Charles Estienne, on Orcharding by the Moone

Image: Phases of the Moon – by Hans Holbein the Younger,
from Canones super novum Instrumentum Luminarium (1534)

As for Trees and other Plants, the wise and discreet Farmer will plant his Fruit-Trees and others in the new of the Moone, and yet not before the first quarter. At the same time he will have regard to cut downe and lop Wood for his fuell: but contrariwise, such as he minds to keepe for to build withall, when the Moone decreaseth being sure that all matter (be it to build House, Presles, Bridges, and other things) being cut downe in the decrease of the Moone, lasteth a long time, and is found marvailous good, and yet better when it is cut downe rather at evening than in the morning … As for Fruits, he shall gather Apples, Peares, and other Fruits, as also his Grapes, in the decrease of the Moone, because thereby the Wines will be the better and Ionger kept, which otherwise would be in danger to sowre and rot in the moneth of March following“.

Charles Estienne, La Maison Rustique, or The Countrey Farme, 1616


The quote from Estienne is a good example of the way astrology, and often religious symbolism, was widely employed as a means of guiding the thought process of experts of a wide range of subject areas and professions, right up until the mid seventeenth century.

In a 2016 article, ‘Concepts in fruit tree training and pruning, is there old versus new paradigms? Viewpoint of a biologist‘, Pierre Eric Lauri of the French National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment (INRAE) discusses the paradigm shift in horticultural and pomological thinking that occurred around this time. He quotes historian Florent Quellier’s description of a move away from “the ‘vivid unitary vision of the world’ predominant in the preceding centuries where the knowledge and techniques in horticulture were deeply embedded in a magical vision of the world”, towards a more rigorously scientific approach to fruit tree growing.

This led to a much more rational, highly structural and control-centric approach to managing orchards. Many of the pomological theories and practices which were codified, printed and published during the late seventeenth and particularly the eighteenth century – which Lauri calls the ‘artificial paradigm’ – are still accepted as the standard, received wisdom today. At the same time there are gardeners and orchardists today who practice biodynamic methods, including planting and harvesting according to the phases of the moon, thereby keeping the older ‘magical thinking’ paradigm alive. (Plenty of information at www.biodynamic.org.uk if you’re intrigued)

Personally, what I’m really interested in is the much more recent shift in thinking, one that has been theorised, trialled, developed and put into practice by academics, researchers and agronomists including Jean Marie Lespinasse, Pierre Eric Lauri and a number of others, over the past few decades.

According to this newer ‘complexity paradigm’, as Lauri puts it: “the dominant objective is to improve fruit production (intrinsic fruit quality and regularity of production in consecutive years) through a better understanding of tree architectural and physiological complexity.” In other words: really understanding how fruit trees work and thereby gaining a deeper insight into the growth and fruiting responses that our interventions as orchardists are likely to cause or provoke.

There’ll be more on that subject area in future blog posts and longer-read articles.

(By the by, does anyone know what the “Presles” in the Estienne quote might refer to? I couldn’t find an interpretation via the usual search channels. They’re ranked alongside houses and bridges so I guess they must have been something important?)

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