News April 2019

Planting potatoes on Good Friday…

This most enjoyable piece below was written by Dan Tackett, the retired managing editor of The Courier, and published by The State Journal-Register, based in Illinois. We re-publish it with thanks to Dan and the State Journal-Register.

“As I write this, it’s Thursday morning, a dawn following substantial overnight rain – and it’s still raining. It’s also chilly, especially considering the previous two days when it truly felt like spring.

Not only that, I just checked tomorrow’s forecast and it’s calling for more rain in the morning. Goodness, tomorrow is Good Friday. I don’t think I’ll be able to follow an ages-old tradition – perhaps a ritual more than mere tradition – of getting my potatoes planted.

I suppose planting potatoes on Good Friday can be compared to leaving cookies and milk on the fireplace mantle for Santa Claus. The goodies left for the jolly elf in no way will result in bonus, last-minute gifts for the children of the household. As an equal to that, I’m not at all convinced planting potatoes on Good Friday will result in an extra bushel or two of spuds at the end of the season for the many gardeners who follow that tradition.

My Old Man – that would be my long-deceased step-father, Fred Jones – was a strong believer in the Good Friday planting ritual. A Kentuckian from a long line of hard-scrapple dirt farmers and gardeners, he also believed in planting by the signs of the moon. Root crops – veggies such as turnips, beets, carrots and, yes, potatoes should only be planted in the dark of the moon. According to several Internet sites, here is a description of that particular moon phase: “The dark of the Moon is the period before the New Moon, or from full Moon to the New Moon, which lasts about 14 days.”

I’m unsure how The Old Man made his calculations and arrived at a decision on the correct time to plant potatoes when Good Friday fell during the light of the moon. In the end, though, it seemed the significance of Good Friday always won out, because that’s when we’d plant the potatoes.

We lived in a two-story rented farm house just north of Armington in Tazewell County. Each fall, our landlord, Gerald Tucker, would plow up a sizable patch of ground on the south side of our house and lawn. That was designated as our garden. Gosh, it was a huge piece of black dirt, and it was a wonderful garden spot. That was back when fall tilling meant using a moldboard to overturn big furrows of farm land. (Now, it’s basically shunned because it leaves the soil unprotected during the winter months, which leads to severe soil erosion.)

After those furrows went through winter and spring freeze/thaw cycles, our garden soil was as loose and crumbly as a kid’s sandbox. All it took was a garden rake to loosen and level the soil to get it ready for planting. That was a good thing since we didn’t own a motor-powered garden tiller.

The Old Man worked on power-line construction crews around the state and he was usually gone from Sunday night until Friday evening. But he always seemed to be around the house a few days before Easter. I think the potato-planting ritual had something to do with that break from work.

I can still see that 1960 white Ford Fairlane tooling up our half-mile lane and The Old Man popping the trunk once he had parked the car in our drive. With a couple of grunts and a mighty heave, he’d pull out a big burlap bag and carry it to the front porch. It was enough to produce a few grunts and a different kind of heave from my brother Mike and me. Oh no, we individually and collectively said to ourselves, the year’s seed potatoes have landed. It was tater time.

A spring ritual began to unfold on the front porch where we all gathered with an assortment of paring knives and pocket knives and a few empty dishpans.

After The Old Man had cut open the 50-pound bag of seed potatoes, my mom and siblings would grab handfuls and start dissecting the wrinkled, dirty potatoes, making sure that there was at least one eye left on every piece of potato we cut and tossed in our dish pans. After that, we got a break of a day, maybe two while the cut potatoes dried and we waiting for Good Friday morning to arrive.

When the big day dawned, we were in the garden early. My brother and I stretched out the rope that was used to mark the rows and the old man made the furrows with a hoe. In between moving the row marker, it was our job to drop the pieces of potato in the row.

The Old Man used a one-line directive that never changed from year to year: “Boys,” he would say, “I don’t want to see nothin’ but asses and elbows until all them taters are in the ground.” I suppose he picked that line up in his youth from his own father, a crusty and grumpy old Kentuckian who was still planting potatoes (and digging them up in fall) well into his 80th year.

From that hard day of labor in spring, the potato patch became mine and my brother’s responsibility until late fall when the last hill was unearthed by a potato fork and its contents were carted to the basement for winter storage. The harvest was a bigger and longer job than spring planting.

I vowed back in those days that when the time came for me to leave home, I’d never plant and dig potatoes again. In fact, I didn’t want to even think about a garden when I became an adult living on my own. Turns out that was just one of many stupid, misguided thoughts that sailed through my immature brain in those growing-up years. With the exception of two years of serving in the U.S. Army, I’ve always had a garden. In fact, since retiring, the size of my vegetable patch has grown considerably.

Now, I must return to the fate of my seed potatoes, which have been cut into the proper size for a couple of days. If you drove by my house yesterday and saw someone in the backyard stooped over and draped in rain gear, you now will realize that tradition, rituals and The Old Man’s way of thinking got the best of me.

To all, a peaceful and blessed Easter.”

Dan Tackett (picture above) is the retired managing editor of The Courier. He can be reached at dtackett@gmail.com.

This article was re-published courtesy of The State Journal-Register. The original article can be found on their website here