CULTURE

A time to reap and to sow

The next couple of weeks is a good time to prune and graft and to control pests, and then to transplant hardy annuals, but not to plant bare root bulbs or perennials, especially flowers and herbs. Save that for when the moon is waxing again. Gardening by the phases of the moon is no New Age fad but a method used by ancient peoples. Pliny once wrote that all «cutting, gathering and trimming is done with less injury to the trees and plants when the moon is waning than when it is waxing.» In the Mediterranean, people have long pruned trees according to the moon’s cycle, though this is one of the practices that has been thrown out with other traditional methods rejected as «old-fashioned» – including the belief that fence posts, cut with the waning moon, last forever. Apparently, if you cut a branch during the waxing moon, you can actually see the sap drip. That is why it is not a good time to prune. Folklore like this used to be adhered to in rural Greece. In Crete, according to local lore, wooden beams used in housing construction should be cut in January during a waning moon. In the Peloponnese, one old-timer said his parents’ generation used to sow seed when the moon was waxing. It seems a pity this kind of knowledge is disappearing. The method behind this seeming «lunacy» is simple enough. We all know the moon makes the tides rise and fall but, in fact, it affects all water on earth, including the water table below the earth’s surface and not just large bodies of water such as rivers and seas. When the water table rises during the waxing, or increasing, moon, seeds sown and crops planted can more easily take up water than those sown during the waning, or decreasing, phase. So, we plant crops that thrive in dry conditions during the waning phase and above-ground crops that need lots of water during the waxing phase. When the moon is waxing, the moisture level in the soil is at its highest, so this is when planting should be done. When the moon is waning (from the full moon to the last quarter before the next new moon), moisture content is at its lowest and there is less sap rising in trees and shrubs. This is when pruning should be done and those fence posts cut. John Harris, the head gardener of Tresilian House Gardens, near Truro in Cornwall, started using this ancient technique in the 1960s and says he finds it very effective to time his sowing, planting and pruning by the moon. «By applying fertilizer at the right time, I can cut my fertilizer requirement by 50 percent. It’s not folklore, it’s practical knowledge that works. People call me the ‘loony gardener’ but I don’t mind,» he said in an interview on the BBC. These two phases can be further divided into quarters and then again into monthly rhythms according to the 12 signs of the zodiac. During the first quarter, in the first week after the new moon, above-ground crops should be planted and new projects begun. The second quarter, the week before the full moon, is again a good time for above-ground crops, and to nurture and tend new growth. After the full moon, as the waning period starts, root crops should be planted and general tasks finished off. Harvesting should begin, to continue into the final phase before the next new moon, when you can also begin compost heaps and take care of weeding and pest control. In «The Lunar Garden: Planting by the Moon Phases» (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, NY, 1989), E.A. Crawford explains the method and the research done by scientists at Columbia University in 1970, researcher Maria Thun in Germany in the 1950s, and L. Kolisko in 1930. The Columbia University study found that «earth tides» changed the land surface an average of 12 inches each day. Thun discovered that if potatoes were planted when the moon was in the constellations of Taurus, Capricorn or Virgo (the earth signs of the zodiac), the crop was more prolific than if she planted when the moon was positioned in other constellations of the zodiac belt. Kolisko found that wheat seeds germinated faster and more prolifically when sown during the full moon. Results during the new moon were the most unsuccessful. Crawford also refers to more recent studies at Northwestern University by Professor F. Brown that show that even under equal temperatures, seedlings absorb more water during the full moon than at the new moon, hence the practice of harvesting with the moon full, as it seems plants have less water content at the new moon phase. If you really want to practice lunar gardening seriously, then you might also want to take into account the signs of the zodiac, each of which is ruled by a planet, which also contribute to some extent to the effect not only of the rise and fall of water, but the tides in the air, or lunar winds. Each of the signs has its own particular qualities in lunar agriculture. For example, Aries is a good sign under which to cultivate, destroy noxious growth and pests, to weed and harvest. Taurus, an earth sign, is good for planting many kinds of crops, including root crops and leafy vegetables. Above-ground and root crops will do well when planted in Cancer, considered the most productive of all the signs. The air sign Aquarius is best for exterminating pests, harvesting and cultivating. It gets tricky when you want to combine the sign and the correct phase of the moon, but there are several charts available on various websites to help. For further information: www.plantingbythemoon.co.uk, www.moongardening.cwc.net, and for lunar planting wall charts, calendars and other information: www.permaculture.co.uk.