Food & Water featured

New Hay Moon

July 10, 2024

The Strawberry Moon went dark at 6:57pm 5th July. So on the 6th there will be a very thin new moon closely following the sun as it sinks into the western horizon. This is the Hay Moon, the ninth moon in the cycle that begins on All Hallows. This is the moon of reaping the grasses and grains. It is new between 20 June and 18 July and full between 4 July and 1 August. This is the middle of summer weather, the Dog Days, the peak of the warmth, and the greatest production in the fields and garden. This month contains Independence Day in the US and Bastille Day in France. It also usually includes Julius Ceasar’s birthday — the reason we name this present calendar month July.

Being a westerner, I’m not a big fan of the Fourth of July — not of the colonial and martial symbolism, definitely not of fireworks. In fact, I have such a deeply rooted fear of fireworks, I couldn’t bring myself to go to the Montpelier July 3rd Festival because it had been increasingly windy all day. Yes, everything is wet right now. No, it’s not likely that a properly detonated firework is going to reach the ground with enough spark left to start a fire, wet or not. But I couldn’t convince my anxiety to buck up and face the facts… anxiety is like that. Besides, I’m so behind on my day-to-day tasks that I appreciated the long evening in which I could get stuff done… far more than I would have enjoyed fireworks even without existential dread.

Anyway, I’ve never liked fireworks, but it must also be said that I’ve never needed them. In the desert southwest, there is a much better light show beginning at this time of year — the monsoon season. With the daily afternoon showers come rainbows and lightning and spectacular sunsets unmatched by anything humans have created. This lasts from early July to late September, with most of the rain falling in August. For comparison, in Vermont the Dog Days begin around the solstice (and even earlier down in Massachusetts) with soul-crushing heat and humidity. This doesn’t relent until the middle of August when it usually shifts to dusty wind… and heat. But nary a rainbow… and lightning that stays hidden in the clouds.

The Hay Moon is sometimes called the Corn Moon, with “corn” in its original meaning of “grain” or “seeds”. Corn, as it is named in the US, is what the rest of the world calls maize or zea and is only knee high by this time of year. So it won’t be harvested until late in August. However, hay is mown and baled for winter feed in the middle of summer, before it all runs to seed, because during seed production the plant stores all its nutrition in the bits that most ruminants can’t digest without releasing a significant quantity of cow farts. Most years in Vermont, there are multiple mowings of a hay field. (I suspect that’s a good way to exhaust the upland meadows.) However, last year the floods wiped out the early mowings and barely allowed time for a later one in between all the storms. Floodwaters also dumped inches of mud, silt and debris on the lower meadows. Not all of this debris was salubrious or even non-toxic, but it did add a hefty layer of fertilizing minerals and rotted plant material. This year, even with the cold, dry spring, I’ve already seen windrows and bales in many lower fields. The uplands, on the other hand, lost much of their thin soils — which accounts for the flood debris load — and I wonder if some will even produce one mowing this summer.

The season of Lughnasadh and the holiday of Lammas almost always fall in the Hay Moon. Lughnasadh is fair season, the time of gathering the Tribe for feasting and games. It is a harvest festival, commemorating Lugh’s foster-mother, Tailtiu, a land goddess who cleared the lands — so that the Tribe could raise livestock and crops — and then died after her labors. In Lughnasadh, the games of Lugh, we recognize the great effort and sacrifice that sustains us every year. There is no planting without a good deal of clearing away. There is no harvest without reaping.

Lammas is a 19th century invention celebrating the grain harvest. It began in the arable-rich lands of East Anglia and was largely an Anglican Church function, though it was only ever a harvest and first fruits festival and not tied to anything in the Christian calendar. Its name is derived from Middle English and means something like loaf-feast. Lammas is celebrated with communal suppers featuring bread and ale. Churches also sometimes put on elaborate altar displays of all sorts of first fruits and fancy breads, though in time the displays shifted to Harvest Home celebrations. As Lammas spread throughout the British Empire, it merged with the Celtic Lughnasadh, creating a pastiche of harvest-y traditions. Scotland, for example, celebrated the oat harvest with bannocks and bonfires and ritualized cutting of the first sheaf. In Ireland, which does not have a notable grain harvest, the potato harvest is central, with foraged berries running a close second.

But before the 16th century introduction of the potato, the Lughnasadh harvest would have been mainly of livestock in Ireland. The fairs were probably much like a 4H fair today. There were trades in breeding stock, races to showcase swift and sturdy horses, and prizes awarded for all manner of traits from best milker to finest wool to fattest yearling pig. Crafts-people also faced off in competition. I suspect, that like State Fairs today, the best in show winners landed lucrative contracts and attracted the best of the year’s potential apprentices and new hires.

We still have fair season under the Hay Moon. The county fairs are going strong by Lammas, though the more prestigious State Fairs usually fall in the next moon cycle. But if you want a good deal on livestock, for whatever reason, county 4H fairs often have auctions — which are also good fun to go and just watch. Lots of nervous kids. All manner of recalcitrant animals. Usually large quantities of lemonade or some other cold drink to temper the hot auction barn. There are such a variety of ways animals can embarrass their handlers. But it’s all good fun. There are ribbons awarded, but there are rarely animals left unsold and there isn’t much spread in price between first and last place — because all of the animals are pretty good, though also somewhat coddled and maybe not the best working farm stock.

