Miriam's Garden: On the dark side of the moon

Strange things are happening in our little corner of the world. As I write this, it's brilliantly sunny on one side of the house and slate gray on the other. Clouds are stacked atop each other. The dog is panting as if it's going to storm. Suddenly large raindrops clink on the red metal roof. There's a loud boom of thunder, and in another moment, the storm is over.

Walking into my garden through the middle gate, I'm stopped at eye level by the wildest purple wisteria vine, gone blooming crazy. Gothic. It winds up into the tall pine tree on the other side of the fence. The drooping flower clusters leave a trail of violet. Transplanted from the childhood home of my husband, David, it was one of his English "Mum's" favorite flowers.

While the flowering trees and voracious vines have been making showy statements, the garden itself is slow going. Happily, the potatoes have burst up from their horse-enriched hay-mulch, and the garlic grows strong and tall. The second planting of peas has graced us, at last, with healthy baby shoots.

But some of the onions have been struggling. We lost more than one and a half rows. Little plants that just rotted away in the ground.

Was it too wet? Was it too dry? Was it too hot and then too cold or all of these? Did they get frosted? Probably. Was the moon in the wrong phase? Huh?

I ordered the onions with my friend, Judith Galbraith. As she was coordinating the order she asked me if I wanted to plant them on the dark side of the moon. It sounded eerie.

I mumbled something about getting them mid-March or early April. I never, when planting, have paid attention to the phases of the moon. Some do. A complete guide is published each year in the "Farmer's Almanac."

On my gardening calendar from Waynesburg Milling Co. in Waynesburg, for each month, there's a box listing Planting Days According To Moon Signs. There are best dates for Above-Ground Crops, Root Crops, Seed Beds and Kill Plant Pest Days. Plus the best dates for fishing, if anyone is interested. The last Kill Plant Pest day in May is the 31st.

Judith gets even more specific, at times, with her garden planting. "How are your onions doing?" I asked.

"Some not so great. I planted those in a fire sign."

"Fire sign?"

"Aries," she said.

I thought it was just about the phases of the moon. It's also astrological? I'm trying to understand. To my mind that was just the old pick-up line, "What's your sign?"

According to this thinking, each period of the moon and each group of days corresponds to, or "is in," a particular astrological sign. Each sign refers to a part of the body, sort of.

Scorpio is secrets. Capricorn is knees, Aquarius is legs, Pisces is feet. "Pisces is a water sign, a good time to plant potatoes," said Judith.

A guide to these beliefs, reprinted in our tattered copy of "The Foxfire Book," is T. E. Black's "Lifetime Planting, Business and Fishing Guide." He explains that each sign signifies when a type of plant or crop should or should not be planted. The astrological signs also indicate when you may do a specific task, such as setting fence posts. Do it on the wrong day and the post will loosen. Some signs (and days) are fruitful; others are barren. Mr. Black also offers life guidance.

For example, Leo corresponds to the heart. Mr. Black writes: "This is a Fire Sign. Barren Sign favors no planting nor transplanting. Good for destroying bushes and weeds and deading [sic] trees. It favors sports, pleasure, love and romance. Ask for jobs. Good for hunting. Get hair waved, baking cakes, etc."

The rest of Judith's onions are doing fine, she told me. They were planted in late March, on the dark side of the moon, meaning following the full moon. The full moon fell on March 27.

For another take on this, I talked to a new friend, a farmer to whom I shall refer as Old Yankee Farmer. "We're set in our ways and manners," he told me.

Old Yankee Farmer explained that the position of the moon and the electrical field that surrounds the earth certainly could affect the weather. Or as he put it, "Could be, without question."

Temperatures are coldest after the full moon. "If the full moon came in early May (but it's extremely late this year), farmers would say 'beware of planting.'

"Looking at the stages of the moon in relationship to planting, it's old stuff. There are so many old tales, sometimes hearsay from the old guys.

"But there's another thing," he told me during a second conversation. "The tides are pulled in by the draw of the moon, and that could affect the weather."

As for my onions, there were certainly temperature fluctuations after they were planted. Possibly they were deluged with rain, and then the ground got cold, causing them to rot. It could be the soil or the plants themselves. The onion plants I gave to neighbor Frank died as well.

"Who knows? This is one of the riskiest businesses going," said Old Yankee Farmer. "You put that seed in the ground, and you hope it comes up."

The light is suddenly fantastic. I look out the back door at the purples and pinks of geraniums, pansies, Spanish blue bells, the wild orange of the first poppies. The bright yet soft green of the hills.

With gardening, there is always hope. Even when looking at it from the dark side of the moon.

Farro with Peas, Asparagus and Mint

PG tested

This is not a recipe from anyone's dark side. It's warming and comforting but also light. It treats farro as if it were rice, making a sort of risotto. I ate it at the vegetable restaurant at Eataly, in New York City. Chef Mario Chantes gave me the recipe in pieces, in between tweaking plates. It's a cozy dinner or lunch for two, or a side dish. Mario said to use "one spoon of pecorino-Romano cheese, one of parmesan and a half-spoon of butter." I eliminated the pecorino to get the ingredient list down a bit but use half of it in place of some of the parm if you wish. He also said the dish should be very creamy and the mint leaves cut into a "Sicilian chiffonade," or very thin ribbons.

I bought quick-cooking farro (a wheat grain) at Eataly. I bet you can get it at Pennsylvania Macaroni. Or look for semi-pearled farro from Giant Eagle. It will take a bit longer to cook, about 25 minutes. If it looks as if it's getting dry, add 1 cup more water. The liquid from cooking the farro is used to finish the dish.

For the farro

  • 3 cups water

  • 3/4 cup quick-cooking farro

  • 1 small onion, chopped (about 1/4 cup)

  • 1 small carrot, chopped (about 1/4 cup)

  • 1/4 cup chopped celery

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

For the pea puree and asparagus

  • 2 cups frozen baby sweet peas, divided

  • 2/3 cup water

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

  • 1 1/2 cups 1/2-inch diagonal slices fresh asparagus

  • To finish

  • 2/3 cup finely grated fresh parmesan

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut up

  • 1/4 cup finely slivered fresh mint leaves, loosely packed

For farro

Bring water to boil in heavy saucepan. Add farro, onion, carrot, celery and salt; return to boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 15 to 18 minutes, until farro is tender. Drain over a bowl, reserving cooking liquid. (This can be done ahead.)

For pea puree and asparagus

Put 11/2 cups peas and water in medium skillet. Bring to full boil over high heat; boil 1 minute. Remove from heat and pour into bowl. Cool slightly then transfer peas and cooking liquid to food processor or blender and process until velvety smooth. Scrape into bowl. Stir in olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Reserve.

Bring 1-inch water to boil in same skillet. Add pinch salt and asparagus; cook until crisp-tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and cool briefly under cold running water.

To finish

Put farro and 1/2 cup of its cooking liquid in large, heavy skillet. Bring to boil over medium heat. Stir in remaining 1/2 cup frozen peas. Cook, stirring often until warmed through and liquid is slightly reduced, about 2 minutes. Add pea puree and asparagus. Cook, stirring until heated and bubbly, about 2 minutes more. Add cheese, butter and mint and 1/4 cup more cooking liquid. Cook, stirring until butter and cheese are melted and mixture is creamy. Season well with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Makes 4 cups, 2 main-dish or 4 side-dish servings.

-- Eataly's Vegetable Restaurant Chef Mario Chantes

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com and on Twitter @mmmrubin. First Published May 16, 2013 4:00 AM


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