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.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, we were in the light days of the moon, and it was also the sign of the feet. That makes great planting. Now we’re headed into the dark of the moon, and we’ll be in the sign of the head. Things won’t sprout as well then.” To make matters worse, Millie informed me that my pepper seeds should have been planted at the end of February.
“Oh, shoot,” I said. “Won’t there be any more days in the right sign?”
Millie looked at me with a pained expression. I could tell she knew she was dealing with an idiot. “No, that’s not the problem,” she said. “They need to be started 10 weeks before the last spring frost.”
After visiting with Millie, I went to the store and bought an almanac like hers. Then I took it home and studied it. I found the chart Millie had referenced. It told me, month by month, the best days to plant and harvest, but it recommended days in January and February for picking apples and pears. I wasn’t sure I could trust a book that didn’t even understand the growing seasons, so I decided to consult my neighbor Robin Vance, who is the local expert on folklore.
The Vances have been farming for generations, and Robin, the youngest son, has been collecting mountain folklore since he was a teenager. He keeps all of that wisdom in several well-thumbed journals. Most of what he knows about gardening he learned from his Uncle Lohr, who was a big believer in planting in the correct sign. “Here’s one I try to do,” he said. “Plant potatoes in the sign of the thighs, feet or knees, or if you can, plant them in the light of the moon. Then dig your potatoes in the dark of the moon. They’ll keep better that way. If you fork them when you’re digging, that cut will heal if you dig them in the right sign, but it’ll rot if you don’t. This year, because it was so wet, I had to just dig mine when I could. It wasn’t the right sign, but sometimes you just gotta get them out of the ground. You know, I’ve already had to throw out a 5-gallon bucket full of rotted ones.”
Finally, I visited my neighbor Beulah. She’s almost 90 years old, and she still plants a half-acre garden every year. She learned much of her wisdom from her father. When I met with her in mid-July, my plants were beginning to produce. I was pretty proud of my garden since, even though Robin gave me great advice, I had totally bombed planting in the signs. In fact, I had just planted a second crop of cucumbers. I mentioned this to Beulah. “Oh, no!” she said. “It’s too late.”
“I know, Robin said I should have put them in on June 21st, but it was so rainy and wet that I couldn’t get in the garden. Will they get frosted?” I asked.
“No, it’s the sign of the Posy,” she said. “They’ll be all bloom and no cucumbers.”
I spent the rest of the season planting, harvesting and weeding when I had time and the weather was fit. I broke a lot of the rules, but my garden produced enough to fill my cellar. My second planting of cucumbers – planted in the sign of the posy – didn’t bear at all. Dry weather or the wrong sign? I’ll never know.
This fall I was admiring my neighbor Sarah’s beautiful dahlias. Her garden always looks like it’s hosting a party. “You have so many blooms. You must have planted these in the sign of the posy,” I said. She laughed. “Don’t be silly. I don’t plant things in the sign. I plant them in the dirt.”
Finally, some advice I could understand.
Robin shared many weather signs with me. He doesn’t take much stock in woolly worm predictions or Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostications, but he said these weather signs were often correct.
• If it rains on Whit Sun-day (the 7th Sunday after Easter) it will rain for the next 7 Sundays.
• If it is dry on the full moon in July, then there’s good hay weather ahead.
• A cold rain in April means your barn will be full of hay or corn by fall.
• Plant corn when hickory buds are as big as hawk’s bills.
• If the 24th of August be fair and clear, there’s hope for a prosperous autumn that year.
• Rain on elderberry bloom means it will rain until it finishes blooming (late June to mid-July).
• The 21st of all four seasons will tell what the next three months will bring: hot, dry, wind, or cold. Whatever the weather on the 21st, that is what it will be for the next three months.
Ginny Neil is a transplanted city girl who has lived on a farm in the mountains of Virginia since she married her farmer-husband 29 years ago.