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!