we mostly all know and celebrate – the two equinoxes and the two solstices. But in his analysis of daylength, he points out firstly that day length varies considerably across the year according to the latitude. Here in Bath we’re at approximately 53 degrees north – rather further north than his market garden in Maine, US at 44 degrees north which means that we have more winter days with less than ten hours of daylight than him, and considerably more than a farm in California or Provence. As I said the other day, we’d d be up there with the polar bears if it weren’t for the gulf stream.

I did some back of the envelope calculations and I reckon that these growing days when the light lasts longer than ten hours in Bath, begin on 15th February and end by 26th October which means that any plants we want to overwinter need to be fully established before the end of October. That enters two fixed points into the planning calendar that will be there regardless of weather events. He goes a step further, though and associates these dates with the ancient agricultural festivals of Imbolc (2nd February) and Samhain (1st November). The other festivals fall with Beltane on May 1st and the unpronounceable Lughnasadh on August 1st. The sharp eyed among us might notice that these days that are in close alignment with what’s known as the cross quarter days in the Christian calendar.

The fly in the ointment, as it were, is that early Christianity wanted to establish its credentials as an historically based faith and was obliged by the Gospels to harness Easter Sunday to the moon’s phases – being the first Sunday after first full moon after – wait for it – the spring equinox which the church sets as March 21st regardless of the astronomical facts. So Easter wanders around after the equinox by about a month ( March 22nd – April 25th) – making it an unreliable universal guide to potato planting by suggesting it should happen on Good Friday. There is no other bank holiday that usefully coincides with potato planting because the early spring one is a bit too late for the earliest early potatoes. Good Friday is only useful for spuds in occasional years.

We know from letters written by St Augustine of Canterbury that when he was sent by the Pope to evangelize Britain he arrived to discover a thriving pagan religion with active buildings and a strongly embedded calendar of agricultural festivals which (purists take note) were almost certainly adopted from or inflected by several previous religious systems. Writing to his boss he asked what to do and the advice came back that he shouldn’t burn the buildings down but appropriate then and substitute Christian festivals for the pagan ones.

A quick look at the dates of the ancient principal festivals, then – the equinoxes and solstices; and then the cross quarter days – Michaelmas, Mayday, Lammas and Candlemas – suggests that Augustine didn’t waste time inventing new festival dates he just renamed the existing ones, leaving the pagan faithful to worship whatever they pleased as long as they kept it to themselves; which incidentally is how the Church has carried on pretty well ever since. So underlying the most recent Christian layer, it’s fairly obvious that the ancient agricultural calendar never disappeared but just went underground. Discovering it afresh is like uncovering a buried mural. Christmas was tacked on to the winter solstice celebrations and Easter/ Whitsun, following the moon, very roughly coincided with the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Mayday was too entrenched to be tamed or renamed, and Samhain, on 1st November was simply renamed All Saints Day.

So that allows the agricultural year to be divided into four seasons and four cross quarter days -eight festivals in all and closely aligned with the farming year because they are closely aligned with the defining tasks of each season – sowing, planting out, harvesting and so-forth. They embody all the dates you need to know including when to plant your potatoes and the latest date for sowing and planting your overwintering vegetables ready for the hungry gap.

You might dismiss this as a load of all romantic tosh except that in my previous existence, the biggest church attendances were not the pious events of Easter, but Christmas, Remembrance Sunday, (loosely aligned with All Saints/All Souls/ Hallowe’en), and harvest festival. The old festivals were still exerting their powerful pull almost until the end of the 20th century. Some years ago Bristol Cathedral had a very successful “bread nouveau” service to celebrate the wheat harvest in Lammastide. My friend Dick England who was a miller, grumbled about the fact that you can’t make decent bread without allowing the harvested grain to mature for a month.

But enough of this. The point is that not very far under the surface of our materialistic culture is a stratum of agricultural wisdom accumulated over millennia, and associated with a unique expression of spirituality. I’d almost go further and say green spirituality.

