Rediscovering Gardening by the Moon

By Sally K. Reeves

Today, only a small sphere of gardeners adhere to what was once nearly universal practice-gardening by the moon. It is not about stepping out at night with the hoe; or even watching for the full moon in order to plant seeds. The art of gardening by the moon considers the phase of the moon and relates that to its position vis-a-vis the Zodiac. It also considers the moon's altitude and distance from Earth. Only then does the gardener know whether the time is propitious to deal with the root, the seed and fruit, the flower, or the leaf.

Even skeptics admit that the moon can pull oceans. Surely, it can entice the germ of seeds or the stem and leaf to grow. Lunar gardeners say this happens each month between the new and full moons, when the moon is waxing. It first appears as a thin crescent with horns to the left after the "new moon," which is dark. It then goes through phases such as the first quarter moon and the gibbous waxing moon, three-quarters of a disk. These are good days to sow seeds and work with the above ground parts of the plant-the stem, flower, and leaf.

When the moon is waning, growth is discouraged. These are days to work with the underground parts of the plant, to weed and prune, to graft, or to work with root crops. If you like to grow garlic, plant it under the old moon, particularly under the Signs Taurus, Virgo, or Capricorn. You may also work the soil, provide enrichment, or harvest vegetables. Along the way, the "gibbous" waning moon will reveal a three-quarters disk, followed by the last quarter moon, showing half, not a quarter of the surface. At last the crescent moon appears again, with its horns to the right. Under the decreasing moon, we are told, plant vitality wanes. While color, sweetness, and aroma are superior, edibles store with greater difficulty.1

Lunar disciples also time their activities according to the placement of the moon and to some extent planets within the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Several thousand years ago, ancient Chaldeans in the Valley of the Euphrates River began to identify certain constellations that occupied a band of the sky only eighteen degrees wide. In this band, the sun, the moon, the planets and twelve constellations named for animals happen to travel across the heavens on a celestial highway that the Babylonians later called the path of the ecliptic. The animals of the Zodiac can be traced out on the sky any clear night, for the stars never change in relation to one another. They send out rays from afar, rays that the moon absorbs and reflects back to earth.2

In "natural" astrology, each sign of the Zodiac relates to a basic element -earth, water, air or fire, which then influence the root, fruit, leaf or flower. The moon, passing in front of a sign, captures and blends the light with its own forces, and reflects it to earth. Then when the gardener works the soil, he opens it up to the stellar influence on certain parts of the plant.3

Capricorn, Taurus, and Virgo are in affinity with the element earth. Since earth is associated with the underground part of the plant or the root, the gardener should work the surface, prepare the soil, sow, hoe, and weed when the moon passes in front of these constellations. This timing will produce root vegetables of good quality that are resistant to parasites.4

The perfume, beauty, and lightness of flowers are associated with air, the element aligned with Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius. One should care for roses and lilacs, artichoke, cauliflower, and broccoli under these signs.

One should harvest under Leo, Aries, or Sagittarius, the fiery signs. They bring the plant the heat necessary to mature the fruit and the seed so as to assure reproduction. This is also a good time to prune.

And finally, Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces, the watery signs, relate to the aqueous parts of the plant, the leaves and stem. Lunar gardeners consider these signs the most fertile for tending foliage plants or leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, or chard. This is also a good time for grafting and transplanting.5

Skilled lunar gardeners also time their chores with regard to the moon's altitude. For about thirteen days of its orbit, our satellite is said to be ascendant, rising each evening to a higher point in the sky. Then for another thirteen days, it is descendant, rising to a lower point in the sky.6

Under the ascendant moon, the sap of plants rises in their foliage. Salad greens, grasses, tulips, trees-sprout to advantage. This is a good time to graft or to harvest juicy fruits, we are told. When the moon is descendant, direct your efforts to the underground parts of the plant. Transplant seedlings, plant trees and shrubs, fertilize, and harvest root crops like radish and carrots.7

