“Best time for okra is with sign in feet, because it will bear from the ground up.”
“Potatoes best in dark of moon.”
To the uninitiated, the sayings sound like either gibberish or some secret code. But the practice of “planting by the signs” — a combination of the Zodiac and phases of the moon, as memorialized in the Old Farmer’s Almanac — has been carried down from ancient times and is still a popular guidepost for many home gardeners this time of year.
“My momma always said don’t ever plant anything in the Bowels or the Secrets, or your produce won’t be any good,” recalls Reita Nesbitt of Curry. (Bowels and Secrets refer to the Almanac’s time-honored “Zodiac Man,” an illustration of a human figure with each of the 12 signs pointing to a different part of the body. Secrets — or Scorpio — apparently hold sway over the pelvic region.)
Reita and her husband Jerry say they don’t follow the Almanac precisely for their planting, but rather a combination of ancestors’ wisdom and what’s worked for them in the past. It just so happens that the two qualities often coincide. An example:
“You’re supposed to plant potatoes in either the dark of the moon or an ascending moon,” says Jerry. “If you plant them at the wrong time, they’ll have blooms and look beautiful but the potatoes won’t be big. The same goes for beans. The vines will look pretty, but not much crop.”
Nesbitt remembers the exact year he first tried his hand at gardening: 1962. “I’d always wanted a garden but didn’t have the room,” he says. “When I had the chance — I was living in Boldo at the time, and had a lot of room — I went all out. I even bought me a brand-new Craftsman roto-tiller from Sears.” He laughs. “I planted a whole lot of watermelons, too. I had some great ones that year.”
Reita’s gardening experience goes back even farther. Her parents, who farmed and raised animals near Berry in Fayette County, gave her a garden plot of her own when she became a teenager: “I don’t even remember now what I planted in that space,” she says, “but I planted it and hoed it, and it was mine.”
Every year at planting time, her mother checked the Farmer’s Almanac, Reita remembers: “She used it to figure out when to plant her beans, and so on. She didn’t go by it a hundred percent, but she used it as a guide. A lot of her rules were ‘Don’t do...’ Such as, don’t plant your beans when the sign is in the Flower Girl, and don’t plant anything when it’s in the Bowels or the Secrets.”
Nowadays, Wikipedia refers to the practice of planting by the signs as “agricultural astrology,” and says it stretches all the way back to farmers on the banks of the Nile and Euphrates in ancient Egypt. There’s also a section on signs-planting in the hit 1972 folklore book Foxfire that contains such wisdom as, “Crops planted in Taurus and Cancer will strand drought,” “Corn planted in Leo will have a hard, round stalk and small ears,” and “Never plant on a day when the moon changes quarters.”
Some of the old planting wisdom doesn’t refer to the Zodiac, but to other seasonal variations — such as Reita’s mother’s advice that “The best time to plant corn is when you start seeing white-headed bumblebees around.” She remembers playing with the bees as a girl, tying a string around their leg. “The thing about white-headed bees is that they won’t sting you,” she says.
Other advice passed down to Reita includes “Plant green beans on St. Patrick’s Day and they won’t get killed by frost,” “Don’t fertilize okra when you plant it or the plants will die,” and “Never plant cantaloupe near squash or cucumbers.”
If the proof of planting by old traditions is in the harvesting, that final piece of advice has special resonance for Jerry. He remembers one year recently when the couple’s garden — a space roughly 50 by 60 feet, just uphill from the yard of their lakeside house—produced so many cantaloupe that he finally started stacking them by the side of the road with a sign that said “Help Yourself.”
The Nesbitts aren’t put off by the sheer amount of work that a garden of their size requires, though at peak times the labor amounts to several hours a day. “When springtime comes around, you get a little extra perky and want to do things,” Reita observes.
“I think it’s in our genes,” Jerry adds. “Our ancestors had to do their farming just to survive, and I believe some of that urge has been passed down to us.”
In the South, over the decades, gardeners have been hesitant at times to talk much about their sign-planting practices because some of the more fundamentalist churches believed the Zodiac has a witchcraft connection. Is there any scientific proof that the old-time wisdom actually works? Yes and no.
As Wikipedia puts it, “There is a lack of scientific evidence proving the beneficial effects of astrological gardening. A few studies have been conducted, but none of this has been conclusively proven or disproved by modern science”. On the other hand, scientists are taking a fresh look at the area of linking farm practices to nature events such as squirrel ears and white-headed bumblebees.
That subject is called “phenology,” and one recent article reports that “Modern plant scientists have found that phenology corresponds to a measurement called growing degree days, which are calculated by adding the average daily temperature to, or subtracting it from, 50 degrees F. This information provides a way to estimate the timing of certain events, such as when controls for pest insects need to be used to maximize their benefit.”
In any event, whatever ancient guideposts the Nesbitts are using definitely pay off at harvest time each year. Last season alone, Reita canned a hundred quarts of green beans. “You don’t have a good bean year every year,” she says. “And I’ve always hated to see anything go to waste.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org