On my computer is the garden planning software that I’m trying to adapt for use on the Potwell Inn allotment, and I intend to abandon the division of the year into twelve months and see if it’s more practical to divide it into the eight ancient seasons. I probably won’t reunite them with their pagan names – I’ve grown used to Lammas and Candlemas which are so obscure they don’t even pretend to be Christian festivals any more. More practically still, I’ll associate each season with its tasks so that our unique calendar combines all the variables I wrote about at the head of this piece, with the passage of the sun that provides every living thing with energy. The biggest problem is that computers and spreadsheets are linear by their very nature and can convey the entirely false impression that the past has nothing to say to us. In the end, I fear, the only way of preparing my new calendar will be to draw the great circle on a piece of paper and divide it into the seasons and their festivals so that gratitude, hope, generosity and thanksgiving are as much a part of it as the best date for planting potatoes on our allotment (which is after the vernal equinox and before Mayday: but keep the fleece handy until the middle of May). Lands End, John O’Groats and Anchorage Alaska will need to calculate their own dates!

Rescued by Patience Gray!

Good Friday is supposed to be the traditional day for planting potatoes in the UK – which is a slightly dodgy proposition because the date can vary by about five weeks between March 20th and April 23rd if I’ve got my golden numbers right (you’ll have to look that one up!). Ours have been in for a couple of weeks but we cover them in fleece because the emerging leaves are liable to be nipped by a late frost. A short frost doesn’t necessarily kill them but it certainly sets them back. Early potatoes are a treat and they’re a better bet than main crops because they’re out of the ground before the blight season.

I have tremendously warm memories of childhood Good Fridays. It was a bank holiday – one important reason why the long Easter weekend was, for many people, the beginning of the new season’s gardening. The earth is starting to warm up, the days are getting longer and there’s a four day long weekend. All the best religious festivals relate in some way or another to seasons or big life events and Easter is no exception; the fundamentalists will deny it, of course but that’s the general way of it. And in any case planting a potato is, from my point of view, a spiritual act; an act of trust in the power of nature to produce food out of dirt. Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Your handful of Good Friday earth was present at the beginning of the universe;  its smallest particles have shared in the inventory of all created things since then and will continue in their vagrant journeys until the end of time.

But this isn’t an ordinary Easter – for a start the churches are closed because there’s a pandemic, or is it a plague? I woke up thinking of my brother in law who became one of the statistics a few days ago, another number on a spreadsheet.  I woke up knowing that there will be no proper funeral, no prayers, no gathering or best clothes or meeting people we haven’t seen for years.  No nervous laughter outside the crematorium, no stories and catch-ups, no space where tears are allowed and impossible dreams of meeting again are permitted. No compassion; just disease control. social distancing and efficiency. Somehow it feels all wrong, it leaves our grieving rudderless and incomplete, we need a proper goodbye.

There’s a name for all this but I don’t know whether I dare type it. Idolatry sounds like such a religious word as if were owned by a Strict and Particular Baptist sect (yes they really do exist!) – but it’s a perfectly simple and non religious idea.  If you worship (and that means not much more than if you make it your highest guiding priority) – so if you worship something that’s only a part of the whole you’re committing the sin of idolatry, and bad things always follow.

Idolatry isn’t something that exists only within religion then. I’d say that the worship of money, power, profit, technology, even of nature or human beauty is dangerous and wrong because it takes a tiny part of what it means to be human, sets it up on a pedestal and demands that we all worship it. All too soon the world we live in becomes distorted and things start to go wrong. Species extinctions, genocides, climate catastrophe are the symptoms of idolatry because they measure life and diversity through a powerful but very narrow ideology.

“Without worship you shrink” – that’s a quotation from Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus”  and it’s true.  But we need to situate our principal human values within the whole and not the partial. We need to ditch the partial gods altogether and build a belief in the interrelatedness of all living and material things because we are all made of the same stuff. Of course it will be culturally inflected worship, but we surely can list some of its general qualities  –  there are loads of lists out there. Our basic problem began at the moment we evolved the belief that our human selves are somehow separate from the rest of the created world –  the grand-daddy of all idolatries – and that’s the point at which this post shouted at me – give me some space won’t you!

