Blog Post 19 – More on Folk Astrology and Gardening

I know I’ve promised a walkthrough of a sign-based planting, and that is still coming, but I thought that today it might be good to provide a couple of quotes and citations regarding just who practices this astrological agriculture.

These practices tended to be broadly found, and not relegated to just one or two American magical systems.  There are slight variances between regions, but that could also have less to do with the magical system in place and much more to do with local climate, latitude, and longitude in relation to the stars.

In the southern hills of Appalachia, one Mary “Granny” Cabe is noted to have been quite skilled with astrology and planting.  Foxfire interviewers tell how she “[p]atiently, with the use of several calendars…explained its [planting by the signs] basic principles and gave us several of the rules” (Foxfire p. 221).  She did more than describe the general system, however.  She also explained how specific plants fared in relation to astrological changes:

“’Take taters.  On th’ dark of th’ moon or th’ old of th’ moon—that’s th’ last quarter,’ she explained, ‘they make less vine; and on th’ light of th’ moon they makes more vine and less tater…Don’t plant in th’ flowers [the sign of Virgo, often seen as a virgin bearing flowers].  A plant blooms itself to death and th’ blooms falls off” (p. 221)

There were also many people in the Appalachians who didn’t believe in this method of planting.  The interviewers record that these were mostly “educated people…[with] college degrees, and held positions of great respect in the community” (p. 225).  One informant makes the excellent point that “if someone’s going to be careful enough to plant by the signs and watch and harvest the crop that carefully, then the chances are he will have a good crop, regardless” (p.225).  Still, the stories persist and the practice of planting by the signs continues in the mountains and hills around that area even now.  The Appalachian heritage blog The Blind Pig and the Acorn records its author’s attempt at sign-planting and several of his commenters speak of doing so, too.

Gerald Milnes, in his Signs, Cures, and Witchery, also discusses planting by the signs in the northern parts of Appalachia and Pennsylvania-Dutch territory:

“Astrologic traditions still exist as more than just quaint curiosities among Appalachian people.  It is noted that these practices declined within English society and in New England before the Revolution.  New England’s almanac makers were under withering attack, religious condemnation, and mockery by the mid-seventeenth century, but over three centuries later continued folk practice based on this cosmology is still easy to ascertain” (Milnes, Signs, Cures, & Witchery, p.32).

Milnes makes the case that much of this preservation of astrological folk culture had to do with the availability of almanacs (he also points out one I completely forgot to mention yesterday, but which is supposed to be excellent for New England climes:  Gruber’s).  Many of these almanacs are the same ones which helped preserve the Pow-wow magic I’ve spoken about in previous posts.

Lest you think the phenomenon of sign-planting is relegated to the Appalachian Mountains, here are a few quotes from Pennsylvania-Dutch planting lore:

“Plant peas and potatoes in the increase of the moon”
“If trees are to sprout again they should be felled at the increase of the moon”
“When sowing radish seed say: as long as my arm and as big as my ass”
-(Dorson, Buying the Wind, pp.124-125)

Okay, so that last one wasn’t really about planting by the signs, but it’s fun anyway.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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2 Comments on “Blog Post 19 – More on Folk Astrology and Gardening”

  1. Anica Says:

    funny, its hard to not go a day without thinking about the moon, maybe its the heathen’s bias, but from cutting toenails to starting an art project i always think on the phase and its effect, we all know from generalities that the moon controls the flow of the water table and the tides, and now my academic head is wondering if there is some research to corroborate (and there should be, anything of economic importance usually gets first dibs).


    • That’s a good question, Anica. I’ll have to look into that. I know that I’ve heard of research on commercial fishing and the moon’s influence (apparently a lot of fishing for things like squid is done in bright moonlight), but I don’t remember the source of that.

      Even during daylight hours, the moon gives us so much to ponder 🙂

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comment!

      -Cory


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