Time speeds up each year in the spring and when the list of things to accomplish in the gardens gets long, I tend to stretch towards the horizon on both ends. There are times I long for November, to be able to slow down and waste some time, to put down the soil knife and pick up a well-loved book. But now is not the time for that. I rise and fall with the sun and the birds, after 15 hours of daylight and labor. When time feels scarce and everything on the list is high priority, how does one decide where to direct their inherently limited energies? Take the time to slow down; breathe in, breathe out, and look up…can you see the moon?
The moon is intrinsically linked to the concept of time; the word moon comes from the Greek mentron, “to measure.” And our concept of the ‘month’ is a unit of time approximated to the moon’s rotation as it orbits the Earth. Humans documented the lunation cycle as early as 35,000 BC, and most ancient religions feature a lunar deity of some sort.
The dates on the Gregorian calendar widely in use today indicate the seasons and the position of the sun relative to stars. This is a solar calendar. The Sun illuminates 365 days before repeating its annual cycle by rising at the same point on the horizon at the same time of day. Within this annual solar cycle there are twelve lunar cycles: the Moon waxing and waning on average twelve times a year with a few days left over. In contrast many traditional calendars throughout the world are lunar, with months based on the time elapsed between two successive new or full moons. A lunar year is shorter – about 354 days. Native American, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist traditions, among others, all developed lunar calendars.
Traditional calendars do far more than define dates to keep track of birthdays, bill payments and vacation time; they represent a phenology and relational knowledge of the seasons and serve to transmit information about ceremonial cycles and agricultural activities. Often the names of the months reveal some of this encoded information. Take for example the names of a few months in Lithuania, the land of my maternal heritage:
- Rugpjūtis (August) is derived from rugiai, rye, and pjauti, to cut (rye is a staple Lithuanian grain, harvested at this time)
- Rugsėjis (September) is also derived from rugiai, with the suffix sėti, to sow (rye is sown at this time and germinates and overwinters in the fields, resuming growth in the spring)
- Spalis (October) is derived from spaliai, flax shives (flax is harvested at this time; it is used for fiber, food, and as a cash crop)
- Lapkritis (November) is derived from lapas, leaf, and kristi, to fall
- Gruodis (December) is derived from the noun gruodas, which has no direct English equivalent; it may be described as “a frozen clod”
While time gives life structure, the moon, seasons, and months give it rhythm. The cyclical changes of the moon represent the ever-present reality of non-linear eternal transformation. Tuning in to this cycle can bridge the gap between the human and nonhuman world, and as a matter of practicality can help to prioritize gardening activities.
The moon has four phases, each lasting about seven days. One of my mentors, Rowen White of Seed Seva, teaches four basic gardening principles to accompany the four phases of the moon:
Just after New Moon lunar gravity causes moisture in the soil to increase and seeds to swell and burst. Increased moonlight each night creates balanced root and leaf growth. From New Moon up to First Quarter is the best time to plant and work with leafy vegetables such as brassicas, lettuces, spinach, and herbs, as well as grain crops.
From First Quarter to Full moon, moonlight continues to increase, creating strong leaf growth. The time just before Full moon is an especially great time to sow seeds. Between First Quarter and Full Moon is the best time to plant annuals such as beans, corn, melons, peas, peppers, squash, and tomatoes.
After the Full Moon, energy draws down as the moon wanes. Moonlight decreases and energy is directed belowground, into the roots. This is the time for planting root crops including beets, carrots, onions and potatoes. It is also good for working with perennials, biennials and bulbs, and for transplanting and pruning.
The fourth quarter towards New Moon is considered a resting period. This is a great time to mow the lawn, cultivate, harvest, transplant and prune.
These principles can be simplified by splitting the lunar month into two periods: the waxing moon, which occurs from New Moon to Full Moon as the moon grows, and the waning moon, which occurs from Full Moon to New Moon as the moon disappears. With the waxing of the moon, think of the life force in plants as being directed first towards growth above ground, and with the waning of the moon as directed first downward towards the roots. When I am overwhelmed with the list of tasks I wish to accomplish in the garden, I am able to narrow it down some by performing the activities deemed most appropriate based on where we are within the lunar cycle. For some reason this brings me a sense of relief and comfort. Simply reducing the number of items on my list brings a measure of clarity and allows me to direct my energy more purposefully. Having a guiding principle slows me down and grounds my actions, my body, and my mind.
Humans have long believed in relationships between life on earth and the celestial bodies. It can be difficult to prove complex interactions between the Sun, Earth and Moon and other planetary influences which have not been discussed here. Even if the science is ambiguous, we can still intuit that there is an interconnection between, the Moon, life on Earth, the Sun, and the universe. It is this faith in interconnectedness that brings much of the joy of working in the garden.
Jessica Burns has been working at the Holden Arboretum since 2018. She began as a seasonal laborer and now works as a part-time gardener. Jessica has studied herbalism and organic farming for over ten years. She loves propagating plants from seed and hopes to have her own nursery someday. Jessica hopes to affect change in the world by promoting perennial food systems and planting trees.