Planting By the Moon and Other Fascinating Rural Folklore

The advice you get with planting by the moon can sometimes leave one’s head spinning.

| March/April 2016

  • My puzzled expression led to a lecture on canning and gardening in the signs.
    Illustration by Dennis Auth
  • I was pretty proud of my garden since, even though Robin gave me great advice, I had totally bombed planting in the signs.
    Illustration by Dennis Auth

The day I discovered that my kraut had crashed, I was crushed. I had sacrificed knuckle skin and more than two hours of grating to fill a 5-gallon crock with cabbage in anticipation of some crunchy fermented goodness. When I uncovered the cabbage – which should’ve been kraut – a month later, it had disappeared into a vat of slimy, rotten goo. What had I done wrong? For years, I refused to attempt making kraut again. Then one day my friend Richard was rhapsodizing about the crisp kraut in his lunchbox. I asked him his secret.

Richard grew up in a holler tucked between two mountains I can see from my kitchen window. He spent his childhood gardening with his mom and canning alongside his granny. He makes the best pickles I’ve ever tasted, grows the largest tomatoes, and harvests the sweetest corn. He grinned and said, “Well, I made it in the sign of the head, of course. You’ll never go wrong if you do that. You must have made yours in the sign of the bowels.” I had no idea of what he was talking about.

My puzzled expression led to a lecture on canning and gardening in the signs. It turns out that what I considered Appalachian folklore still informs lots of decisions for families in my county who’ve spent generations perfecting the art of growing and preserving food. The local bank recognizes this and hands out free copies of The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Richard advised me to pick up a copy.

I did, and here’s what I discovered: Kraut must be made in the dark days of the moon, but it can’t be made when the signs are in the bowels, feet, or dog days. I studied the charts for each set of heavenly bodies. After much time, I puzzled it out. I could make sauerkraut on the third day of the fourth month, 20 years from now – unless it was raining or it was a Tuesday. In that case, I’d have to wait another 10 years. The almanac also included information about planting times, which were just as confusing to me. It didn’t appear that any appropriate planting times actually happened in the spring.

Obviously I was missing some important information, so I set out to quiz my mountain neighbors. The first person I talked to was my friend Millie. She’s been gardening for more than 50 years and, the day I talked to her, she was in her living room with five large flats of seedlings on the coffee table under the window. All of the little plants were sturdy and bright green. It was early March, and I hadn’t even started my seeds. I was under the assumption that I needed to wait until six weeks before the last spring frost.

When I asked her why she’d already planted, she pulled a small book from the stack on her coffee table and opened it. It was a different almanac from the one I had, and the page she opened to included a table showing the dates for planting various crops in the correct sign. She consulted it, and then gave me the bad news. “You should have planted your seeds yesterday.”

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