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Plant folklore

Fact behind gardening old wives’ tales, lunar sowing and companion plants

Beamish Museum advertWherever I go, I seek out second-hand bookshops for little gems full of information.

For £4, I picked up a book called The Gardener’s Folklore, by Margaret Baker, originally published in the US in 1977 (there are second-hand versions available on the internet).

It’s a fascinating read of old wives’ tales, magic and country superstitions from all over the world – or are they?

There are interviews with elderly farmers and gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic, with memories reaching back into the 19th century.

There’s a remarkable amount of similarity in the odd growing rituals all over the world.

It’s fascinating to see whether these practices have any scientific basis behind them – you’d think if they didn’t work, people would stop doing them.

Top 10 companion plants

Tomatoes - plants are harmful to pets
Pink Charmer

Companion planting – growing crops that are beneficial to each other, is a familiar concept. Here are 10 top groupings:

1. Tomatoes and marigolds: Ward off whitefly.

2. Basil and tomatoes: The herb attracts greenfly and other aphids away from the fruits.

3. Borage, balm, and tomatoes: The herbs are beneficial to the fruits. Tomatoes keep better if grown near stinging nettles.

4. Outdoor tomatoes and asparagus: Both benefit from each other’s company.

5. Sweetcorn, squash, and beans: The traditional Native American Indian growing system, known as the Three Sisters. The runner beans grow up the sweetcorn stalks keeping them off the ground; the beans attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. The squash acts as a living mulch and spiny varieties deter predators.

Chives in full flower – they are edible too

6. Radishes and spinach: Radishes attract leaf miners away from spinach. The radish roots are unharmed, so this is a perfect pairing.

7. Roses and chives/garlic: The alliums repels pests that eat rose petals.

8. Tomatoes, dill, and brassicas: Tomatoes repel the diamondback moth larvae, which eat cabbage leaves. Grow tomatoes around the cabbage patch. Any brassica helps keep dill upright, which attracts tiny beneficial wasps that control cabbage pests.

9. Potatoes and sweet alyssum: Sweet alyssum’s tiny perfumed flowers attract many beneficial insects. Plant it on top and around potatoes – the tubers grow pest-free underneath.

10. Cucumbers and nasturtiums: Nasturtiums are edible and one of the biggest pest attractors. Insects flock to them and ignore cucumbers.

Good Friday potato planting

Chitting potatoes in an egg box

I’m not saying this is wise, or maybe the weather was better between the wars, but The Gardener’s Folklore mentions an age-old tradition in County Durham of planting potatoes on Good Friday – a rare break in the working man’s year and a holy day.

One miner’s daughter says: My late dad planted his potatoes on Good Friday and took them up on Durham Miners’ Gala day in July.”

There are also many superstitions surrounding parsley, with Good Friday the only day you can transplant it without bringing death on the family, according to Pennsylvania Germans.

Lunar seed sowing

Tomato Sungold
Tomato Sungold

Some people swear by sowing with the phases of the moon. This may seem nonsense, but I thought I’d give it a go.

I usually sow tomato and pepper seeds in mid-February, as I’ve got a heated propagator and a grow lamp when they germinate.
If you’re using a windowsill, wait until March when the days have lengthened a bit. Leggy seedlings are worse than useless.

According to The Gardener’s Folklore, the majority of horticulturalists sowing with the moon do so on a “waxing” moon (getting bigger, towards full).

A Dr Kolisko studied the effect of the moon on plant growth and confirmed in 1936 that the best time to plant seeds was 48 hours before a full moon.

I planted Suncherry Premium F1, Sungold and Gardener’s Delight. They did germinate much faster than usual. Make of that what you will…