Back before all the high tech equipment we use now to carry on our lives, people observed nature to help decide when to do certain tasks, such as planting tomatoes or splitting firewood. They didn’t know it, but they were practicing the science of phenology, the study of periodic biological phenomena.
Trees were often used to time a lot of activities, and here is a small list from a large number of old sayings:
• Plant your corn when the hickory buds are as big as a crow’s beak (1 inch long)
• Plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a nickel.
• Never plant corn until the apple trees bloom.
• When elm leaves are big as a mouse’s ear, plant kidney beans
• If the first snow sticks to the trees it will be a bountiful harvest.
• Plant potatoes when the serviceberry blooms (locally called “sarvis”)
• When forsythia blooms it’s time to prune roses and fertilize the lawn
• Apple trees blooms in April means a plentiful crop, if in May a poor one
• When peach and plum trees are in full bloom plant hardy crops
• When the Catawba tree blooms, sow fall cabbage and broccoli seeds.
• When maples are beginning to unfurl their leaves plant perennials
• Plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrels’ ear
• When dogwoods are in peak bloom, plant tomatoes, early corn, and peppers
Many farmers’ almanacs still use signs to predict weather and determine when to plant crops. Moon phases and zodiac signs are both used, and many of these were used to time when to work with trees:
• Early carpenters would not use wood that had been cut during a waxing moon (getting bigger), thinking the wood had more moisture and would warp and shrink
• Timber cut when the moon is old (waning) doesn’t get worm-eaten, won’t warp, rot, or pop in the fire, and will season better than cut any other time.
• The best time to graft trees is when the moon is in the sign of Cancer, the most fruitful, watery, feminine sign.
• Prune trees during the dormant season during fruitful signs (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces) in a decreasing moon, usually fourth quarter.
An interesting book on the subject of signs and old prediction methods is Country Wisdom, by Jerry Johnson.
Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee, for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.