The Moon & Andy
by John H. Durrell
reprinted from The Farm, Summer 1956
When Andy Neufarth came to work for us twenty-five years ago, we knew we were getting a good man, but we didn’t know we were getting the moon, too. From that day until he retired, almost everything here on the farm from planting to repairing roofs was done according to the phases of the moon and the signs of the zodiac.
Andy offered no sympathy when jobs we’d hurried him into doing at the wrong time – like the fence posts that the frost heaved out of the ground – didn’t work out.
“Done it in the wrong sign,” he’d say. “Set ‘em right and they’d’ve stayed down.”
Besides the moon, Andy believes in good soil, good tiles, gates that swing freely, good fences and tight buildings. He shows his German descent in his thoroughness and the way he holds on to his belief that a farmer should keep one eye always on the moon.
Andy is past 70 but his stocky legs are still good and he eats three square meals a day. When he grins, his tanned face puckers up round the bulge made by his cud of tobacco. His working uniform is a battered felt hat, a denim shirt and jeans held up by police and fireman suspenders. Rust marks measure the moves the buckles have made as the elastic stretched.
Andy’s attitude toward planting by the moon is as unchanging as the trademark on his suspenders. Here on the farm we always went along with it, because somehow he and the moon turned out good crops and the posts he set under the right sign stayed in the ground.
Andy was not just another moon planter. He often disagreed with the cult, and for very good reasons too. Most moon farmers plant corn and other crops which bear above ground when the moon is waxing, but not Andy.
“That’s fine,” he said, “but I’m raising corn, not silage. Corn planted when the moon is filling will ear out two joints higher than corn planted when the moon is waning.” He planted in a waning moon, and the picker did a better job with the ears lower on the stalk.
“Stuff like melons and cucumbers are different,” he explained. “You plant them in the wrong of the moon and they just bloom, bloom, bloom, and you get nary a pickle.”
Potatoes and other crops which bear below the ground should be planted in the dark of the moon. “Otherwise,” Andy says, “the crop will work to the surface and turn green from sunburn.”
“Some fellows have it figured to the day,” he says. “When I was living near Brecon, Dan Denman used to work his ground up and then let it lie. But some morning you’d look out and the whole family would be planting potatoes. The sign was just right.”
Claiming that farming by the moon will work and proving it are two different things. Andy’s prize exhibit is a fence along the lane that runs behind the barn.
He and his son-in-law set those fence posts, steel posts at that, in the light, the waxing of the moon. Each frost has lifted them a little higher until the bottom wire is now a good eight inches off the ground.
Shingles are the same. When Andy sees a roof where the shingles have buckled he’ll tell you: “They should have put on those shingles in the dark of the moon. If they had they’d lay flat forever.”
While the moon is the big wheel in Andy’s farming operations, the twelve signs of the zodiac govern certain minor activities, like castrating livestock. “When I was a boy on my father’s farm,” he says, “my uncle who had the next farm came over one day to help with a male hog we had to cut. Four hours after we’d finished with him, he was dead and stiff. We had cut him when the sign was in the heart.”
“This sort of surgery should be done when the sign of the zodiac is between the thighs and the feet,” Andy says. “Otherwise, you stand to lose your stock.”
Our veterinarian once stopped by to castrate a colt. Andy knew the sign was wrong, and protested. The vet said he “didn’t give a darn about the moon.” The colt almost died, but Andy loves horses too much to enjoy this sort of victory.
Andy puts up a tough argument because he has half a century of experience to draw on. Take the plank test.
“You take a board,” he says, “and lay it on the lawn when the grass is growing. If that plank is put down in the light of the moon, in three days that grass will turn yellow, but it won’t die. Do it in the dark of the moon and all the grass underneath will be dead in three days.”
We found out, down through the years, that it was just as well, and a lot more peaceful, to let Andy have his way. Our skepticism bounced off his head like hail off a tin roof, although we made gallant efforts to counter his beliefs with the sober facts of science.
We found that belief in planting by the moon is as old as the pyramids and as new as the cornpicker. The stronghold for the belief has always been on the farm, among people who actually do the planting. Scientists, on the whole, have given moon planting the brush-off as a piece of superstitious hocus-pocus. Flammarion, the great French astronomer, was one of the few to give the theory a fair test. He concluded, “There is no material difference to be attributed to the moon.” Flammarion’s report was published in the United States in 1911 by the Department of Agriculture.
A German woman, who was more a swami than a scientist, spent ten years in pseudo-scientific experiments in planting by the moon. She tried a variety of plants and vegetables. In testing wheat, she planted thirty selected grains in each of eight dishes. These were watered every two days for fourteen days. At the end of two weeks the plants were pulled up and the root, stalk and total growth was measured. Similar experiments were carried on with corn, lettuce and cabbage and such exotic plants as pimpernel, lovage, thyme, wormwood and rue.
