Planting by the Moon

Planting by the Moon

Illustration Credit: Four Moons by Olga Cuttell

Does it help to be able to see your seeds?

I was once at a dinner at the home of Mushroom (Alan Kapuler) with a number of other avid gardeners. Mushroom was off in the kitchen cooking. Someone asked, “Hey, what does everyone think about planting by the moon?” Everyone except me weighed in on the subject. Most were in favor of the idea of planting by the moon, some vociferously, though none seemed to actually be practicing it. And even those who wanted to believe in planting by the moon did not agree as to when you would actually end up planting anything. After the conversation ran down and there had been a short pause, someone turned to me and asked me explicitly: “Carol, do you plant by the moon?”

“I plant by the sun,” I said. “It’s easier to plant when you can see the seeds.”

After everyone finished laughing, I elaborated. In the Willamette Valley we can often plant the first planting of peas in February, for example. It requires watching for the break in the weather. There is usually only one such break of a few days in February. Miss it, and your next opportunity might be delayed a month or two. I watch for weather that dries up the ground a little and is a little warmer, not for phases of the moon. If I had to have the phases of the moon right too, I would almost never be able to make that first planting.

After I expounded thus, Mushroom came back from the kitchen. So the question was put to him. Did he plant by the moon? His response was as prosaic as mine.

“I plant when I have time,” Mushroom said. There’s a lot do in spring, he elaborated. There is soil preparation, putting out irrigation lines, planting, and tending transplants in the greenhouse. When the weather is right and the soil is prepared and he has the time, he plants.

In our region I think the practical weather limitations are so great that even if planting by the moon actually helped some, it still would not be practical. We need to plant when weather permits, given that it doesn’t most of the time. I think this is why even the people who would like to believe in planting by the moon here in the Willamette Valley by and large have never actually done so. Instead, they watch the weather longingly in spring, just like I do, and scurry out and dig or till, and plant on exactly the same days I do, whatever the moon is up to.

Do crops grow better—even just a bit better—if planted according to some phase in the moon, given equal weather (which would not normally happen)? We can’t actually do a controlled experiment with two different phases of the moon at the same time to find out. Alternate experimental approaches are possible, but are difficult. All we can do easily is to note that many expert gardeners don’t worry about the moon and have glorious gardens. And that, at least around here, those who support the idea of planting by the moon are not actually doing so.

Sometimes, however, agricultural beliefs work but for reasons different than the believer imagines. And often the beliefs work only in some regions but get passed along and applied outside their region of relevance. Let me imagine planting potatoes somewhere else that did not have such wet conditions in spring. Let me imagine a soil that dries up in spring and is suitable for planting potatoes most of the time for a couple of months in spring. In such a situation, it might be easy to procrastinate and put off planting the potatoes week by week until it is too late for an optimal crop. In that situation, if I believed that the potatoes should be planted on a particular magic day or at a particular phase of the moon, this might help ensure that the potato crop got planted in a timely fashion. So the false belief could lead to more successful potato crops, even if the potatoes themselves did not actually care.

Non-knowing can be uncomfortable. I think we would often rather imagine we know, understand, and can influence something than admit that we neither understand nor can control it. So we develop beliefs and rituals that may be contrary to fact. Many people add unnecessary work that may sometimes be counterproductive, getting in the way of observation or looking for real solutions. There is much to be said for learning to be comfortable with non-knowing.

This excerpt is from The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, by Carol Deppe (Chelsea Green Publishing), and is used with permission of the publisher.

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