Gardening superstitions: fact or fiction?

By Lucy Apthorp Leske

(27 Oct 2022) All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween as we’ve learned, has garden roots dating back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, a harvest festival.

In addition to marking the end of summer, people often lit fires and wore costumes to ward off evil as the nights grew longer and darker. With most of the population illiterate and the Enlightenment centuries, people relied on practices like this and folklore to pass stories and information from one generation to the next.

Success in the garden was essential for survival, so it was important to remember what to do and what not to do to ensure a bountiful harvest.

Some of these “old wives’ tales” persist today and most, unsurprisingly, relate to the weather. Despite advances in weather science, predicting the weather sometimes seems as mysterious as staring into a crystal ball. Superstition and myth still fill the advice columns and the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Here are some that are true, and some that are superimposed:

• Moon Phase Gardening: It is said that “plants of darkness”, or root crops whose main harvestable crop grows underground, must be planted during the waning moon, otherwise they will “all go to the top” while the Aerial crops like green vegetables should be planted during the rising moon.

This piece of tradition has been around for centuries and has some truth to it. Apparently, when the moon exerts or releases its gravitational pull on Earth, plants respond in their growth patterns.

Additionally, a waxing or crescent moon en route to full draws moisture from the soil closer to the surface. Bright light at night promotes top growth. After the full moon, on the other hand, soil moisture decreases, moonlight decreases, and aerial growth slows while root growth increases.

Now is a good time to plant bulbs and prune trees. During the darkness of the moon, the conventional wisdom is to let the garden rest.

• Do not undertake transplants before the three iron men of May: this saying of my late father refers to the three days of the last full moon in May and the cold snap that often accompanies them if the air is dry and the sky clear. Again, when people knew less about science and only had the customs shared by family and neighbors, it made a lot of sense. It was also before global warming. I can’t remember the last time we had a freeze in May in Nantucket.

• Predict the weather by reading “tea leaves”: There are dozens of old wives’ tales that link future weather to current observations. The first people to inhabit North and South America based their gardening decisions on phenology, or observing the patterns or behavior of other organisms to make decisions.

An example of this is the common advice to plant corn when the oak leaves are as big as a squirrel’s ear. Weather conditions that bring oak trees out of dormancy and begin to produce leaves are favorable for corn germination.

But phenology consists of observing what is happening or has just happened in order to make current decisions. Predicting winter weather by judging the thickness or color of a woolly bear caterpillar is nonsense. Other superstitions that equate thick nutshells or bountiful apple harvests with a harsh winter assume that plants plan ahead to provide animals with more to eat. No.

Here’s one for Nantucket: every foggy day in August portends a snowy day in winter. I think we can all agree that if that were true we would have snow piled up to the eaves every winter here.

• Magical Plants: The most mysterious garden folklore concerns the mystical and magical properties of plants. A number of our favorite herbs, vegetables, and garden tools are believed to bring good luck or protect us from harm. Here are some excerpts from the Old Farmer’s Almanac: “Scatter Solomon’s seal on the ground to banish snakes and poisonous creatures from the room.

“To protect your home from lightning, collect hazel branches on Palm Sunday and keep them in water.”

“Put fennel in your keyhole or hang it above your door to protect you from evil spirits.

“Never carry a hoe around the house. If you do it by mistake, take it back walking backwards to avoid bad luck.

“Never walk under a ladder, which is Satan’s territory. If you must, cross your fingers or make the fig sign (closed fist, with the thumb between the index and middle fingers).

“Never drive a nail after sunset, or you’ll wake up the tree gods.”

“Nail an evergreen branch to new rafters for good luck. An empty hornet’s nest, hanging high, will also bring good luck to a house of any age.

Other plants believed to do fantastical things include foxglove, which is believed to give witches the power to fly (probably based on the fact that the plant is poisonous and produces hallucinations if ingested), lady’s mantle, which plays a key role in a fake recipe that turns lead into gold and four-leaf clover.

Of all the plants we grow, garlic seems to have the broadest and deepest magical properties. It not only protects homes and people from evil spirits, but also ensures safe childbirth if hung in the delivery room, gives courage to armies whether eaten or underfoot during battle, ensures general good luck and reveals hidden secrets.

Finally, “eating garlic in May keeps the doctor at bay”, so it’s good for your health, if not your breath.

• Miscellaneous: The most bizarre old wives’ tales link personal emotions and random actions to garden success. One of my favorites is that if you want a bountiful harvest of really hot peppers, plant them when you’re angry. Here are some more, quoted on the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange website: “Stolen plants will grow better.” There are several versions of it. Some say they are just plants, while others say they are just herbs. Sometimes stealing plants brings good luck in general, while others say the plant will grow better. This tradition is still alive today, and some people turn around when giving plants so that the recipient can “steal” them.

“It’s time to plant when you can sit on your garden soil without pants and not be cold.” It’s a funny old piece of folklore but it still rings true. Many vegetable crops need warm soils (around 60 F) to germinate and grow well. Soil thermometers weren’t always as easy to find as they are now, and gardeners have always been determined.

“Never say thank you for a plant.” A common belief in Appalachia is that you should never thank someone for a plant or cutting. Some people say it’s just bad luck and others say the plant will die. Either way, it’s best to just give an answer like “what a gorgeous pepper”. “Whether based on superstition or observation, old wives’ tales help us and our gardens connect to past and future harvests. Happy Halloween!

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