Photo: Kagenmi, depositphotos
By Larry Hodgson
Question: I like to plan my garden activities according to the phases of the moon, something my grandmother taught me to do. However, I find a wide variety of interpretations in books, printed calendars and on the web. Sometimes the advice is totally contradictory. How can that be possible? Could you write a detailed article on the subject? I’m sure your readers will be interested.
Answer: They might well be, but I have a problem with this subject. It’s that I don’t believe that the moon influences our plantations in any perceptible or truly useful way. And I can’t really write in detail about something I don’t believe in.
In my experience and in research I’ve done on my own over the years, and for that matter any serious science-backed research I’ve ever read (although there isn’t much of it), the moon has practically no influence on plant growth. And when there does seem to be some difference, it’s so minimal that it isn’t worth taking it into account.
My Own Experience
I first tried gardening by the moon when I was a young gardener (still a teen), but found it very limiting, using my father’s copy of the Farmers Almanach. (My father found the Almanach an important source of gardening information, although he didn’t believe in lunar gardening per se.) Gardening following a moon calendar is quite specific, often to the day, even to the time of day. I was never sure how to handle things when I wasn’t available to do something on the recommended day or when conditions simply weren’t right (heavy rain, say, on a harvest day), so sometimes I cheated. For example, when I wasn’t able to sow say vegetable seeds on the recommended day, I’d do it on a “wrong” one. And I really never could see any difference in the results.
As I read more on moon gardening, I began to have serious doubts about its veracity. Eventually, I stopped entirely and began to look at gardening by the phases of the moon as a superstition.
The majority of scientific studies on the subject likewise come to the conclusion that the moon has little to no influence on plant growth … but when a small correlation is found (usually something unmeasurable without scientific instruments), it often contradicts the most commonly held beliefs!
Here’s the conclusion one scientific analysis came to: “We found that there is no reliable, science-based evidence for any relationship between lunar phases and plant physiology in any plant–science related textbooks or peer-reviewed journal articles justifying agricultural practices conditioned by the Moon. Nor does evidence from the field of physics support a causal relationship between lunar forces and plant responses. Therefore, popular agricultural practices that are tied to lunar phases have no scientific backing. We strongly encourage teachers involved in plant sciences education to objectively address pseudo-scientific ideas and promote critical thinking.”
Not too encouraging!
Actually, beliefs about gardening by the moon vary … a lot! Those of indigenous peoples generally have nothing to do with those of Europeans. And Asians, Africans and Polynesians have very different and often conflicting beliefs about the moon’s influence on plants.
One belief is that the moon’s gravitational pull moves water out of the depths of the soil to the root zone during a waxing moon to a maximum during the full moon, aiding growth and germination. After all, this is what happens during tides and they are caused by the moon’s gravitational pull. But this effect isn’t felt on small bodies of water, only oceans and the largest of lakes. And certainly not in soil water tables. Watering is a better way to keep moisture in the root zone.
Another claims the moon’s light, most intense during the full moon and the 3 or 4 days before and after it, helps plants grow faster. However, moonlight is from 100 to 1,000 times less intense than sunlight and any effect is so weak as to be undetectable. Also, plants need to “sleep” at night, preferably in darkness, and many actually avoid moonlight, with leaves that fold up.
There are many other beliefs about lunar gardening, but no one even seems to be interested in defending them from a scientific point of view.
Moon gardening as practiced in Europe and North America is based mostly on old European beliefs. It covers just about every aspect of gardening: when to sow, when to water, when to prune, when to harvest, even when to mow the lawn and pull weeds. But even though they share many principles, the many annual publications about moon gardening (including printed and online books and calendars) very often contradict each other. Perhaps that’s understandable, because gardening by the moon is extremely complex.
In addition, there may be a placebo effect involved. Gardeners who believe in planting by the moon and get great results will see that as proof that of the theory’s success. And will tend to sweep under the rug their occasional failures as not worth mentioning. I suspect that someone who diligently follows the complexities of gardening by the phases of the moon probably invests more in the maintenance of their plants than the average gardener. They should therefore have more success with their crops than those with a more haphazard gardening habit. It’s not a case of a better technique, it’s a case of meticulous care paying off.
Born Under a Lucky Star?
When I give talks on gardening and answer questions, I am often asked what I think of gardening by the moon. I always reply that I don’t believe in it and think it’s mostly a superstition. And that I succeed in almost all my crops without taking the phases of the moon into account.
But one time a lady objected to my answer and waved her hand insistently. “But what sign of the zodiac are you?” she asked me.
It was an odd question, but I had nothing to hide. “Cancer!” I answered.
“Aha!” cried my interlocutor, triumphant. “People born under the sign of Cancer are ruled by the moon! Thus, you always carry horticultural acts at just the right time, since the moon is telling you to do it!”
I was a bit stunned by that one, but answered that I still didn’t believe it. Besides, I believe in less in gardening by zodiac signs than I do about gardening with the moon!
If You Do Believe…
Gardening by the moon might be mostly superstition, but it’s also fairly innocuous. If you want to keep on with it, just do it. For those who do, here is a (very) short summary.
Plant annuals, fruits and vegetables that bear crops above ground (such as squash, corn and tomatoes, during the waxing of the Moon—from the day the Moon is new to the day it is full. Since moonlight increases night after night, it’s claimed that plants are encouraged to better grow leaves and stems.
Plant flowering bulbs, biennials and perennials as well as vegetables that bear crops below ground (such as carrots, onions and potatoes) during the waning of the Moon—from the day after it is full to the day before it is new again. As the moonlight decreases night by night, plants are said to grow roots, tubers, and bulbs.
When the moon is ascending, that is, when the moon rises a little higher in the sky each day, it’s time to sow plants grown for their leaves, fruits or seeds.
When the moon is descending, that is, a little lower on the horizon each day), it’s the ideal time for sowing plants with flowers, roots or bulbs.
You definitely need a calendar to trace lunar nodes, apogees and perigees. These are days when all work in the garden should be avoided.
- Influence of the zodiac: When the moon enters the constellations of Aquarius, Gemini and Libra, it’s time to sow flowers. When influenced by Scorpio, Pisces and Cancer, it’s time to sow leafy plants. Virgo, Capricorn and Taurus are ideal for sowing root vegetables and Leo, Aries and Sagittarius the perfect moment to the time to sow fruit-bearing plants.
The above is a very succinct summary: the real system is much more complex, too much for the average gardener to navigate. If you believe in the influence of the moon and other stars on planting or want to believe it, the only logical thing to do is to buy a book on the subject every year or consult a website daily. And do consult only one source each season, otherwise the contradictions may confuse you.
Moon gardening seems to be one of those simple ’emotional practices’ we like to carry on as it let’s us feel closer to departed significant people in our lives. I frankly plant whenever I have time and/or we can expect rain. Always seems to work.
One of my grandfathers used to plant peas by moonlight, but for him it was just fun to perpetuate an old Pennsylvania-German tradition.
I remember one time Monty Don did a side by side experiment of biodynamic planting versus normal expecting there to be no difference but in terms of crop yield there was a small but significant increase. I’d quite like to give it a go but when you work full time it’s better to garden at the wrong time than not at all!