Planting by Signs


Illustration by Ryan Miller

Planting by the stars and moon phase has an ancient tradition for agriculture. The much heralded alignment of Stonehenge to spring solstice as well as alignments of native mounds and configured rocks around the world are often affixed to some mysterious spell of our ancestors; a hocus-pocus connection to the spirit world that is in fact more science-based than of occult divination. The purpose of signal stones was to align the planting season that, with climate variability, might easily get misaligned. Should February inject March-like weather, or March cavort in April disguise, the seeds of agriculture could easily be misspent and planted too early. Should seasonal weather return the investment of the community could be lost on what seemed April when it was only March.

Modern societies with our collective literacy have a neatly condensed calendar of moon phases gained from millennia of observations. It was the arrival of agriculture based on the advantage of saved seed when combined with the capacity to cultivate the ground that a reliable set of spring signs was needed. The seed, the plow, the calendar were the holy trinity of steps to separate agriculture from the happy if constantly threatened life of the hunter/gatherer. The calendar that one further refinement, to plant in appropriate timing to the arrival of “statistical” spring, in turn in accord with the likelihood of summer rain and to have the field established before summer drought. The association of this seasonal timing was most critical in the northern zones, but is equally beneficial in areas where rains follow seasonal patterns as does drought.

The signs of the zodiac, forlorn now and forgotten clockwork left to astrologers and fortunetellers, in their original practice were reliable celestial markers for planting. In the time before calendars and the Farmer’s Almanac, when agriculture practice was by non-literate rustics, dependable observational markers were important to keep irreplaceable seed from being planted because an inopportune warm spell arrived.

My grandfather with his folk sayings and planting nostrums had apprenticed his farm skills with roots to the Druids, the Picts, the Celts. What rose in the evening wasn’t merely the night sky but a detailed calendar, every star rising came with a different notation. These were the star groups we call the 12 signs of the zodiac: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces. Once to be a literate farmer was to read the sky for its long-term repetitive signals, and was more important as the correct time for planting. Different cultures around the world are in surprising agreement on the array of celestial markers, none with the astounding accuracy of the Mayan calendar with the ability to repeat a period of 3,200 years without recalculation. Our modern Julian calendar that is a day off every four years isn’t very precise, while the Mayan calendar needed no “adjustment” for a period of three thousand years, suggesting a mathematical precision from celestial observations that has yet to be appreciated if also precisely sourced.

With his family roots in England our great great-grandfather’s arrival to the northern tier had to reconfigure planting to match the North American continent. Despite Wisconsin’s north latitude is comparable to Spain, Wisconsin weather is far colder than was England at 58° north latitude where planting of root crops can begin about the same time as Texas and Florida. Mid-January potato planting in Wisconsin is not known to prosper the crop.

Immigrant farmers arrived with folk wisdoms and signs for the planting of potatoes, onions, radishes and cabbage suitable to Europe, they had to reconfigure for the seasonal differences of the New World. Among these folk proverbs were planting signals with centuries of experience. “Plant, till, cultivate in Aries.” “Always set out plants in a water or earth sign. (Pisces, Scorpio, Capricorn, Virgo, Cancer, Taurus).” Happily there was a calculation slop in this signage, allowing the folk art to reconfigure for the weather of different places without which the pioneer farmer might have been ruined should he believe too well the signs. It was probably obvious to pioneering farmers you can’t plant potatoes in Wisconsin in January (Capricorn) as was the sign that worked in England and Ireland, also Belgium, Poland and Germany. Oops…not Wisconsin. Not Minnesota. If maybe Illinois. My grandfather as he gazed on the spring sky watching Orion’s retreat, then to turn east to find the sign of potato planting, the spring moon and Good Friday. “The horse,” he said, “pulls the plow, but it is the stars as pull the horse.”