2009-04-30 / News

Alternative sources for garden advice

Flotsam and Jetsam
By Donna Drago

Gardeners are among the most cheerful and optimistic people I know.

They can look at the tiny speck that is a carrot seed and imagine the carrot at the other end. Being able to see past the speck to the item on the dinner table some months later takes a great imagination and a sense of hopefulness that a lot of people don't have.

Some of gardening is mystical. We understand that seed plus soil plus sun equals food, but sometimes our experiments just don't work. When seeds fail to emerge from the soil we ponder about dampness and rot. We ask ourselves if it was too early to plant. We get out the seed packages and read and reread to see if we might have missed something. Sometimes we never get an answer.

Because of the many unknowns involved in gardening, gardeners, going back many centuries, have come up with many "old wives tales" and myths to explain how we do what we do.

In a funny little book that my daughter bought for me at a flea market in England, the spinster Boland sisters have accumulated many of these tales. In Lincolnshire, for example, farmers take off their trousers and sit on the soil to determine whether the soil is suffi- ciently warm to plant. "If it's comfortable for them, it's comfortable for the barley," write the Bolands. My husband was grousing recently about whether or not it was warm enough to plant his peas. I suggested the bare bum on the soil idea to him but he gave me a look that said he preferred to read the seed pack and check the thermometer— thank you very much.

Poetry, as a memory device, was often used in past centuries. When planting row crops, the poem to ensure that seeds were sown thickly so that at least some seeds would germinate was: One for the rook, one for the crow, one to die and one to grow.

We all deal with garden pests, but many of them are actually beneficial. An old saying to determine who stays and who goes is: if it moves slowly, step on it; if it moves quickly, it will probably kill something else. I'd have to analyze that one, but the three biggest pests in my patch are slugs, aphids and Japanese beetles — all slow movers. Here's a good trick for those of us living in New England — hang empty lobster claws on top of sticks around the garden. In the morning, they will be full of earwigs, which can be captured and disposed of. The Boland sisters suggest laying an old bicycle tire inner tube on the ground if cats are hanging around the garden. "The cats will think it a snake and give the garden a wide berth."

Old herbals are a good source of gardening superstitions and lore. In Eleanour Sinclair Rohde's "A Garden of Herbs," first published in 1936, she discusses the many myths associated with basil. Apparently the Greeks believed basil must be sown "with words of abuse," in order to get it to grow well. Hindus believed that good luck awaits those who build a house where basil has grown, and that there is no forgiveness "in this world or the next" for anyone who willfully uproots a basil plant. Moldavians believe that basil is a potent love charm. Apparently, when a man accepts a sprig of basil from a woman, he will love her forever. In Haiti, merchants sprinkle their stores with basil, which chases bad luck and brings in buyers.

Some of the myths are just plain nuts. For example, old English peasants believed that if you plant an elderberry in the garden "you must be sure to stand under it at midnight on Mid-summer Eve and then you will see the King of the Elves and all his train go by." Yeah, right.

Much of garden lore has to do with planting by the phases of the moon. This has been written about countless times in countless places. Most recently, the magazine Gardeners' World (published in the U.K.) did a feature on the truths about moon gardening. For the January 2009 edition, garden writer Toby Buckland set up two identical garden beds and planted the same crops in each—peas, string beans, spinach, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and parsley. He planted one bed using moon myths and the other bed in a more traditional way and documented the plant growth with photographs. His conclusions were that there was no difference between the string beans, the spinach and tomatoes, but he raved about the difference in size and vigor in the peas, the lettuce and the parsley.

So, if, in the coming weeks, you are having trouble deciding when, how and what to plant, try consulting an herbal or a book of wives tales. If you don't get any good advice, at least you might come away with a laugh.

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