The Secret to a Winning Garden? The Moon
As gardeners, we often get bogged down in every minute detail of the pasture, from the soil pH to the number of potato bugs in a given grove – and we wonder why we bother. Permaculture connects these scattered concerns by harnessing the synergy of nature and using it as a road map for agricultural success; often, that translates into some pretty far-out gardening tricks involving the type of stuff most people would overlook: the bacterial profile of the soil, for instance, or looking into which animals propagate seeds in a given natural area.
When I first read about permaculture at some ancient bookstore, I found myself chuckling at some of the systems they mentioned: namely, “lunar planting”, which sounds like the name of an Asimov novel rather than a solid gardening framework.
Determined to find out if Lunar planting was legit– as opposed to just some hippy-dippy nonsense– I decided to investigate.
Most gardeners never even consider the importance of the moon because the sun is everything. Without that big ball of gas and light, there would be no plants; if there were no plants, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place. Solar energy drives photosynthesis, and life itself. When Neil Armstrong took those fateful first steps off Apollo 11 nearly fifty years ago, he didn’t see a paradise – just a cold, lonely, desert-like expanse devoid of an atmosphere, freed from gravity’s clutches.
Ostensibly, it’s the most inhospitable terrain man has ever traversed, a place where human life cannot exist (at least not yet). In actuality, the moon plays pivotal roles in shaping life on Earth – it’s responsible for maintaining tides, 24-hour days, and the planet’s unique tilt (which, in turn, dictates seasons and climate zones).
More intriguingly, since prehistoric times, farmers have planted or harvested their crops according to lunar calendars like those in The Farmers’ Alamanac. These farmers are known as “moongardeners”, “moon sowers”, and “lunar phase gardeners”.
Despite the new-age connotations of “moon gardening”, the practice is actually relatively straightforward, taking its primary inspiration from Isaac Newton’s writings on lunar phenomena and biodynamic worldview. Newton was among the first scientists to unravel the the moon’s power over tides, which stems from the varying degrees of gravitational force the moon imposes on the earth as it makes its orbit. When the moon is full, its gravitational power is at its prime; this doesn’t just raise the tides, but the groundwater as well, with more water being drawn up into the soil. Therefore, moon gardeners maintain that above-grown plants which are sown in the days leading up to a full moon (the waxing phase) tend to be hardier and more fruitful than those which are sown as the moon wanes; conversely, below-ground crops are best planted in the two-to-three days before a new moon.
Newton may have been one of the first to observe the relationship between the moon and Earth’s various life systems, but it took the work of later scientists to establish a link between lunar and planting cycles. In 1952, German scientist Maria Thun began experimenting in her garden by sowing potatoes according to varying phases of the lunar cycle, weighing the various plants to compare their growth at different times of year. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, another German, Harmut Spiess, conducted a study on the subject with radishes, and found that not only did the radish plants respond to the rhythm of the waxing and waning moons, but also to the moon’s overall distance to and from the earth, as well as its path through the heavens. Being root vegetables, radishes and potatoes achieved optimal growth during the moon’s waning phase.
There’s another component at play: your horoscope. As the moon moves across the sky, it passes the various constellations of the Zodiac. Just as everyone finds themselves born under a different zodiac sign, moon gardeners maintain that plants have signs as well. According to Gardening By The Moon – one of the leading online resources on this obscure topic – it’s best to start seeds while the moon is in a water sign (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces). Root crops favor earth signs (Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn), flowers are partial to air signs like Gemini, and fiery signs like Sagittarius and Leo are prime time for harvesting. Over the course of her studies, Thun discovered that the potatoes planted during the earth signs were much larger and healthier than those planted in a water sign.
Extensive anecdotal evidence and decades of scientific research affirm the mysterious, beneficial relationship between the moon and the garden, but it’s yet to catch on as a full-blown trend. Perhaps the notion of doing things by the moon is too hippie-dippie, or maybe folks would rather not have to worry about the phases of the moon on top of the soil, weather, pest control, and water supply considerations.
Fortunately, planting according to the waxing/waning calendar, or even according to the astronomical calendar, doesn’t require extensive astronomy skills, just an online moon chart. If you’ve been planting your crops at the same time year after year with mixed effort, consider giving lunar planting a try, and give the moon some credit – it does a lot more than you think, and it might be the boost your plants need – even if it does sound a bit weird.