Finally, there is the issue of distance. Since the moon's orbit is elliptical, it swings closer to Earth at some points more than others. The closest point is called the perigee, and the farthest the apogee, 12% further out. Both of these moments in the lunar month have negative importance to moon gardeners, who warn that it is not a good idea to garden at these times. At the perigee, the moon's influence is too strong for young plants. Sowing done at this time will yield leggy seedlings; weaklings, susceptible to parasites. On the other hand, seedlings raised at the apogee will yield plants that are stunted in growth; short, stocky, and even abnormal. In other words, we are to avoid the long and thin as well as the short and fat. Two other points to avoid are the nodes-points where the moon's orbit crosses the ecliptic, or the path of the earth's rotation about the sun, one ascending, and one descending. These points produce eclipses, blackouts, and other occult moments, that overshadow the normal course of growth. By experience, gardeners know that seeds sprout poorly and plants fail to develop, and yield to disease at these time. Avoid them! Get some rest.8

To be an astrologer, one has to know cosmology. Aristotle taught that the cosmos consisted of a geocentric universe in which celestial bodies were attached to a series of interconnected spheres. Claudius Ptolemy in the second century A. D. provided a mathematically -based theory of the motions of the sun, moon, and planets. He published his findings in an enduring book that Arabs in later centuries would call "The Almagest," meaning the "greatest book." Although the Greek astronomer Aristarchus had realized earlier that the earth orbited the sun, the earth-centered Ptolemaic view of the universe became the standard belief for 1400 years.9 Ptolemy was also a zealous astrologer, and published an account of its workings in another classic, "Opus Quadripartitum." It was here that he laid out the theory of astrological gardening based on the "ethers."

Early Christians strongly opposed astrology because it tended toward fatalism and worked against belief in the caring power of God and free will. The conversion of Constantine in 321 put an end to its dominance of public life after a half millenium of influence. During the later Middle Ages, the celestial sciences retreated to the intellectual centers of Europe, where the work of monasteries kept alive the wisdom of the ages. Meanwhile the church, as was its wont, co-opted pagan symbolism with emblems of its own. On the charts of the months an apostle now appeared for each sign of the Zodiac, and illiterate peasants made use of saints' days to determine calendar items and the timing of sowing and harvesting. In the Great Chain of Being, each person and month had its precise duties, depicted in art within a benign and pastoral world over which the seasons gently ruled.10

The general belief in the influence of the zodiac, in celestial spheres, and in the geocentric universe persisted into the seventeenth century. This began to change after 1513, when Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed that the sun rather than Earth was at the center of the universe. In 1609, Galileo Galilei looked into the sky with a telescope invented the previous year, changing forever the hold that the stars had on the poetic imagination of man. Although the Church tried to silence him, before his death in 1642 Galileo published his findings in cosmology. 11 Science would never be the same.

In the same period the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) demonstrated the true movements of the planets. The were not capricious "wanderers" that affected the lives of men and nations, but behaved like the moons orbiting Jupiter that Galileo had seen with his telescope. At this juncture in the history of science, Isaac Newton began to advance the world sciences of mathematics, optics, physics and astronomy. By 1666 he understood that every mass attracts every other mass in the universe, generating gravity. He realized that the gravity of the earth counter-balances the centrifugal force of the moon traveling in its orbit. Because of gravity, neither the moon nor people and animals on earth fly out on a tangent to their orbits into space, and the earth can be proved a spinning planet. Moreover, he realized, if gravity keeps the moon from flying out of its orbit, gravity also provides the needed acceleration within its orbit that keeps the moon from crashing into Earth.12

The rise of modern scientific method ironically coincided with the rise of the printed almanac in Europe.13 Aimed chiefly at the common folk and peppered with epithets and prognostications, the almanac contained charts of saints' days, pointers to astronomical events for the year, and a great deal of astrology. From simple beginnings, it rose in popularity after the spread of the printing press. The first almanac of the New World appeared at Harvard in 1639, and a century later the American colonies were supporting over fifty titles a year. By 1800 a half-million almanacs were printed each year in this country. 14 The most famous publishers were Benjamin Franklin, who began publishing Poor Richard's Almanac in 1732, and Robert Bailey Thomas, who founded the Old Farmer's Almanac in 1792. This book still carries his name.15

Early on, almanacs took their place as the chief proponents and disseminators of astrological beliefs in America. Though full of general information on farming, roads, coinage, postage, safety, cooking--all spiced with humor, wisdom and moral commendations-the almanac's stock-in-trade was celestial. No issue was without its report on the planets, its weather prophesies, its lunar and tidal charts, its signs of the Zodiac, and the indispensable Man of Signs surrounded by his zodiacal beasts governing each part of the body. The calendars and essays on farming, husbandry, and science also drew on astrology for their underpinnings. For each day of the month a moon or planet symbol appeared on the charts to tell farmers which seeds to plant, what crops to harvest, whether to work the soil, or if he should weed and cut brush.16

