A Good Friday For Potatoes

On Thursday we were planting  potatoes in the Entrance Field, when Clare pointed out we were on the eve of the traditional potato planting day, Good Friday.

This custom is held to be as old as this side of the Atlantic’s relationship with our favourite  tuber. Its introduction in the sixteenth century was regarded with some suspicion, understandably for a relative of the known killer Deadly Nightshade. Irish Catholics were prepared to take the risk, though, covering themselves by sprinkling them with holy water and setting them out on the sacred day of the crucifixion.

A slightly later, more materialist explanation for the Easter rule is that the rural population of Britain, once they had been largely proletarianised, worked long and hard and  were afforded little time off: the Holy Day was a rare Holiday, and a moment seized to get the key bulk crop into the cottage gardens. A highly pragmatic act, and an assertion of their surviving spheres of independence; one carried forwards by urban working folk on their allotments ever since.

In this latitude, Easter is a pretty good time to trowel in chitted tatties, more or less: it rolls around the calendar, and Maunday Thursday can be up to six weeks later one year than another. This is because it is tied to the first full moon after the spring equinox. Timing planting out with the waning moon, as we attempt to here at Hawkwood ( though allowing Chaos to have the final say) is a truly ancient technique,  and one that fits perfectly with the Good Friday tradition.

The pagan festival of Eostre, on the equinox, which the like-sounding Christian festival hopped on to, celebrates renewal and germination: the sowing of seeds being a potent ritual; and eggs being the vital symbol. This has hatched the bizarre post-Christian convention of  huunting chocolate eggs. As Mary, Giro and I lined the egg-like tubers in the trench and began concealing them with earth, yet another reason for linking spuds to the Last Supper appeared to materialise.

In gardening, as in the wider world, it is common for people to either reject old customs outright, or indulge them unconditionally. But these extremes can miss the point somewhat: traditions can enrich our understanding, once layers of meaning are let to form. And by realising the concurrent existence of a Now and a Then, we are able to see ourselves in a spiral that includes a Future.

By resurrecting old and heritage varieties, like this year’s “Red Duke of York” and “Arran Victory” potatoes, at a community market garden in London’s Lea Valley, we are not trying to hark back to an agrarian past, but attempting to connect things: modern technologies with ancient wisdom; supportive community with individual liberty;  demonstrating other possible futures to the One Way Dead End dictated by the Biotechnological-industrial complex.

Forwards, not Back, to the Land! Pitchforks, Red Duke of Yorks,  fair-trade chocolate in hand.

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