Lore of the land

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AS well as plants and food, I love old books.

Wherever I go, I seek out second-hand bookshops for little gems.

My weekend in York a couple of weeks ago proved very fruitful.

For £4, I picked up a book called The Gardener’s Folklore, by Margaret Baker, originally published in the US in 1977 (there’s 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, including with ultra-conservative Pennsylvania Germans, who still grow their crops strictly by the rules laid out in almanacs.

As it was written nearly 40 years ago, there’s first-hand memories reaching back into the 19th century.

There’s a remarkable amount of similarity of odd growing rituals from 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.

Companion planting, that is, growing crops that are beneficial to each other, is a relatively familiar concept.

Most people have heard of tomatoes being grown alongside marigolds (to ward off whitefly) and basil (the herb attracts greenfly away from the fruits).

However, there’s a whole host of suggestions in the book for the benefit of tomatoes.

Herbs borage and balm are beneficial and the fruits apparently keep better if grown near stinging nettles – not in the greenhouse, of course!

Outdoor tomatoes and asparagus also benefit from each other’s company.