New farmers for the old AlmanacBy Maureen Gilmer
McClatchy-Tribune January 20. 2014 11:16PM
There's a hole punched in the corner of The Old Farmer's Almanac for 2014. It's a nostalgic remnant of the homestead where its predecessors hung on the outhouse wall for reading material and, um, toilet paper.
This is the very same annual that guided early American farmers, and it's still just as important today, but for a whole new audience. Now backyard food growers can learn how to link sun, moon and stars, seasons and cycles and folklore into tending the sustainable home garden.
"The Old Farmer's Almanac" is useful because it reminds you of planting dates and other important times in the agricultural year. It is a primer for new gardeners to discover the older, less expensive ways to get things done. Moreover, this annual details how astronomical happenings, such as moon phases, governed the tasks of the gardener-farmer's world.
Why, you ask, is this important? That farmer used the old time methods of using phases of the moon to govern his work, and that helps gardeners too. It dictates the kind of tasks he performs in the waxing moon or a waning one, when the moon is full or there is no moon at all.
The Almanac utilizes very old symbols for celestial goings on from day length to the sun's position with signs of the Zodiac and many things other similar publications lack. The symbols were essential for illiterate farmers who could not read text but recognized the signs and knew what they mean.
The farmer's monthly cycle is broken into four moon phases. The new moon is called "the dark of the moon." Soon after, the first sliver of moon appears, called the "fingernail" moon growing nightly until the first quarter is complete. This signals it is on the increase or "waxing" incrementally larger each night. This continues through the end of the first quarter into the second, which ends in the full moon. Then the moon "wanes" or grows smaller each night until the third quarter is completed. In the fourth, you come around to the new moon again.
An old farmer's rule is to plant crops that fruit above the ground while the moon is waxing. Then under a full moon all crops are planted. It was believed that the strength of the moon is greatest when full and would therefore bring more growth energy to seed germination. As the moon begins to wane planting continues through the third quarter, but only those plants which produce below ground such as turnip or potato.
The fourth quarter of the moon is a time of destruction and planting is forbidden. This is when the farmer cuts his fence posts and firewood. He ploughed the fields and pulled weeds. Harvest also occurred in the dark of the moon.
Among other important information is sunrise, sunset and tides for every day of the year. Woven into these factoids are useful tips, handy examples and folklore from early farming practices that still ring true today. This year's feature stories include an excellent primer on crop rotation in the home garden.
While buying my new issue, I noticed other publishers are getting on board with similar versions of the Almanac that lack the age- old wisdom and 21st century data. Look for its iconic yellow cover, and note the various geographic editions. You'll find the almanac and a useful wall calendar version at www.almanac.com .
The Old Farmer's Almanac is one of the best books around for new backyard food gardeners. Learn planting dates, get on the fast track to the age-old forecast of seasons, planetary positions, moon phase and weather forecasts that are just as useful today as they were centuries ago.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com . Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.