John Foster, an astronomer, engraver, musician, and the first printer of Boston, is considered the first person to print a guide to weather astrology in America in his almanac of 1680. He plugged the old Ptolemaic principles of the "four elements and humors" into his theory, describing planets with "qualities" like "hot and dry," "cold and wet," "hot and moist," or "cold and dry." The signs of the Zodiac had likewise these features, combined with the four elements of earth, air, water, fire, and even gender. Signs could be barren and dry, or moist and fruitful in various recombinations such as moist and barren. Aquarius was airy and masculine, barren and dry. Seeds planted in this sign would rot, but it was good for cultivating, harvesting, and weeding. Taurus, on the other hand, was feminine, moist and earthy, good for planting root crops and transplanting. Since Gemini was barren and dry again, it was a good sign for plowing, harvesting, weeding, mowing, and killing insects. Cancer was a watery, fruitful sign in which everything would quickly sprout. Then there was Leo, a dry sign, the most barren. This was not the time to plant seeds or transplant, but a good time to weed. Overall the best planting signs were Cancer, Taurus, Scorpio, and Capricorn. Aries, which the sun enters in early spring and which usually includes Easter and Good Friday, was a movable fire sign. This was the time to plant seeds for vines, stalks, or aboveground crops, always in the increasing light of the moon.17

Although he died at the age of thirty-three, Foster in his short life had a profound influence on astrological gardening. To this day, publications on moon gardening quote his couplets about the paired qualities of signs, not necessarily aware that their source was filtered from the ancients through Foster and other almanackers.18

Because of a phenomenon called the precession of the equinoxes, however, the Signs no longer line up with the correct constellations. The first 30 degrees of Earth's orbit, which today look out over the late stages of Pisces, are still called Aries in astrology.19 This is a theoretical problem for astrological gardening, because today the Signs of the Horoscope are only abstractions, arcs on paper.

The Zodiacal signs in relation to the moon are different. Regardless of the sun's position vis-à-vis the stars, the moon passes in front of each constellation every month. Owing to movement in its orbit, each evening, our satellite rises in a certain phase with a certain constellation behind it, and because of the earth's rotation, they appear to travel across the entire sky before setting. Gardeners can therefore correctly identify a sign with a constellation in relation to the moon. They just need to understand that the real constellations are no longer linked to the signs that astrologers use to cast horoscopes.

Almanac makers are the chief writers who have had to reconcile the findings of modern science with popular beliefs in astrology. During the eighteenth century, they began to abandon the supernatural to hang their hats on new theories. If, as Newton had shown, the moon and other celestial bodies had gravitational pull on the tides of the earth, certainly these qualities could work on animals, plants, and the weather.20

Except for the content of occasional almanacs, late eighteenth and nineteenth century horticultural writings display little evidence of lunar gardening. For example, Thomas Jefferson, who applied himself to astronomy-did not include a single reference to the moon-even to its phases-in his garden and farm books.21 The practical manuals we have all consulted as students of garden history-Buist's American Flower-Garden Directory, for example, are deep into techniques for individual vegetables and flowers-real plants; not occult speculation about timing. In short, direct references to gardening by the moon, always scarce in the printed word, became practically non-existent as the educated writer found it beneath his dignity to expose a reliance on superstition or unscientific thinking.22

As trust in astrological farming waned in the popular mind, its adherents went covert. Almanacs continued to print charts of the moon's phases and position among the stars, but without explanation. Jacques-Felix Lelièvre's 1838 Nouveau Jardinier de la Louisiane contains some fairly sophisticated lessons on finding the phases of the moon through the Golden Number, the Epact, and the Dominical Letter, without much explanation as to how, when, or why a gardener should use this information except the remark that the phases of the moon bring changes in the state of the atmosphere which are good to foresee to arrange the work schedule.23 The Old Farmer's Almanac is another candidate. It has continued to print astrologically-related lunar charts to this day. One of these is called the "Moon's Place in the Astrological Zodiac," set beneath the following caveat: "the placement of the planets through the signs of the zodiac is not the same in astronomy and astrology."24

