Linking astronomy with sowing times

Had a bit of an epiphany about the vegie garden recently.  Two, actually. 

Romanesco broccoli

Our first ever Romanesco broccoli, at Imbolc this year (2011)

I’ll write about the other one elsewhere.

Um… It’s hard to know where to start with this, so I’ll just plunge right in.

The “conventional” way of looking at the gardening year (I call it conventional because it’s the one I’ve learned from a wide range of gardening books) goes something like this:

  • the year is divided into 12 calendar months
  • 3 calendar months are allocated to each season (eg June, July, August = winter; Sept, Oct, Nov = spring etc)
  • sowing guides are written in terms of calendar months (eg “sow [insert vegie here] May-June”) or seasons (eg “sow in spring after all danger of frost has passed”).  Because of my conventional way of looking at the year, for “spring” I always read “Sept/Oct/Nov”
  • there is little explicit relationship between the measures of the year’s progress and the position of the sun or the length of the day
  • If a seed packet suggests sowing in June, does that mean before or after the solstice?  or doesn’t it matter for that particular vegie?  how do you know?

This may reveal more about me than I’d like, but I’ve never been able intuitively to relate calendar months to what goes on on the ground at specific times of the year.  When I read “sow in northern NSW in May”, with a bit of effort I could ignore my northern hemisphere gardening books and realise that May is late autumn.  It took a bit more concentration to think about May’s relationship to the autumn equinox (May is a bit after, I think) and the winter solstice (May is 1-2 lunar cycles before).  I could do it, but it felt like doing mental arithmetic at school.

I understand that this may be a problem related only to the idiosyncratic workings of my aging brain, but since it’s the only one I’ve got to work with, I went looking for a way to better relate sowing times to seasons, the movement of the sun, and what’s growing (or not) here on Earth.

I also wanted a better way to be able to know where (or when) I was in relation to “May” (or June, or December etc).  That is, have I missed the best sowing time for these seeds, or should I prepare a seedbed for next month?  With the conventional framework, I’d have to think of today’s date (at The Creek, sometimes that means looking up a calendar or turning on the computer), and then count calendar months in my head.  More mental arithmetic.

So, as has been common since we moved here, synchronicity stepped in and we ended up at a talk by Robyn Francis at Blue Knob markets.  We came home with a poster she had designed and had printed, entitled “The Celtic-Nordic Eightfold Year”.  In it, she takes old Celtic and Nordic solar festivals (ones to celebrate the equinoxes and solstices) and translates them into southern hemisphere seasons.  Then she does the same with what she calls “ancient lunar festivals”, which are placed roughly midway between the solar ones.   The resulting eightfold division of the year then becomes the basis for a sowing/harvesting guide.  Each of the eight sections has its own continuum of sun positions, its own day-length trend, and its own plant growth properties.  Brilliant!

Of course, the poster is just a way of presenting a bunch of sowing time/harvest data (which is very useful in itself), but the eightfold division of the year in terms of what the sun’s doing and what’s growing is a lovely framework on which to hang bits of scattered knowledge about what grows when.  I’m finding that by thinking of seasons in terms of sun movements and day length, rather than in terms of calendar months, I feel more in touch with the actual garden, and less reliant on spreadsheets and sowing charts.

So, for example, we’ve just passed the lunar festival that’s midway between winter solstice and spring equinox.  Conventionally, I would call it “early August”.  In the poster, Robyn calls it Imbolc (Celtic) or Disting (Nordic).

(We’re calling it Imbolc, because if I say “It’s Disting today” Felice goes, “What thing?” and I go, “No, Disting“, and she goes “What?”.  So it’s Imbolc for us.)

The word “Imbolc” is said to refer in its original language to the first lactation of the ewes, in preparation for lambing in spring.  So hitting Imbolc means spring is coming, and there’s lots of pre-spring sowing and bed-preparation to do.  We’re frost-free here, so we can start carefully sowing those “sow in spring after all danger of frost has passed” vegies.

Nectarine blossoms near the chookyard

Nectarine blossoms near the chookyard

Suddenly, I have a name for this time, where lots of things start to happen, like the nectarine tree blossoming and the chooks coming back on the lay, but which I’ve always just called “early August” and then forgotten about.

These are the other yearly markers in the poster:  (NB Robyn puts both Celtic and Nordic names, but F and I pick the easiest to pronounce and just use that one.  Oh, and I’ve paraphrased Robyn’s descriptions, any mistakes are mine.)

  • Alban Eiler = spring equinox.  Dry/fire season.  Sow early summer crops, dry climate crops.  Chooks laying like buggery.
  • Beltane = lunar festival between spring equinox and summer solstice.  Harvest stone fruits and spring crops, sow summer crops.  Beetle season.
  • Midsummer = summer solstice.  Summer rains start, summer crops taking advantage of all the sun and water.  Hot (or wet, or both).
  • Thing-tide = lunar festival between summer solstice and autumn equinox.  The beginning of summer harvest (ooh goody tomatoes).  Sow autumn crops.
  • Alban Elued = autumn equinox.  End of summer harvest, start of preparation for winter.  Lots of seed-saving goes on here.
  • Samhain = lunar festival between autumn equinox and winter solstice.  Corresponds to Halloween.  Chooks slow rate of laying.  End of autumn harvest, winter crops begin.
  • Yuletide = winter solstice.  Clear days, cold nights.  Harvest winter crops.

The other useful thing about thinking of seasons in terms of equinoxes etc is that I can look around and know where we are in the year.  At Yuletide, the sun rises over the mountain peak known locally as “Left Tit”.  At Midsummer, it rises down the centre of the valley.  You can roughly divide the intervening space into four, and take a good guess which festival we’re closest to.  In winter, the sun at midday is close to the hilltops up the valley.  In summer, it’s a lot higher.  Or I can look at the garden, for example, at Imbolc, and see that the nectarine tree is blossoming, and know that the chooks will start laying soon.

Don’t ask me why I didn’t make that link with the conventional calendar month way of looking at things.  I just didn’t…couldn’t…whatever.  But for some reason, since I’ve started seeing the year in eight sun-based parts, I’ve made an avalanche of links that really help.  And no more mental arithmetic!  Except when I have to remember to register the car by September.


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2 Responses to Linking astronomy with sowing times

  1. It’s a good epiphany! All over the world people have festivals that recognise these same dates, precisely because if they missed them they went hungry! Australian farmers recognise these dates because ag science recognises them too. Photoperiodism is the very clever ability of plants to sense, not only how long the day is, but whether it is lengthening or shortening. It’s very basic to plant life cycles. I actually think our Western seasonal calendar is profound evidence of how disconnected our culture has become from reality. We get echoes – Yule and Easter and Lammas and Candlemas and May Day and Halloween, but for us southern hemisphere-ers they’re all exactly ass-about!

    • Sarah says:

      Hey Linda,

      Yes, now I’m finding out how basic it all is to life in general. It boggles me that I went through school, uni, and postgrad (as did many of the people I know) without having a good sense of what those traditional holidays really meant. I mean, I learnt the dates of the equinoxes etc, but still, in my head, Easter means chocolate, Halloween means trick-or-treating. How shallow am I?

      PS Just so you know, my second epiphany is mostly your fault …

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