Planting By the Signs: Mountain Gardening: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students (2011)
PLANTING BY THE SIGNS
Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.
At the time when many of the crops planted in the spring were gathered in and preserved for the winter to come, our attention was turned to a phenomenon that had fascinated us for some time—that of planting, harvesting, and conducting a number of other activities by the moon and the signs of the zodiac. Its rules have been passed down so carefully from year to year that its practice bridges the gaps between the generations more successfully and more completely than most.
Over thirty separate interviews were conducted for this chapter, some with people who follow the signs religiously, and some with those who scoff at the idea. Many of the interviews were taped, making it possible for us to set down information just as it was given us—word for word.
Ancient astronomers discovered that a number of the bright constellations of stars that they had studied and named were evenly spaced along the yearly path of the sun in a belt about eighteen degrees wide. This belt also included the paths of the planets and the monthly path of the moon.
This belt was subsequently divided into twelve parts each of thirty degrees in length called “signs.” Each of these signs contained a constellation of stars, and each sign thus received its name from the name of the constellation it contained. Since all the signs except Libra were named after living things, the belt was named the zodiac, or “zone of animals.”
As the early wise men believed that there was an intimate relationship between the celestial bodies and mankind, the twelve signs soon became identified with various parts of the human body. Charts which illustrate this relationship have been noted as far back in history as 1300 B.C. according to the 1967 edition of Grier’s Almanac.
Astrologers all over the world lost no time in seizing the zodiac as a guide for their predictions. With its use, they and their followers constructed everything from horoscopes to guides for good fishing days. One of their constructions which received serious and devoted attention from thousands of families was a set of rules for planting. Although the practice seems to be declining in popularity now, there are still many accurate sources of information to be found. Grier’s annual almanac, “first published in 1807 and every year since,” is mailed out of Atlanta and contains one of the most complete astrological calendars available. A wall calendar equally full of information of this sort is published by the Francis and Lusky Company of Nashville, Tennessee. But perhaps the most specific information comes from T. E. Black. He publishes a guide, numerous fishing and planting charts, and he even personally answers many of the letters he receives from his followers. The chart which precedes this article is from his booklet, God’s Way, which gives complete directions for planting by the signs as tested through years of research. It is available from Mr. C. J. Black, P. O. Box 785, Andalusia, Alabama, and is reprinted here with his permission.
HOW IT WORKS
Every day of the month is dominated by one of the twelve signs of the zodiac. Each of the twelve appears at least once a month, and then for a period of either two or three days. All good planting calendars label each day with the sign that rules over it (depending on which constellation is foremost in the sky at the time), the part of the body and the planet associated with the sign, and the element it is most closely akin to. The following chart summarizes this information.
The signs always appear in sequence, beginning with the Ram or Head and working their way down to Pisces, the Fish or Feet. Following Pisces, the Ram appears again beginning a new sequence.
Each of the signs is known as being cither masculine, feminine, airy, dry, barren, fiery, earthy, moist, watery, fruitful, or very fruitful. In general, any activity that requires a dry atmosphere, such as painting, should be done in one of the dry signs; and an activity requiring moisture, such as some planting, should be done on one of the moist or fruitful signs.
The best time of all, of course, to conduct any activity is when a day falls on both an ideal sign and a good phase of the moon.
Over the years, a more specific set of rules has grown up around the zodiac which governs such activities as planting and harvesting. These rules take into account both the sign governing the day and the phase of the moon on that particular day. At the beginning of the planting season, for example, the farmer consults his calendar, picks out one of the fourteen favorable days that occur every month, and plants only on one of these fourteen “fruitful” days. Should he miss and plant his crops on one of the unfruitful days, his crops will not produce at half their ability, say the believers. T. E. Black even goes so far as to say that a few hours can make the difference between success and failure, and many of his followers agree.
The following rules were gathered both from interviews and wide reading. They do not represent a complete set, but they should serve to give the reader a good idea as to the nature of this system. We also included rules for butchering, cutting hair, killing weeds, pulling teeth, and others to give some grasp of the scope of the subject.
PLANTING—Planting is best done in the fruitful signs of Scorpio, Pisces, Taurus, or Cancer (when the signs are in the loins, feet, neck, or breast).
Plow, till, and cultivate in Aries.