Published references to moon gardening from the twentieth century are scarce, but they exist and are growing, so to speak. In 1975 Simon and Schuster published Louise Riotte's Planetary Planting: A Guide to Organic Gardening by the Signs of the Zodiac. There are also two recent books on the subject out of France-Jardinez avec la Lune, and Bien Jardinier Avec la Lune. There are several Web sites on the subject, and a new book out of Scotland called Zodiac Garden. A recent issue of Fine Gardening magazine had a good summary by editor Steve Silk.25

In the final analysis, experiential evidence is all there is to support the principles of gardening by the moon. That this evidence is widespread and persistent over time is undeniable. Among practitioners today, the faith is strong. But terrestrial magnetism notwithstanding, lunar gardening seems to be a demonstrated practice without a demonstrated theory. It may work for some, but assigning influence to gravitational forces based on the phases of the moon fails the theoretical test. We speak of the moon as exerting increased magnetic pull when waxing, but truth to tell it is not getting larger-or closer-to Earth, as it waxes. It may appear so, but it is not increasing in mass or weight, the two measures of gravitational force, but simply reflecting more sunlight back to earth. Perhaps the key here is that not enough is known about the properties of reflected sunlight on plants, especially at night, when their photosynthetic clocks may behave in peculiar ways.

This subject remains important because it would be a-historical to remain ignorant of the enormous role that the contemplation of the sky has played in the course of human history. Our ancestors' greater familiarity with the workings of the heavens than ours today reminds us that people used the sky's patterns as a calendar, a clock, and a weather service. As any gardener knows, there is much to discover about the rules of nature.

Bibliography

1 Pierre Paris, Bien jardinier avec la Lune: Les Conseils d'un spécialiste pour semer, tailler, multiplier, and récolter au meilleur moment (Paris: Hachette Liver, 2000), 5.

2 The Catholic Encyclopedia, (Robert Appleton Company, 1907), s.v. "Astrology ;" Editions Rustica, Jardinez avec la Lune, édition 2001 (Paris, 2001), 14.

3 Editions Rustica, Jardinez, 13-18.

4 Ibid. 18-20

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 26-29.

7 Ibid.

8 Paris, Bien Jardinier, 6-7; Rustica, Jardinez avec la Lune, 32-34.

9 Ibid.; "Claudius Ptolemy" http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Ptolemy.html; Christopher De Pree and Alan Axelrod, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Astronomy (Indianapolis, 2001), 24-27.

10 Catholic Encyclopedia, "Astrology;" Robert Le Gall, Symbols of Catholicism (Paris, 1997); Jean-Pierre Verdet, The Sky: Mystery, Magic and Myth. Translated by Anthony Zielonka. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992), 14-15; 66-67.

11 University of St. Andrews, School of Mathematics and Statistics, "Nicolas Copernicus," http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/history/Mathematicians/Copernicus.html ; "A brief history of cosmology," http://www.groups.dcs.st.and.ac.uk/~history/HistTopics/Cosmology.html (2001).

12 Ibid., "Sir Isaac Newton," http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Newtonhtml.

13 Bernard Capp, English Almanacs 1500-1800: Astrology and the Popular Press (Ithaca, N.Y., 1979), 191-204.

14 Peter Eisenstadt, "Almanacs and the Disenchantment of Early America," Pennsylvania History 65:1 (1998), 147.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.; George Lyman Kittredge, The Old Farmer and His Almanack (Cambridge, 1924 reprint), 205-06.

17 Gettysburg College, "Farming and Astrology," http://www.gettysburg.edu/~s469753/almanac/farm.html (2001).

18 Psychic Eye Book Shops, reproduction of "death and father time" Dorchester, MA tombstone, http://www.pebooks.com/wallhang1.htm (2001).

19 Editions Rustica, Jardinez, 14-19.

20 Eisenstadt, "Almanacs," 149.

21 Thomas Jefferson, The Garden and Farm Books. ed. Robert C. Baron (Golden, Colorado, 1987).

22 Eisenstadt, "Almanacs," 149.

23 Jacques-Felix Lelièvre's New Louisiana Gardener, ed. Sally K. Reeves (Baton Rouge, LA, 2001), 157-160.

24 Yankee Publishing Co., The Old Farmer's Almanac, 2001 (Dublin, N.H., [2000]), 41, 58-84.

25 Steve Silk, "Gardening by the Moon, Fine Gardening, June, 2001.


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