Where did all the potatoes go?
It’s strange to be left with a heap of empty baskets. For weeks now the mountains have been growing in my small house – the strange concoction of materials that we accumulate in advance of a Growing Newsome event. I find myself looking at my suddenly empty kitchen floor as if I’ve never seen it before.
We started early this year, because I developed a daft notion about running a Potato Day. Like many things, once I’d got the idea in my head it wouldn’t go away. It was all Maggie’s fault really. She once told me that people elsewhere have these special days where you can go along and buy just one seed potato of your choosing. Or as many as you wish. I must have stored that idea for future use.
Last April, we planted the first potatoes at Stirley Farm, and we returned later in the year to harvest them. Alongside the enormous fun of digging along the veg beds in search of starchy treasure, there was our fascination with comparing all the different varieties there. The Bonnie were the big hit, closely followed by the Pink Fir Apple, which was my particular favourite (funny looking things that taste great). Stirley’s first potato harvest really got people talking, and that conversation was our most valuable crop.
At the end of the Summer, as we took part in Stirley’s first big open day, I got talking to Peter from the West Yorkshire Organic Group. He told me about their annual vegetable shows (where the veg is judged on taste, as it should be) and about their Potato Days. Having met someone who knew what they were on about, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. It wasn’t long before Peter got roped in to help us figure out whether a Newsome Potato Day was feasible, and my fellow allotmenteers got roped in too.
Over the past few weeks, I have watched people become accidental potato experts. They studied the book (aptly called “The Potato Book”) with great care, made copious notes, sought further advice, then confidently went off to buy around 1,000 seed potatoes. They landed in Newsome on 18th February, and it was too late to turn back then.
We had to move our usual Seed Swap a bit earlier to get the timing right for the potatoes, and I’d already begun to fret about whether anyone would turn up or not. But the potatoes were now waiting, and so the mountain began to grow. Paper bags to put the potatoes in, pens for people to write the varieties on the bags, big labels with a description for each type, leaflets to help people choose, egg boxes for chitting, an easel and a blackboard, potato-proof tablecovers. The last items that we gathered for our potato table, but by no means the least, were every basket that we could lay our hands on.
I’m sure that our new friends at the West Yorkshire Organic Group thought our baskets were a bit daft. Their method is to put the potatoes in boxes, and they suggested this to Cherry. She told them that I’d not tolerate anything less than a basket. And she was right. We weren’t sure whether we were going to manage to sell any potatoes, but they were certainly going to be well-presented, that’s for sure.
So the baskets were added to the mountain, along with our handmade seed packets, trugs full of other seeds, more leaflets, posters, display signs, onions, seedlings, plant pots, trowels, books, display boards, more tablecloths, napkins, mats, signing-in sheets, donation boxes, blu tac… all rounded off with our lucky watering can, a large bunch of ready-opened daffodils and four boxes of assorted jam and marmalade. My brother certainly deserves a special mention for managing to fit it all into the car.
I wasn’t the only one bringing baskets though. Cherry had to empty her sewing materials out of their basket again, and cast aside several other small collections of useful items. “How on earth will you know whose basket is whose?” someone asked. “Oh, we’ll know” we said (this being before we realised that some of the little ones were virtually identical).
So we found ourselves late on Friday night lining up seed potatoes in neat rows, in baskets that were designed for other purposes, unfurling 30 metres of mesh for the allotment to prevent ourselves from accidentally selling it, labelling things we’d never heard of, and trying not to laugh so hard that we couldn’t stand up. At least there was no midnight baking this time.
Saturday got under way with over two dozen helpers arriving, David putting the kettle on, and Andrew and Julian arriving with a wagon full of fruit trees. I’m not entirely sure what happened after that. But I know that a whole table full of cake vanished in about an hour flat, we sold 954 seed potatoes and 43 fruit trees, the seeds and seedlings nearly all went, and my living room is no longer full of jam. The cupboard is bare.
Being left with nothing is a bit scary. My kitchen floor is bereft of seed trays, and my baskets are all empty. I feel a bit empty too. Partly, I feel like the big event came and went in the blink of an eye and I sort of missed it through not having time to stand still. But I have since had pause for rest and reflection.
Those empty baskets are deceptive really. In order to empty them, together we’ve had to develop new skills, understanding and ideas. We’ve shared something with dozens and dozens of people, many of whom we’d not met before. We’ve also given those people the chance to meet each other and to get talking (as well as the chance to have some nice carrot marmalade on their toast). And we have filled our days with laughter.
This is one of the reasons why I think that growing our own food is good for us (and good for me). We’ll be at our allotment this Sunday, looking at the empty swathes of mud and knowing that they are full of promise. Things grow, things fade. I have gained so much from accepting that. Together, we keep the whole thing moving, we spread stuff around – not just muck, but experiences, seeds, jam jars, stories, and this year nearly 1,000 potatoes. It is a process, not an event.
Every empty basket is an act of sharing. It’s something that we all gain from – especially the person who is left holding the empties.