Never plant anything in one of the barren signs. They are good only for trimming, deadening, and destroying.
Always set plants out in a water or earth sign.
Graft just before the sap starts to flow, while the moon is in its first or second quarter, and while it is passing through a fruitful watery sign, or Capricorn. Never graft or plant on Sunday as this is a barren, hot day (the sun’s day).
Plant flowers in Libra which is an airy sign that also represents beauty. Plant them while the moon is in the first quarter unless you need the seeds, in which case use the period between the moon’s second quarter and full.
Corn planted in Leo will have a hard, round stalk and small cars.
Crops planted in Taurus and Cancer will stand drought.
Plant beans when the signs are in the arms.
Root flower cuttings, limbs, vines, and set out flower bushes and trees in December and January when the signs arc in the knees and feet.
Never transplant in the heart or head as both these signs are “Death Signs.”
If you want a large vine and stalk with little fruit, plant in Virgo—“bloom days.”
Don’t plant potatoes in the feet. If you do, they will develop little nubs like toes all over the main potato. The best time is a dark night in March.
Plant all things which yield above the ground during the increase or growing of the moon, and all things which yield below the ground (root crops) when the moon is decreasing or darkening.
Never plant on the first day of the new moon, or on a day when the moon changes quarters.
In the fourth quarter turn sod, pull weeds, and destroy.
REAPING AND HARVESTING—Pick fruit like apples and pears in the old of the moon (while it is decreasing or shrinking). This will cause the bruised spots and blemishes to dry up rather than rot. They will rot if the fruit is picked on the increase or rising of the moon, or on the new moon.
Harvest most crops when the moon is growing old. This will cause them to keep better and longer.
Dig root crops for seed in the third quarter of the moon. They will keep longer and are usually drier and better.
Gather root crops in the last quarter of the moon when the signs are in the knees or feet.
Can vegetables, cook preserves and jelly, and make pickles in the right sign during the last quarter of the moon.
MISCELLANY—Cut timber in the old of the moon. It will dry better and not become worm-eaten.
Set fence posts in the old of the moon to prevent loosening.
The part of your body governed by a particular sign is more sensitive when the moon is in that sign. People with heart trouble, for example, will have more trouble in Leo’s sign, and lovers are more successful at this time. In Taurus (throat) an operation on this part of the body will be unsuccessful. Conversely, if tonsils are removed and teeth are pulled when the signs are in the knees or feet, there is less soreness, loss of blood, and danger of infection. You can easily figure others out for yourself.
Paint houses or cars in a dry sign like Leo or Aries.
Wean a child or animal when the moon is in a sign that does not rule the vital parts of the body (Capricorn, Pisces, Sagittarius).
Set eggs to hatch in a fruitful sign like Cancer. The chicks will mature faster and be better layers.
Quit habits on the second day that the moon is in Sagittarius, or on the new moon, or in Pisces.
If you cut your hair in Libra, Sagittarius, Aquarius, or Pisces, it will grow stronger, thicker, and more beautiful.
Purge with pills in Pisces and with liquids in Sagittarius.
Bake and cook in Aries.
Hunt in Taurus.
Lay foundations in Capricorn.
Don’t nail shingles or boards on the growing side of the moon, or the ends will draw up and curl and go crooked.
Destroy weeds, kill trees, turn sod in the barren signs Gemini, Leo, or Virgo (especially if the moon is in the last quarter).
Slaughter while the signs are in the knees or feet, and in the last quarter of the moon.
THOSE WHO BELIEVE
The first information we gathered for this article was through interviews with those people that we knew in advance followed the signs. We knew nothing of this phenomenon before we started out.
Here, then, is the beginning of our search:
Mary Cabe, or “Granny” Cabe as she is affectionately known by her family and close friends, lives on Mulberry Road just across the North Carolina line. A tall, thin, stately, elderly woman with flashing, friendly eyes, she was the first person we questioned. Like many young people in this area, we knew nothing about the zodiac when we met her—not even what questions to ask except, “What is it?”
Patiently, with the use of several calendars, she explained its basic principles to us and gave us several of the rules. Her family had used the signs for as long as she could remember, and she spoke quietly and with complete conviction, laughing kindly at our amazement. “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. A plant blooms itself to death and th’ blooms falls off, and don’t make cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, or stuff like that.…And if you kill a hog on th’ growin’ of th’ moon, th’ meat’s all puffy and there just ain’t no grease a’tall. I don’t know why it is, but it’s sure thataway for we’ve tried it.”
