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Age-Old Moon Gardening Growing in Popularity

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 10, 2003
 
More gardeners today are turning to the moon for sage advice on the best time to plant, prune, weed, and harvest. The practice, known as moon or lunar gardening, is cultivating a cult following.

"Lunar gardening is the oldest form of gardening known to man," said RJ Harris, the head gardener at a private estate near Cornwall, England, and author of a book on the subject.

The practice centers on the moon's gravitational effect on the flow of moisture in soil and plants and, to a lesser degree, the effect of moonlight on seed germination.

Harris has gardened in tune with the lunar cycle since the 1950s, a practice he learned from his father and grandfather.


"Ever since prehistoric times, long before man ever had a watch on his wrist or a calendar on his wall, everything was governed by the phases of the moon," said Harris.

He notes that the moon not only controls ocean tides but influences the groundwater tables beneath our feet. Understanding the latter effect, and timing gardening chores accordingly, is the basis of moon gardening.

Harris gives the example that the best time to turn over a garden is during the last quarter of the moon because that is when the water table has dropped to its lowest point. "It means less moisture is within the soil. It is far easier to turn soil over when there is less moisture in it," he said.

Moon Boom

Seeking to preserve knowledge about moon-gardening techniques before they were eclipsed entirely by modern gardening practices, Harris wrote RJ Harris' Moon Gardening with the help of journalist Will Summers.

But since the book's September 2002 publication, Harris said he learned he need not have worried.

Harris says he has heard from people in New Zealand, Austria, Germany, and the United States who use the lunar cycle as a guide for their gardening chores. And the Internet is sprouting with Web sites dedicated to the practice.

On her Web site Gardening by the Moon.com (www.gardeningbythemoon.com), Caren Catterall writes, "Plants respond to the same gravitational pull of tides that affect the oceans, which alternately stimulates root and leaf growth. Seeds sprout more quickly, plants grow vigorously and at an optimum rate, harvests are larger and they don't go to seed as fast."

A monthly calendar highlights the best days for planting and other gardening activities.

Harris said the current boom in lunar gardening reminds him of the time organic gardening began to find a niche during the "hippie craze" of the 1970s. "They were the first…people to bring in organic gardening. Everyone laughed at them," he said. "Now people will pay a premium for organically-grown produce."

What the moon gardening movement currently lacks is a body of modern scientific work that validates its benefits.

Scientific Validation?

John Teasdale, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Systems Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, said he is not aware of any research on the lunar influences on agriculture, though he said an experiment could be established.

"We know that the moon influences some natural phenomena such as tides," he said. "I would guess that a simple hypothesis would be that lunar cycles could influence meteorological cycles which in turn could influence crops."

Michael Jawson, another researcher at the facility, said the reported benefits of moon-gardening practices are most likely indirect effects that stem from gardener's attentive care. "The indirect effect could be one simply of overall better management because of being careful to do good practices at more optimum times in relation to plant growth cycles," he said.

One tangential relationship between the moon and agriculture was investigated by researchers at the Agricultural Research Service's National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

In 1995 Douglas Buhler and colleague Keith Kohler conducted experiments that showed weed seed exposure to light enhances germination for select species.

Kohler said their findings indicated that till soiling (which brings buried weed seeds to the surface) in complete darkness, such as that under a new moon, hinders the germination of certain weed seeds—resulting in fewer weeds in one's garden.

"Certain species, even if they receive only a flash of light, tend to break dormancy and basically turn on the sequence of germination and establishment," he said.

Kohler cautioned that the research implies any light source, not just moonlight, could produce this effect and only indirectly relates to the lunar cycle. Kohler also noted that scientific research directly related to the lunar cycle is sparse.

Meanwhile, Harris said he conducts his own experiments. Each year he cultivates a selection of crops in opposition to the best practices of moon-gardening methods. Crops planted according to the lunar cycle fare much better, he said.

"I've got a large area in potatoes. We've got some planted at the right time of the moon and some crops at the wrong time of the moon. The difference is so obvious and there for everybody to see," he said.
 

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