'The Old Farmer's Almanac' remains a relevant resource

McClatchy-TribuneJanuary 10, 2014 


Look for the iconic yellow cover for "The Old Farmer’s Almanac" with its ancient signs and contemporary science. (Maureen Gilmer/MCT)


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 it hung on the outhouse wall for reading material and toilet paper.

This is the same annual that guided early American farmers, and it's 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 readers of planting dates and other important times in the agricultural year. It's 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.

Farmers used the old-time methods of using phases of the moon to govern work, and that helps gardeners, too.

It dictates the kinds of tasks he or she performs in the waxing moon or a waning one, when the moon is full or there is no moon.

The almanac uses old symbols for celestial goings-on from day length to the sun's position with signs of the zodiac, many things that other similar publications lack. The symbols were essential for illiterate farmers who could not read text but recognized the signs and knew what they meant.

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. All crops are planted under a full moon. It was believed that the strength of the moon was 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 that 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 cut fence posts and firewood, ploughed the fields and pulled weeds. Harvest also occurred during 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 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 were getting on board with similar versions of the almanac but lacked the age-old wisdom and 21st-century data.

Look for its iconic yellow cover, and note the various geographic editions. The Southern edition includes Kentucky. Other editions are for a national audience, there is one for Canadians. You'll find the almanac and a useful wall calendar version at Almanac.com.

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