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Biodynamic rules

I have just been up on the roof of our house to check the moon. This is not as odd as you might think – maybe I should have been observing this beautiful feature of our night skies more carefully since I started the organic garden.

For there is a crisis of epic proportions with the parsley. And the moon may hold the key.

To say the parsley planted in a pot in the secret garden (the upstairs balcony, you may recall) is not thriving would be an understatement: it is completely stunted. Originally, I intended to sow early in pots and then transplant the seedlings into the raised beds following my usual procedure. That was the plan until I read an illuminating book, “The Gardener’s Folklore.”* Now I have to think again.

As is well known, this herb is particularly tardy about germinating. But, I now understand, when it does appear it has to be handled with great care and it should absolutely never be transplanted. It is positively dangerous to do so – all sorts of nasty things may happen in the household if you do. As I read: “Immemorial disaster looms over the parsley transplanter.”

Oh my goodness! It seems I have done enough harm by planting the seeds so early; to remove the seedlings to another site would be to invite disaster.

That a belief of this kind is rooted deep in mankind’s past – and appears in cultures thousands of miles apart – is beyond doubt. The Ancient Greeks strewed parsley in tombs; the Celts regarded it as a “lightning plant” with special properties. Yet bizarrely, while the herb is in some way connected with death, it is also associated with fertility and the conception of baby girls. As often happens with folklore and popular tradition, there are two strands here that are hard to reconcile…

So it is back to basics. There will be a new sowing of parsley seeds this week in the raised beds, and I will be pouring boiling water over them once sown in order to speed them on their way (otherwise, I read, they make a curiously roundabout journey to germination). The rows will be on a north-south axis, in harmony with the earth’s magnetic field – I’ve tried this before and noticed very good yields, although I hesitate to say the success of the crops was due to the orientation alone.

This weekend is also an excellent time to sow other seeds, so it’s all systems go to get the pots and raised beds ready. But why now?

According to my diary, the moon will be full on November 17th. A core principle of biodynamics, which follows the natural rhythm and cycles of the earth, moon and even zodiac signs, is that planting during the 48 hours preceding the full moon is generally – though not always – most beneficial. This is when its gravitational pull is at maximum, encouraging moisture to rise in the soil and seeds to germinate, and drawing the embryos onward into growth.

Arguably I should also have regard to the zodiac. Leafy plants thrive if sown when the moon is in the water signs Pisces, Cancer and Scorpio. Root crops are best planted in the earth signs Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn; note that they may also benefit from being sown just after the full moon, in order to encourage downward growth of the tuber/root. Flowering plants, meanwhile, grow well if planted with the moon in the air sign Libra.

The tricky part is that the moon is in each sign for only 2-3 days at a time. So how will I get this right? Doubtless what I need is an almanac. A mainstay of farming and gardening practice for centuries, almanacs are a mine of information including when and what to plant.

But do I need an English or an American almanac, or one that is particular to Egypt? I suspect the answer is the latter. There are in existence historic almanacs for the country, dating from the C12 to C15, including one by Ibn Mammati from the Ayyubid era in the C12 that gave extraordinary detail not just about farming, but also about what to eat and how to live. For example, in the month of “Baramhat” (late February to late March) readers were advised to visit the “hammam” (public baths) regularly, and to avoid acidic foods, while farmers were instructed to plant food crops from aubergines to water-melons, as well as cotton, to take their fattened cattle to market, to prune late vines and plant new ones – and so on.

This is all very well, but I think what is needed is something more modest and more up-to-date. It reminds me that many years ago, in Qatar, we knew an American Fulbright scholar, Dr. Daniel Varisco, who was researching Arabic almanacs as part of a study of the genre in the region. I seem to remember that cultivation of date palms featured strongly in the books. So please, Daniel, if you should happen to read this, would you get in touch and let me know: where do I find a modern almanac that will keep me in tune with Mother Earth as I sow the winter crops here in New Cairo?

* “The Gardener’s Folklore”, by Margaret Baker, published by Sphere Books, London.

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