|By William Scheick
When planning a garden we primarily think about available sunlight. In fact, plants are routinely rated on labels and in guidebooks as requiring either full sun, partial sun or shade.
Our gardening calendar is also sun-based. We perceive four seasons cycling between two solstices when the sun is positioned farthest from the equator. In Texas, the sun’s southernmost positioning produces the longest night on (roughly) December 21, while its northernmost positioning produces the longest day, the so-called first day of summer on June 21.
But the sun is only one of the major celestial “players” in our sky. The other is the moon, and anyone who has been fascinated by ocean tides or animal behavior knows that the moon is no small-time player in earthly affairs.
So it isn’t surprising that there is a long history of alternative calendars based primarily on the phases of the moon. The Chinese new year, for example, begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice, occurring in early February. And instead of a mere four seasons, old Chinese almanacs divide a year into 72 stages of five-day units related to the moon’s cycles.
The full moon of our September is, for example, understood as the 15th night of the lunar cycle, a date traditionally associated with harvesting. It’s a time for celebration in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and other cultures, and it is also the origin of the round, festive, fruit-and-nut mooncakes I can never resist at Chinatown bakeries in San Francisco.
Lunar gardening shouldn’t be confused with creating a moon garden. A moon garden is designed for special visual and olfactory effects to be savored at night. Lunar gardening, in contrast, refers to efforts to coordinate every activity in the garden with the phases of the moon. For some lunar gardeners, this activity is also coordinated with the moon’s perceived “journey” through the stellar constellations.
The principal idea behind lunar gardening is easy to understand. Just as the moon influences sea tides, it presumably also affects the “tidal” motion of water in plants and soil. The ebb and flow of this water, lunar gardeners believe, have an impact on seed germination, floral development and fruit production.
The lunar cycle, which runs 29.5 days, divides into two stages. In the waxing phase, the moon becomes increasingly visible until it is “full.” In the waning phase, the moon progressively diminishes until it becomes “new.” The position of the new moon between the earth and the sun almost obscures it from our sight. “See its slim shape,” wrote the legendary Japanese poet Bash“, “It is as yet undeveloped,/the new moon, this night.”
Lunar gardeners pay special attention to this sequence of the moon’s phases. They believe that moisture in the ground becomes most available to plants during a full moon. At this lunar point plants likely absorb more water than at other times. So, lunar gardeners maintain, seed will be most viable during the periods leading to a full moon.
While this seems straightforward enough, lunar gardening is actually more complicated. The waxing and waning stages are each subdivided into two 7-day, quarter-moon segments.
The seed of most annuals, lunar gardeners contend, should be planted during the moon’s waxing phrase. The first seven days are thought to be particularly ideal for planting vegetables yielding above-ground fruit with exposed seeds, such as asparagus, mustard, bok choy, kale, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower.
The second week of the waxing cycle is said to be perfect for starting crops bearing above-ground fruit with enclosed seeds – tomatoes, okra, peppers and melons, for example. During both waxing quarters the incremental increase of moonlight stimulates the production of foliage.
A waning moon’s diminishing light, on the other hand, retards flowering and benefits roots. So lunar gardeners plant bulbs, perennials and underground vegetables – including radishes, carrots and garlic – during the first seven days of a waning moon. They do so at this lunar stage because these plants need to become well-established below the soil’s surface.
The second week of the moon’s decreasing light – the fourth quarter – is considered to be the best time for controlling insects, pruning, watering and harvesting crops.
Some lunar gardeners follow a still more complex scheme based on various astrological positions of the moon. Here matters get very complicated, and not only because of conflicting moon-gardening theories.
Every two to three days in the course of its monthly cycle the moon passes through one of the 12 constellations comprising the zodiac. Half of these stellar constellations – Aquarius, Aries, Gemini, Leo, Virgo and Sagittarius – are described as barren. As a rule, planting should be postponed when the moon is in these unproductive constellations even if the lunar quarter is advantageous.
The remaining constellations are said to be fruitful (Pisces, Cancer, Libra and Scorpio) or semi-fruitful (Taurus and Capricorn). Planting is advised when the moon passes into one of these productive constellations and is, at the same time, in a favorable phase for a specific species.
Precisely what activities are prescribed during this advantageous conjunction of stars and lunar phase depend on which theory is being followed. Complexity of calculation compounds when, as some moon-gardening calendars instruct, planetary positions are also factored into the regimen.
FACT OR FICTION?
Is lunar gardening a matter of science or science-fiction? Unfortunately, there isn’t much reliable research to provide any clear answer.
But given what we know about the moon’s influence on animal reproduction and on the earth’s oceans, it seems reasonable to suspect that the moon can affect the “tidal motions” of both moisture in the ground and cellular fluids in plants. It is also very likely that the availability of moonlight stimulates the growth of above-ground crops. Research shows that even street lighting does that.
As for claims about the vegetative impact of the moon’s positioning in relation to each of the 12 constellations – who knows what’s fact or fantasy? Do we have to know for sure before enjoying a garden planted in relation to the light of the moon? Perhaps there is something to be said for not trying to demystify all the secrets of the moon.
This much is certain: the moon inspires our imagination – a fact Mark Twain humorously acknowledged in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While pondering the mysterious origin of stars, Huck considers the peculiar possibility that “the moon could a laid them” and concludes, “Well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done.”
Huck is hilariously wrong. What he gets right, though, is a sense of wonder about the moon, which has always exerted a powerful influence on our imagination – even today, nearly 40 years after we first set foot on it. Lunar gardening is certainly imaginative, but this fact does not undermine its plausible emphasis on the impact of lunar phases on plants.