This next week is the time for gardeners who believe in magic to try their hands at it, and for skeptics to hold on to their trowels and try to keep their feet on the ground.
The moon is full on Tuesday, and lunar gardeners will tell you that the full moon is a time of great plant activity. Plants are said to grow their fastest when the moon is full, and people have been known to undertake some unusual activities as well.
And this is no ordinary full moon, either - it occurs back-to-back with the summer solstice. Wednesday the sun moves from Gemini to Cancer and summer begins. The longest day of the year, the solstice marks a season of change. Old wives' tales say strange things happen during the summer solstice - that when the earth is closest to the sun the veils between the seen and unseen worlds grow thin. And the Egyptians believed that only powerful individuals were born at this time.
In terms of gardening, legends say it's no use to weed before the solstice, because weeds pulled when the days are growing longer will only come back stronger. Old-timers say that beans planted after the solstice have fewer insect problems than those planted earlier.
In ancient times, both the full moon and the solstice would have called for festivities; in a year like this, the celebration might have started at moonrise Tuesday and gone on until sunset Wednesday. And that might have set the stage for Thursday, and another festival to celebrate: midsummer eve. Midsummer day is Friday, June 23, but it's the night before when fairies are said to dance and elves show their faces and strange and magical occurrences become almost ordinary. This night has always been considered a time of magic and madness, when the veils between the seen and unseen are not just thin, but lifted altogether.
Shakespeare's play, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," is a comedy in which fairies, elves, sprites and nymphs run wild, casting spells that interefere with the mortals' visions of reality.
But Shakespeare didn't make up midsummer eve - he just took advantage of it. It's long been considered a powerful day, and one of the best days of the year for casting spells and divining the future. Some rituals were said not to work except on this night. People seeking protection might have been advised to dig under the root of mugwort Thursday night to find a coal that could be found only on midsummer eve. This coal, carried on a person, was said to give protection from the plague, carbuncles, lightning and fire.
A divination to see one's future mate could also be performed only on this night - at midnight. A person doing this would have had to pick a sage leaf for each stroke of midnight. At the last stroke, the leaves were placed next to the person's breast, and he would have had to take a half turn to see a spirit form of his future mate floating behind him.
Midsummer eve and day were considered the most propitious days of the year for gathering herbs, which were said to have a maximum of flavor, fragrance and power. And in some European traditions, herbs were smoked in fires on midsummer eve - to clear the air of evil spirits and insure successful crops.
Gardeners have long believed that sowing seed on midsummer eve would bring good crops, because the fairies and nature spirits would dance in the gardens that night and fertilize them with their magic dust. If that seems too far out, try reading about the Findhorn Gardens in Scotland, where amazing gardens flourish on poor soil in a cold climate with no apparent explanation. The gardeners claim they are in contact with nature spirits who give them the help and advice that makes their project successful.
You don't have to believe. But gather some herbs on this powerful day and see if they seem to have more power. And if you have more planting to do, do it Thursday. There's just a chance you'll get fairy dust for fertilizer.
Don't watch for the fairies, elves and sprites, though, or you'll almost surely keep them away. If you want to see them, legend says you have to fall asleep in your garden on midsummer eve. If all goes right, you might wake up in another world