After ten years of experiments, cautious Frau Kolisko announced that she was unable to make up her mind whether or not there was anything to moon planting. She made a slight exception of wheat. In this case, the maximum desirable effect came from new moon to full moon in August (these were indoor plantings) with the same period in September being somewhat less favorable.
Dr. Harold S. Burr of the Yale School of Medicine attacked the problem with electrical gadgets. He placed two electrical contacts under the bark of a living tree and kept a record of the electrical potential between them. Once a month there was a slight but sharp increase in electrical voltage. He came out with a highly qualified endorsement of the moon, reporting that although no causal relationship could be shown, the increase in electrical potential could be predicted within 48 hours by the moon.
Agronomists at the agricultural colleges, who ought to be sure about moon planting, usually indulge in double talk when the subject is brought up. Professor R.R. Mulvey of Purdue confuses us with this comment: “The real controversy about planting by the moon is usually among those who adhere to the ancient practice. What may be the proper time to plant a certain crop by one individual is wrong according to another interpretation. It is between such individuals that the greatest satisfaction is derived in proving the other wrong – which they never do.”
Professor W.M. Myers, of the University of Minnesota, was equally diffuse. He says, “Whether or not the moon has any influence on plants, it almost certainly has no effective influence on planting times. In this area planting dates are quite important, but for reasons not related to the moon.
“For example, with the planting of small grains in this area,” he continued, “the earlier they can be planted, the better. Thus, they are normally planted as soon as the seedbed can be prepared in the spring. Any delay after that time is, on the average, found to result in decreased yields. Thus, waiting two or three weeks for the proper phase of the moon would, in fact, be extremely deleterious.”
From a top scientist in his field comes a reasonable small voice in an oblique support of Andy’s moon. Dr. Wm. A. Albrecht, chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri, with a wisdom compounded from age and experience, admits that faith must take up where science leaves off. He says, “while the word ‘moon’ was the origin of our calendar division ‘month’ we are too apt to forget that the seasons were not always tabulated to such a fine degree of accuracy as they now are. To man as a primitive the moon in its cycles may have been the only calendar and in speaking of planting according to the season, he was planting according to the moons. Now that persistence may have held on and come down to us so that some people still think they are planting according to the stage of the moon as we outline it by quarters as waning or waxing.
“However, some interesting research at Missouri considered the reflected light of the moon as it might be of significance in starting seeds. Many years ago some studies were carried on here which showed that tobacco seeds must be exposed to light if they are to germinate. Should they be harvested without having exposure to light they would not germinate. But by exposure to light as small as that reflected by the moon they will germinate and go forward. That work was done in the Department of Botany of R.R. Kincaid.
“That is cited to you to point out that hidden in the biological performances about us there are many factors with which we are not familiar. Then because of our ignorance we are apt to be ‘down on what we are not up on.’ Keeping one’s mind closed is an easy performance but keeping it open and handling all that may come into it is something quite different. It is regrettable that in education we have not invested a can opener for the closed mind.
“So there is much empiricism in any profession including some of those standing most high in public estimate which carries the profession on much farther than we move by all the science and knowledge we generate ourselves.
“As a consequence I like to study some of these items which might be considered witchcraft or things of that kind. There was a time probably when things that are now included in the results of thinking about ‘relativity’ might have been considered as witchcraft too. So what is the atomic bomb and atomic radiation today would certainly have been considered witchcraft not too long ago. It would have been that especially when we discovered that it was coming in from the heavens as it were and we called it cosmic rays.”
More than one scientist suggested that if there were anything in moon planting at all, it might be caused by the tidal powers of the moon. They explain that tides occur on dry land and in the atmosphere, as well as on the sea. Land tides bulge the earth upward four inches in north central U.S.
All this scientific palaver, however, doesn’t bother Andy. He goes right on, firm in his beliefs and sure of his crops. He does have a sort of reminder in the form of an old bank calendar which hangs in his kitchen. Under the legend, “Explanation of Signs of Zodiac Shown on Weather Chart and Almanac Calendar,” we find the following advice:
- Dig root crops for seed in the third quarter of the moon. They will keep longer and are usually drier and better.
- Grain for future use or seed should be harvested at the increase of the moon.
- Avoid the first day of the New Moon for planting, also the days on which it changes quarters.
- Harvest all crops when the moon is growing old–they keep better and longer.
- Have your hair cut in the waning moon.
- Shear sheep in a waning moon.
- Don’t butcher hogs when the moon is waning. If you do, the pork will shrink in the skillet.
- Graft and prune trees in the increase of the moon.
- Timber sawed in the full of the moon will be sappy and will soon rot.
- Make sauerkraut and cut weeds during waning moon.