What do almanacs have to do with your garden crops?
Aren’t those fresh summer vegetables wonderful? Especially if they are locally grown, perhaps in your own back yard. By now, you have a good idea of how well your garden has fared.
You know if you have more squash than you can use, or not enough tomatoes for your homemade pasta sauce. Lacking in one ingredient? No problem, you can stop at the many roadside fruit and vegetable stands with which we are blessed. If all else fails, you can pick up what you still need at your local supermarket. (This time of year, supermarkets also advertise locally grown produce, even though their definition of local in some cases is a good bit broader than mine.)
Our ancestors didn’t often have that option to purchase the missing items. So they tried every means possible to get the best yield out of own gardens, including planting, pruning and harvesting by the almanac. Superstition or science? Read my recent York Sunday News column below before you judge.
Planting by the almanac
How is your harvest coming? All vines and few zuchinnis? Or so many that you sneak them on your neighbors’ porches at night? There might be more to producing produce than meets the eye. Our ancestors didn’t have those well-worn almanacs around just to know what day it was or check out a ridiculously long-range weather forecast. They were a tool for planning their agricultural pursuits, a practice dating back at least to the 16th century, and perhaps much earlier.
A friend recently told me a story about her mother’s cucumber patch, planted each year to keep the family in pickles with excess to sell. As she was helping her mother plant cucumbers one spring day, a neighbor lady happened along and paused to tell them it was not a good day to do so. The neighbor said it was the sign of the “Posey-lady” [Virgo] and they would get a lot of flowers but few “pickles.” The mother politely thanked the neighbor, and later explained to the daughter that they didn’t take stock in such beliefs, but wouldn’t “make fun” of anyone who did. They went on with their planting.
The vines grew and blossomed profusely, but no cucumbers appeared that year. When planting time came around the next year, my friend’s mother told her to go down the road and ask the neighbor when would be a good time to “plant pickles.” Reminded about saying that they didn’t believe in that kind of thing, the mother replied that they didn’t, but it still wouldn’t hurt to listen to the neighbor.
That story sent me to the York County History Center Library/Archives, especially various articles published over the years in The Pennsylvania Dutchman/Pennsylvania Folklife.
Almanacs are still published today, some continuously for two centuries, such as the Old Farmers’Almanac (1792), Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack (1797) and Baer’s Agricultural Almanac and Gardener’s Guide (1825). They still give day by day agricultural advice based on moon signs and phases of the moon.
If you look at an almanac, old or new, you see the 12 familiar signs of the zodiac, but we are not concerned here with sun signs, the neat division of the year into 12 segments, each changing about the 21st of the month. The sun signs are the basis for those general newspaper horoscopes.
We are dealing here with moon signs, which change every few days. These have been carefully calculated by experts for centuries. It is important to know the moon’s position in the zodiac on a specific day, including whether it was above or below an elliptical plane as viewed from earth. In his article “Zodiac Wisdom,” published in Western Folklore in 1956, Everett A. Gillis explains:
“The zodiac proper is an imaginary belt or circle on the celestial sphere, sixteen degrees broad, containing the twelve zodiacal constellations—through which the sun, because of the earth’s annual orbit around it, seems to an observer on the earth to make an annual circuit. In its horoscopes and predictions, traditional astrology makes great use of the influence on human affairs of the sun and the planets as they occupy various constellations. Folk interest, however, is concerned only with the moon and its phases, and the specific periods at which it occupies the various signs. During its monthly revolution around the earth, the moon appears in each of the signs at least once. The dates at which this occurs for any given sign is carefully recorded in the almanacs and is thus easily available to any interested farmer. When the moon occupies those signs which lie above the earth’s ecliptic or plane of its orbit, it is said to be in the “up” signs; when in those below the ecliptic, in the “down” signs.”
Other aspects include whether the “horns” of the waxing or waning crescent moon point up or down or if the moon is new or full. Looking at the moon sign for the day and the phase of the moon allows you to interpret favorable days for planting, pruning and harvesting, according to the crop. Other organic materials are said to be affected, such as wooden roof shingles. One article cites a roof that was half shingled on a Saturday in an up sign. Work was completed Monday when the moon was in a down sign. Five years later the Saturday-laid shingles had curled up and the Monday ones were still flat.
Some of the articles I consulted, which were written about 50 years ago, give examples of advice then gleaned from southcentral/southeastern Pennsylvania residents, coinciding with moon sign theories. Here are just a few:
“Beans: If planted when the horns of the Moon are up, will readily pole; but if planted when the horns are down, will not.”
“Tomatoes: Plant in the Full of the Moon.”
“Root crops planted in the down sign go deep; those planted in the up sign stick out.”
“The Lion is a good sign for getting rid of weeds and thistles.”
“Grass cut in the decrease of the moon won’t grow back as fast.”
And, yes: “Whatever you plant in the sign of the Posey-woman will go to blossoms.”
One article makes a good point; if the moon has enough force to affect tides, why couldn’t it also influence rise and fall of sap in plants and trees? Or perhaps even other aspects of growing things. All I know is that my friend’s family had plenty of cucumbers the next year by avoiding planting in the sign of the Posey-lady.