Gardening season is in full swing as summer quickly approaches! For the month of June, we’re talking about planting by the signs, a common folk belief throughout Southern Appalachia. Planting by the signs–or doing any activity ‘by the signs’–follows the signs of the Zodiac, each of which is associated a body part. It is the combination of signs, body parts (such as the head or arms), and element (like earth or fire), that determine the best time to plant a crop, and the best time to harvest. We dive into the history of this practice, and listen to some believers who always planted by the signs. Interested in learning more? Pick up a copy of The Foxfire Book, or read the original magazine article when you subscribe to our Patreon program!
Margaret and Richard Norton
FF: Yeah. You know, Margaret and I had a big time one afternoon talking about planting by the signs and everything. And I asked her if you did it?
MN: Yes, he does, he always asks me if it’s a good time to plant.
FF: Does it work for you?
RN: I reckon it does. Sometimes I think it does, sometimes I think we miss it.
FF: You know that T.E. Black says just a couple of hours can make a difference.
MN: Yeah, that’s what he says. It’s truth too. It works for me.
FF: One think I wanted to ask you about, I said there were a couple of things I wanted to ask you about today? One thing I wanted to ask you was, I talked to those people who didn’t do it, you know, who didn’t plant by it. And I was just wonderin’ if you had any ideas about why it is that they don’t even try it. You know some of them won’t even try it. Mr. Bass won’t even try it. He won’t even look, he won’t even think about it.
RN: Who is that?
FF: You know Mr. Bass, he runs the school farming business. And he won’t even try it. You know, he just says it’s…
RN: That’s right…corn, and stuff like that, and I don’t know if …
MN: Well I think that once it don’t, they just, if they weren’t supposed to get started at it, they won’t change for nothin’. But they just have grown up that-a-way, and it’s just hard to change, when you done a certain thing all your life.
FF: They won’t even try it though. I wonder why that is?
MN: I don’t know why they won’t try it. If they’s to fail with something several times, perhaps they’ll try then. Because that’s one thing that made me start tryin’, because my cucumbers failed. I’d plant ‘em and they’d bloom and bloom and bloom and never make cucumbers. And I planted ‘em in an unfruitful sign. When I found out…
RN: But you didn’t plant ‘em that good this morning … I got some…*laughter* …
MN: I been busy with corn and beans and different things like that and I haven’t had a chance to get the cucumbers.
RN: We plant our potatoes by the signs too, I mean, there’s a certain signs you plant Irish potatoes on and they’ll do as good again. I know that and corn…
MN: You go down to the Rock House with me and I’ll let you dig a hill and they’re rotten, just as rotten as they can be.
FF: You mean the roots of the corn?
MN: The potatoes.
FF: Oh the potatoes.
MN: Yes, the potatoes they planted, the signs are wrong.
FF: Did Claude plant ‘em?
FF: And he doesn’t believe in the signs?
MN: Not too much. He gets a hold of some calendar that goes by ‘em but he never asks anybody, you know, when it’s a good time to plant anything, he just goes ahead and does it.
FF: So the potatoes aren’t good.
MN: No, they’re rotten. The ones over in the garden, the grapplin’ potatoes, now I don’t know about the patch, we have them in the patch. He just ruined that garden down there.
FF: Well, why, Claude won’t ask you then?
MN: No, he just goes on and plants whenever he…
FF: That’s cause of the sign when he was born. What did you say about him?
MN: Taurus the bull. Runs where he pleases.
RN: There’s a lot of people that will hit it sometimes, anyhow.
MN: That’s right. You don’t know why you hit it, even though there’s 14 good plantin’ days in every month, you see.
FF: So you hit it sooner or later, just by chance.
FF: One of the reasons we got the magazine going is because young people, and all that sort of thing, they aren’t following this stuff. You know, none of the young people are. Most of the ones I talk to, that I have classes with, and stuff, don’t even believe it. And a lot of times, they don’t even know what to do. They don’t know what the signs are. They don’t understand what you mean.
MN: They don’t know what you’re talking about.
FF: Well why are the young people who’s parents do it sometimes, don’t even bother?
MN: Well, they perhaps just go on about something else and never get their parents, and maybe their parents don’t say anything to them, like this is the right day for plantin’ and go plantin’
RN: And that depends on their parents keepin’ up, that’s what.
MN: You know the young generation don’t work like we had to, like when we was growing up.
RN: And another thing, now, you just take like killing hogs, there’s a certain time to kill hogs too. It’s uh, you can kill a hog on the new of the moon, and you slice it up and put it in a pan, it’ll just boil, just like that. And you can’t fry the grease out of it hardly. And then you kill it at the right time of the moon, and you’ll never kill it on a new moon. If you do, that’s the way it’ll do. It’ll just pop and…
MN: You get bacon in the stores sometimes now that you can’t, it won’t fry. That sliced bacon.
FF: I’ve seen stuff like that, it just bunches all up, gets all curly like this.
RN: Yes, that’s killed on the wrong time of the moon. The grease, you can’t hardly fry the grease out of it. I don’t know why it is but…
FF: That’s one thing I’ve been trying to get, you know, why does it work? I don’t understand why.
