Sandy’s Garden ... Good Friday and Potatoes

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We are now in Holy Week, when the Christian church remembers the events of more than two thousand years ago.

In particular the execution, by crucifixion, of the Jewish radical Jesus of Nazareth. His was a dreadful death, slow and agonising, a means of executing slaves and the worst kind of criminals. Yet the Christian church commemorates this event on a day which is termed ‘Good Friday’ in English, a quite extraordinary name for such a day. It is entirely proper to ask why this day is known by such a name … and the unexpected answer is that no-one seems to know exactly why this is the case! One possible answer is that the name is a corruption of ‘God’s Friday’; some claim it is a translation of a German name for the day, Gute Freitag … but that’s not its German name; and the Catholic Encyclopaedia suggest that Good Friday is good because the death of Christ, as terrible as it was, led to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, which brought new life to those who believe. But the real reason for the Friday before Easter Sunday being called Good Friday has been lost in the mists of time.

There’s a gardening tradition about Good Friday whose origin has also been lost in the mists of time; it is said that Good Friday is the best day on which to plant seed potatoes.

However, since the Council of Nicaea, meeting in the year 325, set the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon on, or after, the spring equinox … a formula which is followed, more or less, to this day … and since this date can vary by as much as four weeks between any two years, this tradition seems to defy logic. When Easter falls early, we shall still be on the cusp of winter; and when Easter is late, we should be well into spring; so the climatological conditions which are most conducive to the growth of potatoes are unlikely to be ideal in either of these circumstances. A more probable explanation is that, in the days when cottagers worked long hours for the lords of the manor, the landed gentry, the squires, call them what you will, the working day stretched pretty well from dawn to dusk. Sunday was assigned as a day of rest, to be devoted to church attendance; and days off were virtually unknown. So the first day off in the year, Good Friday, was the first opportunity to find both the time and the daylight to plant potatoes.

Well, these restrictions don’t apply nowadays. But some things don’t change much over the years; and the best method of planting potatoes is one of them, even if the way in which the date of their planting is chosen has changed radically. The first thing to do is to analyse the soil in which the potatoes will be grown. They grow best in soil with a relatively low pH level … its acidity or alkalinity. Simple testing kits are available in any garden centre, as are the means by which the soil can be made more amenable for potato-growing. In many case, the pH level will need to be reduced, which is usually … and traditionally … done by adding lime. It is also important to ensure that the soil is loose, for potatoes don’t care too much for heavy clay or compacted sand. The traditional method involves adding a good layer of organic humus … compost, manure or leaf mould … to the soil and mixing that in. And, as if this were not enough, most experts advocate adding a so-called ‘complete’ fertiliser … a fertiliser with roughly equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. The local garden centre will be a ready source of suitable fertilisers. As ever, the best advice is to follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding how much fertiliser to apply.

The soil must now have 10 cm deep rows prepared at metre intervals, ready to receive the pre-cut and superficially dry pieces of seed potato, each with at least one bud, preferably several, planted a metre apart. Water well; and straighten an entirely traditional sore back!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society