In the veg garden, this lunation is a period of increasing activity. Most years, the slack time of Midsummer is giving way to full harvest, along with a bit of planting for autumn and over-wintering veg. Tomatoes are usually in full production, with the rest of the nightshades ready around Lammas. Garlic planted last autumn is turning dry and brown, a sign that the bulbs are ready to dig, cure and store. Leeks are fattening up, and onions and shallots will be ready by the end of the moon cycle. Cucumbers and summer squash are often getting irritating at this time, though this year the groundhog thinned out my plants and pushed back my harvest by several weeks. Peas are mostly done in by this heat, but beans in hog-free gardens are loaded. Similarly, most of the greens are bolting, but Bloomsdale Longstanding spinach and orach will keep you in fresh salad greens until fall.

But the Hay Moon really should be called the Berry Moon. Nearly every berry in the garden and out in the hedges will be ripe sometime in this lunation. An early Hay Moon still has strawberries filling up pint baskets every day. A late Hay Moon will see the blackberries starting to ripen. In between there are raspberries of all sorts, nannyberries, serviceberries, currants, elderberries, gooseberries, and, my favorites, the blueberries — which get their own celebration on the last Sunday before Lammas, Bilberry Sunday. Wherever you live there are berries at this point in the summer.

The orchard may also be producing fruits. It is early for apples, though some sauce varieties will be ready before long. But the pit fruits are in full swing if you live in an accommodating climate. In Vermont, we often have late freezes that ruin the blooms on peaches and cherries, though some of the plums flower later and those we have in abundance right now. However, our climate is shifting and these days you can usually create a micro-climate for small production. My peach tree, planted near the warm house in a south-eastern exposure and protected from wind, is loaded with peach-lets. (I keep watching and hoping that this year I will beat the rodents and birds.) In the not-so-distant future, I imagine orchards will be able to grow even these early bloomers on south-facing slopes. Might be a good time to plant peach trees for the future.

In any case, there is harvest work and the ensuing kitchen work to process and store the harvest. I make stews and breads, jams and chutneys. I roast chiles to be frozen in whole pods, and I turn mountains of greens into pesto-like pastes. I have a constant vat of refrigerator pickles, mostly cucumber, but open to just about anything from string beans to melons. The front porch is usually littered in alliums curing in the summer sun before getting plopped into string bags and hung in the attic. I dry tomatoes and make sauce, though I don’t can that anymore now that it’s been determined that tomatoes need pressure canning temperatures to be safely preserved. I freeze my sauces now, which has the benefit of allowing me to cook the sauce only as much as needed for best flavor and then quickly freeze in all that goodness. Canned sauce often tastes insipid to me because it has to be cooked for so long at such high temperatures. (And don’t get me started on acidic sauces stored in actual cans rather than glass jars…)

So there is all that going on. But meanwhile, it is also coming around to the autumn planting season. I already have the flats cleaned and ready in the basement for cabbage, kale, and other brassica starts. It is almost time to plant a fall round of peas, and this year I might do some fillet beans as well. The beans may freeze before harvest, but if the frost holds off as long as it has in recent years, then I may get a whole bean growing season in after the damn marmot has gone to hibernate. In other words, I might get to actually eat the beans I plant, wonder of wonders! Parsnips and carrots, for fall harvest and over-wintering, also get planted in this moon cycle, but later, and usually after I’m done with the potato beds — that being my standard rotation. Some years, I also plant leeks to over-winter, but this year, I am sort of leeked out. I planted them in the hugelkultur mound where they are very happy indeed. I will be making vats of vichyssoise to freeze and still probably have enough left over to seriously annoy my co-workers with random free veg. Then, of course, there are greens to plant late in the Hay Moon. Most of these are for fall harvest, and really, in Vermont, fall is much better than spring for growing cool season veg. The temperatures tend to be cool but without frost, and there is moisture. Every morning, fog descends upon the autumn garden. This is hell on the mildew-prone autumn cucurbits, but the leafy veggies fairly squirm with delight.

As you can imagine, I don’t have much time for much of anything besides the garden under the Hay Moon. But this is sort of what we humans live for. Certainly I do. Making food! Making tasty and nutritious food, food that has no unpronounceable ingredients and much less embedded carbon than what is found in grocery stores — even my food co-op. But if you don’t have that sort of time, or inclination, or space, there are plenty of nuts like me making way more food than we’ll eat. Many of us sell at farmers’ markets and farm stands. You can also buy into a CSA and help your local farmer stay in business in these years of rough weather. There are CSAs for all types of farm products, veg to meat to fleece and fiber. Many CSAs include processed foods like jam and sauces and even pies. And there is at least one New England CSA that specializes in grain — though their distribution dates are in the early spring, not in time for Lammas, decidedly outside the Hay Moon.

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.