MN: Well it must’ve been in the plan when the world was made, because you know in Ecclesiastes it says there’s a time for everything; a time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest. So, that’s God’s book, you know, he says. So that’s…
FF: And that’s gotta be the reason.
MN: Yes, that’s the reason. That’s right.
FF: Instead of fightin’ it, I guess you just accept it and say that’s the way it works.
MN: Yes. Uh huh. That’s what you do.
Bashey and Andy Webb
FF: Well, the first thing I thought I’d ask you about, we’re trying to get information for this next issue on how you plant by the signs, you know? And I just, I thought if you would, maybe you could just tell us how you do it, and maybe why you do it. And what things you do by the signs. What kind of things do you do by the signs, for example?
BW: I plant Irish potatoes in the dark moon in March.
FF: In the dark in March. What happens when you don’t plant ‘em on that?
BW: They don’t do so good and the blight hits.
FF: Blight? Yeah. What else–and you, you planted your corn by the signs too, didn’t you? When do you plant corn?
BW: He said, “When do you plant corn?”
AW: Well it’s owin’ to the season. I usually do my plantin’ about the first of May.
FF: And you plant by the signs?
AW: Mhm, yes siree.
FF: Well, what, you can do other things besides planting by the signs, too, can’t you?
FF: What other things work that way?
BW: Well, I always plant my cucumbers on the 10th of May.
AW: You can plant beans.
BW: I always have cucumbers. And then I can plant any time after then and have fresh cucumbers.
FF: What other kinds of things can you do besides planting? Did people cut wood and that sort of thing by the signs too? Can you tell us any other things you do by the signs? Like–
BW: He said, could you tell him anything else you can do by the signs?
AW: Well, no I can’t.
FF: Some people said something about digging holes, sometimes. If you dig a hole on the wrong sign, you won’t have enought dirt to fill it back up, that kind of thing. I was wondering if you knewa nything about that.
BW: No, I don’t know anything about that.
FF: You just do your planting by it?
BW: I just plant.
FF: I heard that you believe in planting by the signs, don’t you?
JE: Yes ma’am.
FF: What about cooking by the signs?
JE: Well now, if you make jelly on the new of the moon, and you’ll have jelly heaped, cover you well on the fullest moon.
FF: Now you’ll have jelly when?
JE: Your juice will jell quicker on the new moon than it will on the big moon.
JE: It will. My grandmother used to take wood ashes and make soap. Pour the water down in the ashes and let ‘em drain on down by the littles, and she’d always make her soap when the moon was thin. That’s when you just see it barely in the west.
FF: Do you have anything else that you cook, by the signs? Just your jelly. What about canning–beans, and?
JE: I just can the beans when I have them. When I got the beans, I can ‘em. And then, whenever we kill hogs, we always try to kill them on the decrease of the moon. We just wait until after the moon is full, then a quarter, then kill ‘em, when the moon is decreasing. And then your meat won’t puff up and big old thick pieces, and the grease will be easier to render, the grease will be easier to cook down into fat.
AP: What them old fox grapes is, well it don’t take much longer for fox grapes. But, i don’t know, I didn’t–it might not have been the right time of the moon when I made mine this time. They say there’s a certain time of the moon when it makes best. So I never do know what time that is. Which is the best time? I just make it when i get ready.
FF: Do you plant your garden by the signs, or cook by the signs?
AP: Yeah, well, sometimes I try to, when I can. Say, on dark nights is the best time to plant anything.
FF: In the nigthtime?
AP: No, this is when the moon’s not out. The moon don’t shine. And when it’s on the light nights, and the moon shines, they say that’s not a good time to plant. Plant anything then, and it grows–plant corn on the light of the moon. Say, it just grows way up yonder. That, we must do that though, ‘cause our’n grows so high. Tried not to though, but seem like it growed–the last two or three years it growed awful tall.
FF: Do you cook by the signs? No, you don’t. Do you know any of those signs by which to cook?
AP: No, I don’t.
FF: You don’t know?
HE: And have fresh potatoes for fall, and use them to store for winter.
FF: Was there a certain sign that you planted them on?
HE: Yes there is and that is on the new of the moon, when it’s dark nights. It’s dark nights, where you plant your potatoes. And they go by the zodiac signs, you know. And when you plant your cabbage, plant when the sign’s in the head. And I don’t remember, now, the dark nights is for onions and potatoes. And then the other, the new moon I believe, is for corn, where it won’t grow so tall. If you plant it on a full moon, it grows way up. And when you sow your plants, at different signs, and when you plant your beans, the best time is from, plant ‘em in the arms, to have a lot of beans. And then, when you set out your plants, start when the sign’s in the thighs. That’s the old time rule now, and we still go by it. ‘Course I’m old, I’m almost seventy now. When you get to be as old as I am, that’s quite being an old timer. But my parents went by this, and I find all these old mountain people go by the zodiac signs. And when the sign is in the bowels, never plant because your seed rots.
FF: That goes also for the heart, too.