Her son, Elvin Cabe, agreed, telling us the story of a man he knew who, before cutting his hay, told those helping him that they could walk right behind him and stack it as he went if they wanted to. It would never mold, but would cure perfectly because he was cutting it on just the right time of the moon.
“And you know, that stuff never molded a bit in th’ world. Cut hay on th’ old of th’ moon,” he continued, “and it’ll dry a third quicker than it will on th’ new. On th’ new of th’ moon, th’ sap is still in it. It’ll dry, but it’ll take a lot longer. It’s th’ same with wood. Cut it on th’ new, and when you put it in th’ fire it’ll spew water out both ends all th’ time. It’ll rot out before it’ll dry. And take sand in a river. I’ve noticed this out fishing. On th’ new of th’ moon, th’ water’s full of sand as it can be, and if you’re standing on th’ edge barefooted, th’ water will pull th’ sand right out from you and sink you down. But on th’ old, th’ water’s clear. It never carries sand.
“Another thing. Dig a hole on th’ new of th’ moon and you will have dirt to throw away, but if you dig it on th’ old of th’ moon, you’ll not have enough to fill it back again. Look, if you don’t believe me, try this, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll give you a hundred dollar bill. Dig a post hole on th’ growin’ of th’ moon. Dig it ever how deep and how big around you want, and put th’ post in it. It’ll be loose all th’ time and never settle. Dig th’ same kind of hole on th’ old of th’ moon, just th’ same size, and sink your post. It’ll settle as tight as you could want—like it’s took roots and growed there.”
By this time, we were fascinated. Anxious to help out, Elvin took us farther up Mulberry Road and introduced us to Mr. Harley Carpenter. Speaking slowly, quietly, chuckling often, he talked about the signs and about the people who refused to believe in them.
“They’re as wild as a rabbit sittin’ up there in the broom sage,” he laughed softly. “Get too close to ’em and they’re gone. Seein’, in a sense, is a great believin’. You can hear things, but if you’ve seen it, you’ve got more sense out of it. If it hadn’t’a been true, it wouldn’a been handed down through the years. In other words, it speaks the signs in th’ Bible, you know.
“I heared a fella’ talkin’ about plantin’ corn. He said t’other one, he said, ’I plant mine when th’ signs is in th’ arms and it won’t grow high, and th’ ear’ll come out and shank and hang down.’ And th’ other’n says, ’Aw, I don’t plant by th’ signs and by th’ moon. I plant in th’ ground when I get ready.’ He just ain’t got th’ self-experience, you see. Now all these things, you’d have to go through a process of tryin’ and seein’. Then you’d be a permanent believer.
“And th’ same way by beans. Now you might talk to a woman about plantin’ beans, and they’d just hoot at’ya and say, ’I plant in th’ ground,’ like I said. But there’s a certain time them signs is when if you plant’m, they’ll speck and rot, and it’s in th’ bowels. Now there’s a mystery there for me and you to study about that. Why does it happen? And here’s what I figure out about it—just thinkin’ about my food. It goes in here pleasant and good in th’ mouth, and when it comes out, its manufactured and went through a process in th’ bowels. In other words, it’s rotted, see? Went on out.
“And th’ same way by corn now. In my comin’ up, my daddy always tried to plant his corn when th’ signs was in th’ arms; and beans and pumpkins and so on th’ same way. Well, now I’ve growed up and we don’t have much corn in th’ mountain country, you know. It’s about to quit. But people back then always tried to grow enough corn to do ’em, see? Well, they’d have corn shuckin’s—go in and help one another. You can’t get a crowd together now unless it’s for music or somethin’ they’re goin’ta give away. But in my bein’ at corn shuckins’ and shuckin’ my own corn, you’d find cars once in a while that if they was planted in th’ bowels, they’d be grown and matured green—solid dry rot. And th’ old people claimed that that was th’ signs.
“You take pigs, now—castratin’ pigs. If you want a pig to do well, let th’ signs be in th’ feet. Gone on out, you see; gone on down past th’ arms and legs and out, through th’ feet.”
