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Predicting the weather with The Farmer’s Almanac

The other day I was leafing through the Harris’ Farmer’s Almanac 2011 Gardening Guide looking for gardening tips and checking out the regional weather forecasts for the year. This classic booklet has been published "for use of farmers, planters, mechanics and all families" since 1818 and contains "weather forecasts, planting tables, and a variety of matter useful and entertaining". If you haven’t read one lately, I can tell you it lives up to its promise.  Here is just a sampling.

This Farmer’s Almanac wisely points out that beauty is as important to a gardener as being able to grow a good tomato. In many ways, gardening is painting with plants, trees and flowers. If you don’t have the room or time for a separate vegetable patch, mix edibles in with ornamentals. Add multi-task plants like blueberries, artichokes, sage and lettuces in your mixed perennial beds as they’re easy to grow, delicious and beautiful, too. You’re limited only by imagination.

What about the Almanac’s famous weather forecasts? How accurate have they been so far and what’s in store for next winter? Here’s where it gets interesting. Seems that there’s an ‘Old Farmer’s Almanac’, too, a direct competitor, that’s been published since 1792.  This almanac published a study in their 1999 booklet about the woolly bear caterpillar, the larval form of the Isabella tiger moth, predicting the weather.  Here is the history, fact and lore about this famous caterpillar.

According to legend, the wider the middle brown band of the caterpillar, the milder the coming winter will be. Conversely, a narrow brown band is said to predict a harsh winter. A very large number of caterpillars would have to be examined to prove anything definitively but it’s become an excuse to go out to view fall foliage and have fun. Mike Peters, an entomologist at the University of Massachusetts, says there could, in fact, be a link. "There’s evidence", he says, ‘"that the number of brown hairs has to do with the age of the caterpillar- in other words, how late it got going in the spring. The only thing is…it’s telling you about the previous year." So much for predicting the weather by woolly caterpillars.

Remember that long dry spell we had from mid-January to mid-February? The Almanac predicted "locally heavy rain." This month, it predicts showers on May 6-8, 18-20 and 25-27. We’ll have to see how this month pans out to rate their accuracy. October is predicted to have isolated showers throughout the month, November to have "bands of showers" off an on during the month and December forecasts show "mainly light to moderate rainfall." Personally, I’d look at the satellite map and decide the weather for myself.

So much is packed into this little booklet including a good article about growing the San Marzano sauce tomato. So prized in Italy its place of origin on the banks of the Sarno River- between Naples and Salerno- is protected under international law. They can be grown in sun or light shade with deep but infrequent watering resulting in richly concentrated sugars, just the right thing for sauce or a salad. Tomatoes prefer soil with a pH between 6-7 and combine well with rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil and other aromatic herbs.

So whether you are interested in planting in tune with the moon, canning or freezing your harvest, propagating plants, growing and cooking carrots and chilis, drying flowers or learning what’s new in gardening tools, there’s something for everyone in The Farmer’s Almanac.