In mid-February 2008, I drove through the northeast Iowa countryside and was startled to see dozens of farmers in their fields on tractors, plowing through several feet of snow! I'd lived in the area for most of my long life and had never seen such a thing. They surely can't be planting corn now! I thought. Do they have really bad cases of cabin fever?
Later that day, I was relieved to hear on the local ag-news radio report that my rural neighbors were digging trenches. When the spring thaws came, these trenches would collect water melting off from the heavy snows (seventy-six inches) of the winter of 2007 to 2008. The farmers' actions were rational, not mass hysteria brought on by an extremely long winter (there was plenty of that among the townies like me).
As an Iowa native, I knew farmers don't plow and plant in February, and I knew it was February because my calendar told me so. It's a solar calendar that tracks the path of the Sun through the zodiac each year. Since the Sun is the source of heat, farmers and gardeners plan their planting days by the solar calendar, with keen attention to planting "zones"—the farther south in latitude, the earlier the seeds can go into the ground.
Solar and Lunar Calendars
Not all nations base their calendars on the movements of the Sun. Throughout history, the Moon has been associated with the movement of ocean tides and rainfall, so agricultural traditions grew up around tracking the 28½-day cycles of the Moon. The first calendars were lunar, including those of the Hebrews and Chinese. Most of these originated in locations close to the Equator, where temperatures were constant but rainfall was critical.
Some countries have continued the lunar calendar tradition, including Islamic nations. Others, with a bow to the modern Western industrial world, publish calendars that note movements of both the Sun and Moon. These recent adaptations are known as "lunisolar" calendars. In the West, it is primarily almanacs that track the Sun and Moon as regulators of both temperature and precipitation.
Why Gardening by the Phases of the Moon Works
Because calendars in the United States are based on the cycles of the Sun, we are less familiar with the cycles of the Moon. Thus, gardening by the Moon's phases or arranging other activities to coincide with her cycles seems unnecessary. Our agricultural ancestors, however, having tracked the ocean tides and rainfall for thousands of years, embraced Moon phase gardening. By the time Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79), an ancient naturalist, collected all known natural science in his work, Naturalis Historia, knowledge of planting, growing, and harvesting by the phases of the Moon was an integral part of popular culture.
The overriding theory of the ancients was that it is best to coordinate all earthly affairs with the cycles of nature. Even close to the Equator, certain months of the year will not produce good crops because of excessive heat. Particular phases of the Moon became associated with rainfall, which is critical to a good growing season. The New and Full Moons were associated with "earth tides." This theory proposes that Luna not only moves millions of tons of ocean water with the tides, she also pulls moisture out of the air and into the ground at the New Moon. Full Moons draw water up from the ground closer to the surface, where it can provide moisture to plants. These theories have been confirmed by modern science. French Polynesia now hosts the World Data Center for Earth Tides, which collects tidal data from around the globe.1
It's Easy: Just Remember "D-O-C"
The first challenge for gardeners who want to realize the benefits of planting by the Moon is to be able to identify her four phases. The easiest way is to step outside after dark and take a look. You'll see one of the images described below:
- The first quarter or New Moon period of the waxing Moon is a slim crescent that resembles the right side of the capital "D."
- The second quarter of the waxing Moon looks like someone has taken a yellow crayon and colored in the "D." As it increases from first quarter to Full, the backside of the Moon becomes filled in too, until it becomes . . .
- The third quarter or Full Moon period of a waning Moon, the round "man in the Moon," a perfect "O."
- Next is the fourth quarter of the waning Moon. As the Full Moon decreases, the right side diminishes, and Luna looks like a capital "C." The Moon becomes slimmer and slimmer until it disappears and then turns into a "D" again.
If it's too cold to go outside for a nighttime peek at the Moon, local newspapers report current Moon phases in their weather sections. There are also online sites with this information, such as this one maintained by the U.S. Navy.
How to Plant in Harmony with the Moon
Assuming that you'll also pay attention to your solar calendar and planting zone, identify the months(s) in which you want to plant your garden. Then arrange your seed packets into three piles:
- Annual plants that produce seeds on the outside of the edible veggie, like brassicas and greens. Plant these seeds or seedlings during the first quarter or New Moon, along with annual flowers. You can sow the seeds in flats during one first quarter Moon and put them under a grow light indoors or an outdoor greenhouse Wait approximately 28½ days, and the Moon will be new again and the ground ready to receive your seedlings.
- Annual plants that produce seeds on the inside of the edible veggie, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins. Plant these during the second quarter Moon. The seed-to-seedling routine is similar to that for first quarter plants, with the same timing.
- Annual plants that produce the edible part of the plant underground, including potatoes, beets, and carrots. In addition, all perennial flowers and vegetables that must establish a strong root system can be planted in the third quarter when the Moon is waning. Seeds for these are usually sown directly into the ground, unless you are following a bio-intensive gardening plan; then start seeds in flats and transplant outside about 28½ days later.
Also plant shrubs and trees by the Moon phase. Plant in the third quarter Moon, from Full Moon to the fourth quarter Moon. Weed and mulch. Then weed some more.
Refining the System
When you first begin planting by the phases of the Moon, you might want to simply pay attention to what quarter Luna is in. Once you become familiar with that, the system can be refined and made even more successful by planting under a hospitable sign of the zodiac. Two earth signs and all water signs have traditionally been more compatible to plant growth than the others.
- Earth Signs: Taurus and Capricorn. Herbs, flowers, and vegetables love to be planted under a New Moon in Taurus, and potatoes adore going into the ground when the Moon is full and in Capricorn. Remember Virgo is a time for harvesting rather than planting.
- Water Signs: Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces are the best of the best for planting. However, since the Moon in water signs produces rain, you may need to run outside during a lull in a storm to plant. Having your beds prepared before the planting time will make it easier to incorporate water-sign planting into your routine.
- Fire Sign: Only Sagittarius is good for planting onions and garlic— they'll be nice and hot if you do. Forget about gardening in Aries and Leo, except when you need inspiration—read your garden catalogs when the Moon is in one of these two signs.
- Air Signs: These are generally too dry or windy for gardening. Your seeds will scatter and the whole time you're outside, you'll wish you were inside reading a good garden catalog.
Llewellyn's Moon Sign Book has laid out all the information you need to garden by the phases of the Moon. As you keep records of your success year after year, you'll become more aware of how reliable this method is. Your plants will be stronger, attract fewer insects, survive inclement weather, and produce larger harvests.
The system is not as complicated as it might seem at first. The key is to prepare your garden beds thoroughly and as early as possible, at a time of decent weather. Mark off your rows for quick planting and wait for the right phase of the Moon and the correct sign of the zodiac. Then when the stars and planets align, it will take only a few minutes to pop those seeds into the ground and cover them up.
1The International Center for Earth Tides. The Royal Observatory of Belgium. Period 2003–2007. By B. Ducarne, ICET Director.
About the Author Maggie Anderson is an astrologer and gardener who lives in Marion, Iowa. Her 2008 gardening adventure was to plant a "salad bar" outside her back door in a raised bed made from a horse trough.
Excerpted from Llewellyn's 2010 Moon Sign Book. Click here for current-year calendars, almanacs, and datebooks.