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Growing Together: Potato planting Easter weekend

Did you plant your potatoes on Good Friday? I wish I had a bushel of spuds for every time we've heard the question. Are potatoes really best planted then, or is it an old wives' tale?

I never dismiss old wives' tales because some of the best gardeners are old wives. But let's think this through.

I've never heard a rationale for Good Friday potato planting, other than we're just supposed to. Legends say Good Friday was a rare day off for peasant laborers, who might have used the day for home gardening. The Irish claim when potatoes were introduced in the 16th century, Protestants wouldn't plant them because potatoes weren't mentioned in the Bible. Catholics were OK with potatoes, but they first sprinkled them with holy water and planted on Good Friday for good measure.

Potato planting on Good Friday is difficult because the date varies. Easter is the Sunday following the first full moon of spring, mobilizing it between March 20 and April 25. That's a wide swing in planting dates, and gardening in March is chilly in these parts.

It seems odd that Elmer in Fargo should plant his potatoes the same date Eula Mae plants hers down in Baton Rouge, La. Maybe Good Friday transcends all hardiness zones.

The only earthly possibility for making potatoes grow better on that date might be the practice of planting by the phases of the moon, which science has neither proved nor disproved. The moon's gravitational pull causes the Earth's ocean tides, and there's at least a possibility that the same force affects water in plants and soil, influencing growth.

Gardening according to the moon's phases involves planting crops that produce above-ground vegetables during the "light of the moon," which is the phase as the moon increases in size from the new moon to the full moon. Crops that produce below-ground edibles like potatoes, are planted during the "dark of the moon" as it decreases in size from the full moon to the new moon.

Because Easter Sunday is calculated after the full moon, Good Friday normally falls during the "dark of the moon," which is an easy date to remember for planting potatoes. But the proper moon phase will occur again next month when it's warmer.

The second gardening symbol of the Easter weekend is the lily. The Bible describes them growing wildly in Palestine. Legends say lilies sprouted in the Garden of Gethsemane and at the foot of Jesus' cross.

Though white lilies have symbolized Easter for centuries, the large lily popular in churches today is a recent arrival. Native to southern islands of Japan, Lilium longiflorum bulbs were taken to Bermuda in the 1800s. Louis Houghton, a World War I soldier, took a suitcase of bulbs home to Oregon in 1919 and distributed them to friends and neighbors. The bulbs were so well-adapted, commercial farms arose.

Today 95 percent of the world's Easter lily bulbs are produced along the Oregon-Washington border. The bulbs are field-harvested in the fall and shipped to greenhouses worldwide where they are potted and forced under exacting conditions to bloom for Easter.

Good care will increase bloom longevity in the home. Easter lilies prefer moderately cool temperatures. Avoid drafts from open doors or heating ducts. Place in bright or filtered sunlight, but not in hot, direct sun.

As each flower opens, remove the yellow anthers, which are pollen-covered sacs in the middle. Flowers last longer if the yellow powder doesn't pollinate the central green-white stigma.

Keep soil moist when in full bloom. If the pot has decorative wrapping, poke holes and place on a drainage dish to avoid drowning.

Reblooming lilies in a pot is usually unsuccessful. But they can rebloom outdoors as a perennial lily in a flowerbed with winter protection.

After Easter, grow the plant in a sunny window, and add Miracle Gro or other soluble fertilizer each time you water. The longer the foliage stays healthy, the stronger the bulb becomes. Gradually decrease watering frequency as foliage naturally turns from green to yellow to brown.

By mid- to late May, cut stalks to several inches above soil, remove from the pot, and replant the bulb in a permanent flowerbed outdoors in a protected but sunny spot.

Plant 4 to 6 inches deep, depending on soil heaviness. New shoots will emerge and bloom in September the first season and in mid-July thereafter. Because Easter lilies are tender, maximize protection by planting near the house foundation, cover with a foot of leaves or mulch in the fall, and ensure good snow cover.

So, did I plant our potatoes? No, I'm delaying a bit. But in 2038, Good Friday falls later, on April 23. I think I'll pencil that in.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler's Greenhouse in Fargo. Tune in to his weekly radio segment from 11 to 11:30 a.m. Fridays on WDAY Radio 970. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com.

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