We asked him about cutting wood. “Cuttin’ wood? Oh, shucks yeah. Lots’a people just hoot at’ya talkin’ about cuttin’ firewood to burn good, but there’s a certain time of th’ moon when you cut it and it won’t do nothin’ but fry and hiss about and have to get red hot and maybe burn enough kindlin’ to make another fire. There’s a certain time in that now about deadenin’. I did know, but I wouldn’t say for sure. I think it’s th’ dark nights in May when th’ signs are in th’ heart. You stick an axe in a tree, and when you cut it, it’ll die.”
Twenty miles away, we visited another woman known throughout this area. Mrs. E. N. Nicholson, frail but energetic and bright, is the oldest woman in the county, having watched over a hundred years go past. Did she believe in the signs? “I was brought up in that day, and I can’t help from believin’ in it. When I plant my garden, I wanta’ plant it on the right time of the moon. But most of that’s forgotten now.”
When asked if she thought it ought to be preserved, she answered, “I can’t help but think that it ought. There arc too many things to think about today. A good home and plenty of land should make anyone perfectly happy. Too many things now that call for money. We had a good time when I was growin’ up, and we got along as well as you all now.”
On the way back home, we stopped in to visit Mr. Carnes whose relish, preserve, and jelly stand outside Clayton is a favorite stop for tourists and local people alike. He does not follow the signs himself as he does not plant, but his whole family did. He was able to tell us the following story, and theory.
“Some time ago, a man was castrating two hogs. He finished one, and just as he got to the second, the moon changed, and the second hog bled to death.”
He also advanced the theory that you needed to plant your corn so that it would lower on the bright nights of the moon. That way, the insects could see better and pollinate the flowers more completely. This, obviously, would result in a better crop of corn.
The whole thing, being strange to us, still sounded crazy. The next day we had a new angle. If this whole thing did work, then there had to be a logical explanation. Margaret Norton would know, if anyone would. She was our next target.
Margaret, author of our recipe column in our magazine, is widely known and respected as one of the most successful gardeners in these parts. Because of this, and because she has been planting strictly by the signs for over ten years, she has become the authority in Betty’s Creek valley on the signs and how they work. Knowing Margaret and her husband Richard better than most of the people we had interviewed, we felt free to ask her more probing questions. Besides, we knew a little more about the signs by the time we got to her—more, at least, than we had known when we talked to Mrs. Cabe—and so we felt more confident.
She and her husband Richard both talked to us freely. Margaret explained, “It’s all true, and just a few hours can make a difference. It sure works for me. And th’ ones that don’t [plant by the signs]—if they once was to get started at it, they wouldn’t change for nothin’. But they have just growed up thataway and, you know, it’s hard to change when you’ve done a certain thing all your life. But I don’t know why they won’t try it. If they just was to fail with something several times, they perhaps would try then, because that’s th’ thing made me start tryin’. My cucumbers failed. I planted them, and they just bloomed and bloomed and bloomed and never did any good. I just planted ’em in an unfruitful sign.”
Richard continued. “We plant Irish potatoes by th’ signs, too. They’s a certain sign you can plant Irish potatoes in and they’ll do as good again; I know that. They’s lots of people who hit it once in a while anyhow though.” And Margaret added, “Naturally once in a while you’d hit it, because there’s fourteen good plantin’ days in every month, see?”
Soon we were on the subject of the younger generation and whether they were following the signs or not. Margaret commented, “Young people aren’t followin’ it. They don’t even know th’ signs. They perhaps just go on about somethin’ else and never help their parents in th’ field; and maybe their parents don’t say anything to them, and don’t say, ’Now this is th’ right day to plant. Let’s go and plant.’ You know, th’ young generation don’t work like we had to work when we was growin’ up.”
What would happen with the young people not following the lessons of their ancestors? “They’ll just run into trouble. Th’ farmin’ and stuff’ll just be goin’ out more and more every year.”
Richard changed the subject. “Another thing. Now you take like killin’ hogs. There’s a certain time to kill hogs too. You kill a hog on th’ new of th’ moon and take a slice of it and put it in a pan, and it’ll just bow up. You don’t want’a never kill it on th’ new of th’ moon.”
