A trip inside the Farmers’ Almanac

By Pamela Doan

The Farmers’ Almanac has always been a little indecipherable to me. Its instructions leave no room for error. It’s been continually in print since 1818 and I find its pages of planting wisdom intimidating — what if I’m busy on April 14–15 and plant my vine crops on April 17 instead? Are they doomed?

I do enjoy the sections with household management tips, though, like an easy method to pit an avocado and a homemade solution for weed control (dish soap). In the past 20 years, the Almanac is no longer just an annual publication. There is a website, eBooks, a TV show, an email newsletter and social media presence on Pinterest and Facebook.

If you’ve ever looked at the Almanac, it’s very specific. Their Gardening Calendar lists the best days for everything from planting to pest control and pruning. For example, it says for Feb. 20–21, “Seeds planted now will grow poorly and yield little.” (Agreed, since my garden is underneath 3 feet of snow.) On Feb. 22–23, the Almanac’s calendar says it is “fine for planting beans, peppers, cucumbers, melons, and other aboveground crops where climate is suitable.”

Sandi Duncan, Farmers' Almanac editor, with the 2015 annual edition
Sandi Duncan, Farmers’ Almanac editor, with the 2015 annual edition

When I interviewed Sandi Duncan, the managing editor, who is the first woman to edit the Almanac, I asked her how the calendar is developed and why it is so absolute about the results of performing various garden duties on particular days.

Duncan said: “It’s been the Almanac tradition forever. What a lot of people believe is that the moon has a pull on the earth, think of the tides, and depending on what phase the moon is in, it pulls the water up to the surface, making the ground more fertile. There’s a little folklore in it, but people have followed it and get the best results.” While the Almanac doesn’t guarantee their predictions, they do stand by their time-tested formula.

While they couched their responses to my questions to protect their secret formula, I did learn more about this approach.

Q: Is everything on the Gardening Calendar based on moon phases?

Duncan: It’s not only based on the phase of the moon, but where the moon is located astrologically speaking. Formulas for various activities are either based on the zodiac signs or moon phases or both. Each zodiac sign supposedly has a specific nature/character. They are fruitful (productive) or barren; dry or moist; masculine or feminine; fixed or movable/flexible, earthy, airy, fiery or watery. All of which can enhance, complement, hinder or retard an activity. Same with the moon phases. The various phases can enhance, complement or hinder or have no impact at all on activities. All of which our formula takes into consideration.

Q: What is the difference between planting grains and hay on a certain day and aboveground crops at a different time?

Duncan: Based on age-old formulas and beliefs, certain zodiac signs are associated with various gardening chores/planting. For example, if the moon is in Sagittarius it’s believed to be a bad time to plant, but a good time to kill plants. So this is how and why certain days suggest above-ground crops and others below.

Q: What does pest control have to do with moon phases? What makes a barren period?

Duncan: When looking at planting dates our formulas will take into consideration those signs that are best or good and those that are specific to the item being planted (such as hay) and then throw in the proper moon phases and there you see differences in dates when looking at aboveground crops versus hay/grain crops. Same with killing pests. You would follow the fiery, barren signs (Aries is a fiery, barren sign) to ensure the hindrance of future growth or development.

Lunar gardening is described as an ancient tradition, and while I couldn’t find anyone I know who uses this method, there are websites devoted to it, and they share similar statements about waxing and waning cycles. The general idea is to plant when the moon is waxing and has the strongest gravitational pull on the Earth, and to leave plants alone when the moon has waned. That’s the time to kill weeds.

I asked Jennifer Stengle, community educator in the Horticulture Program at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Putnam County, if she knew of any scientific evidence for this method. Stengle said: “None whatsoever, though the lunar calendar did provide a framework of time. The moon has no gravitational effect on something as small as a human, much less as small as a plant.” Once again, it all comes down to the soil.

Photo by Angimarie Photography

Behind The Story

Type: Opinion

Opinion: Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

Doan, who resides in Philipstown, has been writing for The Current since 2013. She edits the weekly calendar and writes the gardening column. Location: Philipstown. Languages: English. Areas of expertise: Gardening, environment