IMG_20200410_170856I started writing it on Thursday and hit a brick wall, but now I’ve deleted a great chunk of what I initially wrote because I think I got lost in the memory of my old friend Eddie’s dad. It was his garden I was thinking of when I wrote about planting potatoes on Good Friday. It was the smell of his garden, the murmuring of his pigeons in the loft at the top of the steep slope and seeing him, in my memory, bent over his spade and puffing on his pipe as he dug. And in the way that these things work, there was the perfume of wallflowers in there somewhere too.

I was cross; so cross at what’s going on that I wanted someone to shout at; to blame them, to accuse them for the situation we’re in. But I also wanted a way out of my sense of paralysis. I suspect I’m far from unusual in the progression of my moods  during this crisis.  At the start, I was all action; gathering up all that we needed and putting our survival plans into operation. That was almost the fun bit; but then after a month of lock in (we were early adopters) next there was an awful ennui – a great yawning what’s the point? – and that’s where I was all weekend until Patience Gray came to my rescue with “Honey from a weed”.

IMG_20200412_171609It’s not a cookery book it’s a peculiar, almost spiritual, classic about being human.  In particular it’s a book about being human with very few material possessions but within the rich culture of the southern mediterranean. We’ve worked hard all weekend – I was driving vine supports nearly a metre into the ground in the hot sun.  We watered, sowed and transplanted and magically, Madame said this evening as we ate our supper – “Do you know. I think we’ve eaten better than ever since the lockdown began”.  Our supper was a flan made with our own broccoli spears picked this morning, our own asparagus, radishes and salad leaves.  There was fresh bread cooling down, made with the new sack of flour. We’ve feasted on what we had around us and it’s been a revelation. Of course there are staples we rely on – we’re absolutely not self-sufficient – but every day we have eaten food we’ve grown, cooked, preserved and stored.  I reckon we’ve got through 13 litres of home cooked tomato sauce, for instance, over the winter months.

The governance of this country may be shambolic but there’s no point in driving myself half mad with recriminations.  We survive – that’s all that matters, and if I never saw another newspaper or listened to another news broadcast I’d survive – probably happier than ever. There will always be cheats, liars and chancers and in the way of things some of them will probably be running the country.  As long as we’ve got some dirt to tend we’ll be OK.   

Still not Easter!

A word of reproach from carolee last night for re-using a photo from the beginning of February, and so – hot from the egg boxes – here are the potatoes we’re chitting (to the annoyance of the management company) under the window on the landing outside the flat. It’s just that the conditions are perfect for them there, cool and light, which means they don’t develop unmanageably long and straggly shoots as they search for the sun. Last year we stacked them in old mushroom boxes  and although they all planted out successfully some of the shoots had got a bit out of control. Short, stubby and vigorous is the aim.

I know many people say it’s not worth growing potatoes because they’re so cheap in the shops, but the market – especially for new potatoes – is shrinking because so many people are cutting down on carbohydrates in the hope of living for ever, and that means they may not be so available in the future especially if imported varieties fall foul of import tarriffs.

But there’s much more to it than price. This year we’re growing some Arran Pilots for no better reason than they were what my parents and my Grandfather always grew.  They’re by no means the best or the easiest variety to grow but I can’t get out of my memory of the exquisite flavour of the potatoes dug and taken straight to the kitchen where you could peel them with the flat of your thumb and eat them with butter. OK so that’s two major dietary transgressions on one plate, but hey, none of us is going to live forever really!

So this year we’re growing the Arran Pilots, Jazzy and Red Duke of York as first earlies, although the last of the three will develop into a brilliant large roasting potato if left in the ground. Then we’ve got Pink Fir Apple which make the best potato salad ever, no arguments and will also sit in the ground getting bigger. Finally there are Sarpo Mira maincrops which, being blight resistant, worked very well for us last season when we tried them for the first time. We grew them alongside Desiree and although the Desiree did better in the drought conditions, the flavour and texture of the Sarpos gave them the edge.

