We are fortunate to have a Turkish grill in our front yard. It is a beautiful, weather-beaten copper bowl with a lid, and we occasionally have small fires to keep the chill off while we enjoy sitting and looking at the sky.
One memorable night last September we were sitting around said Turkish grill with some out-of-town visitors - high school friends of my husband from decades ago. We were unnerved to see a line of equal-distance lights moving slowly across the sky far above us. Had our son not been there to tell us about Elon Musk’s Starlink we surely would have thought we were being monitored by aliens.
Just this month, we lit a fire at dusk to provide a bit of warmth while watching the recent conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in the twilight sky. Star watching in the quiet of the night often prompts me to reflect on people from long ago who would probably have gazed up at the skies in much the same way - although with less light pollution and no satellites.
What would they have thought about without having all the knowledge we have today? We have meteorological findings at our fingertips. It is so easy for us to find out about what highlights in the sky are in store for us simply by opening the Farmer’s Almanac or listening to the news.
Mind you, our ancestors had fairly sophisticated ways of calculating the movement of the sun, moon and other planets, predicting eclipses and solstices. Cyclical patterns, based on millennia of years of observations informed their lives, how they planted their crops and managed livestock. One tradition carried on from ancient civilizations is gardening by phases of the moon.
I have been roughly following the lunar cycle as a guide for when to plant seeds, transplant established plants and even when to prune for at least 20 years. What I liked about this was that it helped to arrange gardening tasks by the week.
When I had a bigger vegetable garden, there was always so much to do. It often felt overwhelming because there were so many competing priorities. What to do first?
I would be out in the garden until dark trying to accomplish everything and rarely felt caught up. Following moon phases meant having a roadmap for what to do each week. Having limited choices made it easier to plan. Gardening became less frenetic and, dare I say, more organized.
The last couple of years I did not follow the phases as religiously as when first adopting this approach. In particular last year, with such a cold, inhospitable spring, tomatoes went from the house to the cold frame then back again at least twice. They finally got planted out of the cold frame into the ground when torrential rains stopped and the night time temperature was above 10 degrees.
The second night they were in the ground, deer came and ate most of the growing shoots, which meant purchasing some plants to dig in after we put up a fence. None of this was done according to the moon’s cycle.
Sunflowers did not sprout the first time, likely because of too-cool temperatures. The second round of seeds were simply planted when the weather was warmer and there was a window of time to do it. Although many seeds did not germinate, some were still laden with flowers that nourished many buzzing bees.
Last year, I found myself wondering for the first time whether following the lunar cycle makes that much difference, particularly when the seasons seem to be changing and the weather can be so unpredictable and so extreme. So, writing this article seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore some scientific literature on this topic.
What is gardening by the phase of the moon?
Gardening by phases of the moon has been done for centuries, if not millennia, and involves planting, harvesting and tending one’s garden according to the lunar cycle. In a nutshell, the moon moves through four phases in a roughly 29-day cycle.
Each phase is approximately seven days and corresponds to one of the quarters of the moon. The first two phases (or quarters) involve the growing moon, when more of the moon is seen in the sky each night. This time is also described as a waxing moon. The third and fourth phases involve the diminishing moon, which begins at the full moon, and continues until no moon can be seen in the sky. This time is described as a waning moon.
The first phase begins with the new moon not even visible in the sky. The moon gradually increases in size over the week, from a small crescent with the rounded curve to the right side of the moon (much like a bow for an arrow) until it resembles half a wheel of cheese, as described in Remi Courgeon’s delightful Many Moons children’s book. During this time, according to the Llewellyn calendar, gardeners sow annual seeds and plants that produce their harvest above ground, and bear seeds not contained within their fruit. Examples include lettuces, kale, chard, spinach, basil, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and other annual herbs.
The second phase goes from this half wheel of cheese to the full moon. During this time, gardeners sow annual plants that also bear their harvest above ground, but with their seeds within their fruit. Examples are beans, peas, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and many flowers. Some guidelines, such as the Farmer’s Almanac, do not specify which of the first two quarters to plant specific plants, so long as they are planted in the waxing moon.
The third phase begins with the full moon. As the moon decreases in size, it goes from being a beautiful round orb to a silhouette of a pregnant tummy to resembling the other half of the wheel of cheese (as portrayed in Many Moons). The rounded, visible curve of the moon is now on the left side of the moon.
During this time, gardeners plant root vegetables that produce their “fruit” underground. As well, plants that focus a lot of energy underground, such as perennials, bulbs and shrubs, benefit from being planted during this time. Examples include carrots, potatoes, garlic and flowering bulbs such as tulips, daffodils.
In the fourth phase, the moon goes from looking like half a wheel of cheese to a croissant to a tiny crescent to not seeing any of the moon in the sky. This is not a time for planting, but rather tending to other gardening tasks, such as pruning, weeding, tidying and watering. The end of this phase leads into the new moon and heralds the beginning of the next cycle.
When did this begin and where did these ideas come from?
In ancient times, stargazing must have been a major pastime. Without electricity or technology, the moon, sun and other heavenly bodies would have loomed much larger in peoples’ consciousness compared to today. Egyptians, Mayans and Aztec are three examples of civilizations that developed calendars thousands of years ago based on the cyclical patterns of the sun, moon and constellations.
According to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian: “By observing the natural cycles that link Earth and sky over thousands of years, the Maya have constructed a worldview of the Universe where time is cyclical and all things are interconnected.”
But when did humans begin thinking that the moon actually influenced the living creatures on earth?
A targeted internet search revealed some interesting facts. For instance, the term “lunacy” first surfaced in the English language in the mid 1500s. This was in relation to “intermittent periods of insanity, such as were believed to be triggered by the moon’s cycle.”
German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is credited with being the first to suggest the moon influenced the tides, while Isaac Newton (1643-1727) recognized that the moon influenced gravity. An eminent physician and astronomer, Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654) proposed that our body fluids were influenced by the lunar cycle in a similar way to the ebb and flow of the tides. This inevitably led to assumptions that the sap in plants would be affected in similar ways.
Different constellations were also thought to affect outcomes (think astrology, horoscopes). Even today, many people research their astrological signs hoping to achieve positive outcomes by aligning themselves with the energy in the cosmos.
Susan Onlock is a Powell River Garden Club member. This article continues in part two on March 26. Contact the club at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a visit and have all questions answered, plus get some valuable advice on how to get started.