Just before we left, we finally got to the question that had been bothering us for days. If it was true that it did work, then why? Why did it work? Margaret supplied an answer—“Well, it must have been in th’ plan when th’ world was made. Because you know in Ecclesiastes it says, ’There’s a time for everything. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest.’ That’s God’s book, you know, so that’s the reason.”
THOSE WHO DOUBT
It was not long before we came across first one, then another and another who refused to believe in the signs. Seeking some semblance of balance after so many days of living with the zodiac, we were glad to find them and talk with them.
Most of those we talked to were educated people. Most had college degrees, and held positions of great respect in the community.
Dr. Harry Brown of Mountain City, for example, was County Agent fifty years ago. Later he was Farm Bureau president, and then Under Secretary of Agriculture in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He stated, “My yield’s as high or higher than anyone in the county, and I’ve never used the signs. I don’t even know how they work. There’s no scientific evidence for it at all.”
Pope Bass, overseer of the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School’s dairy, has been farming for forty years without using the signs. He said that he had never been able to see any difference between his crops and the crops of those who used the signs.
James T. Burden, Professor of Agriculture at the Rabun Gap school, said essentially the same thing. “There’s no scientific proof at all. Look. 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.” He plants by the weather and the season. When the soil is warm enough, and the danger of frost is gone, it’s time to plant, signs or not.
Mr. Burden realizes the importance of the signs to many of his students’ families, however, and he is very careful not to turn them against their parents’ beliefs. He tells the students that they are perfectly free to use the system if they wish, cautioning them only with the statement that there is no scientific proof for it as yet.
Barnard Dillard, owner of the local drugstore, added another dimension to the subject with a story he remembered about a family who played a trick on one of their elderly relatives who could no longer see well enough to read the planting calendar. Knowing beforehand what he considered to be the right time to plant corn, the boys in the family asked his advice, but planted on a day whose signs were exactly opposite of what he recommended. “They had a fine crop, too,” he recalls.
Two points of view. We are in no position to judge which is correct. But we can’t resist a parting shot.
The times are turning against the practice of planting by the signs. Younger people, now exposed to a different type of education, are turning to new ways of doing things and often discarding the old in the process. Sometimes this is good. But with planting by the signs, there remains a lingering mystery that refuses to be silenced.
It would be nice to be able to dismiss the whole thing with a wave of the hand as “fogeyism,” but it’s hard to dismiss like that the unshakable beliefs of generations of people older and presumably wiser than we will be for some time.
Besides, there are two stories we haven’t told you yet—those told by Wilbur Maney, County Agent, and R. L. Edwards, owner of Edwards Photographic Studios in Clayton. Knowing these men and their reputations, we have every reason to believe the truth of these stories.
While cutting a field of waist-high, bothersome brush one day several years ago, Mr. Edwards noticed an older man watching him at work. He stopped his tractor and went over to say hello, at the same time complaining good-naturedly about the job that still lay ahead. “Well, after this you won’t have to worry about it any more,” said the older man.
“Why, sure I will,” answered Mr. Edwards. “Next year I’ll just have to cut it all over again.”
“Nope. After this it won’t ever come back,” the other stated. “Know why? Because you picked exactly th’ right day to cut that brush. Th’ moon and th’ signs are just right. You’re killing it, every bit. Go ahead and finish th’ job today and you’ll never have to worry about it again.”
“You know,” said Mr. Edwards, “that old man was right. I cut that brush several years ago and it hasn’t come back up yet. My only trouble now is that for the life of me, I can’t remember which day I cut it on.”
Mr. Wilbur Maney had a similar experience while attending a funeral in Hiawassee in August 1967. The corpse of the large man to be buried was enclosed in a huge, steel, waterproof vault. As is normal at funerals a dump truck was standing by to carry away the excess earth after the services. Usually one full load would do the job.
During the service, an elderly gentleman standing nearby spoke to Mr. Maney. “See that dirt?” he asked. “You watch when they get done. Because of the day they dug that hole on, they’ll hardly have a wheelbarrow load left to cart away.”
The vault was lowered into the ground, the dirt replaced, and all the remainder carried away in one wheelbarrow.
Mr. Maney still does not plant by the signs, and still does not really believe in it—and yet…
One of these days we intend to dig those two post holes Elvin Cabe told us to dig. We’ll keep you informed.