The potato bed will see the first major no-dig experiment because we’ve left it undug from last season – just cleared of weeds and mulched with a thick layer of compost topped with plastic sheeting. The plan is to plant them in holes and cover them with yet more compost and some heavy duty fleece to protect them from any late frosts. It’s a risk, but until we’ve tried it we won’t know whether the technique is worth pursuing. But suddenly the season seems to have turned and we’ve moved in a breath from preparation to the nurturing stage. Clearly there’s still loads of opportunity for the weather to bowl us some googlies, after all – until Friday it’s still late winter. But the smell of the earth is right, the birds are singing and the Potwell Inn is buzzing with energy!

This year’s awful spring – some stats.

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I compiled these statistics on 3rd April this year because my sceptical mind was making me curious as to whether the spring had been quite as wet as the newspapers were suggesting. Please look away now if you find this stuff boring, I wouldn’t blame you but for me it’s invaluable to look at the data before I start building the ark! There’s loads more on the site for non geeks!

These are the rain totals for Bath during Jan, Feb, March in mm

2007 4, 65, 97, 172.7

2008 183, 55, 119, 358.4

2009 No data

2010 62, 104 , 41, 208.3

2011 58, 58, 13, 129.6

2012 38, 30, 31, 100.4

2013 68, 17, 56, 142.6

2014 97, 77, 44, 219.2

2015 71, 41, 23, 136.6

2016 No data

2017 49, 42, 41, 133,

2018 91, 24, 101, 216.8,

So the median figure is 139.6mm and the average is 181.8.

Allowing for some missing data from 2009 and 2016 I think this shows that the year so far has been the third wettest since 2007; higher than average and much higher than the mean for the first three months. Which all goes to show that it’s wet, but not by any means biblically wet, just part of life’s rich tapestry! The figure for 2008 is interesting because that turned out to be a year of awful summer floods, and you can see that the ground was already saturated only to be drenched by heavy rain in August.

The Met Office data give the monthly averages as 82, 53 and 63mm giving a total of 199.4mm and that covers 1981 – 2010; so by that standard this spring is pretty average.

And so the traditional planting of potatoes on Good Friday begins to look a bit shaky because Easter Day can be any one of 35 possible days between March 22nd and April 25th and Good Friday could be any time from 19th March and 23rd April which covers a multitude of weather possibilities.

Wouldn’t it be sensible to plant potatoes some time around the second week of April which should see us free of frost before the shoots emerge?

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Well that bold statement in April didn’t anticipate the “Beast from the East” a month later, and which felled our first planting of runner beans on May 1st. However the spuds we sufficiently underground to survive the onslaught. Here’s my diary entry for 16th April:

“Finally, after lunch I set out the rows for the potatoes (“measure twice, cut once”) and set about planting. I got the Sarpo Mira, the Desiree and the Pink Fir Apple in but then I ran out of space. In the plan I’d allocated twice as much space, but the purple sprouting and the other brassicas are still occupying the adjoining patch so the Jazzy and the remains of the Red Duke of York are going to have to go in one of the new beds on 168B. Still, it was a brilliant day and we achieved a lot. Now I ache in every bone and sinew and tomorrow I have to start all over building a new bed and path, digging the whole piece and fertilising it and then planting the remaining potatoes. But at least they’ll all be in.

The water level in the the trial hole next to the Lord Lambourne apple has dropped by two inches and the bottom is almost dry, so that’s great news and takes some of the pressure off. [Madame} has also been busy weeding so the plots are looking very good.”

While I’m on the subject of spring, it’s worth talking also about springs.  The allotment stands at the bottom of the Avon Valley, overlooked by the southern end of the Cotswolds. So in wet weather there’s a great deal of water heading in the direction of the river.  The old timers on the site tell me that there are three underground streams crossing it and there’s certainly evidence of one of them which flows across the pavement and on to the main road.  I’m wondering whether our plots are near the course of one of them, which is good news and bad news depending on the season. As the photo of the trial hole shows, waterlogging is a real problem and so I hope all the remedial measures will help a bit otherwise we’ll be looking at more expensive options like land drains.