Moonshine and balderdash

JUDE GILLIES
Last updated 14:39 20/06/2014
Villa Maria
SURREAL: Camellia sasanqua ‘Plantation Pink’

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Is gardening by the moon the new religion?

Under the full moon this week, the fragile blooms of my Camellia sasanqua ‘Plantation Pink' looked eerily surreal. Call me a lunatic (you know who you are), but the huge, full moon certainly made for a spooky-looking garden when I happened to be up in the night.

Along with the winter solstice tomorrow, June 21, it got me thinking about all the advice I keep seeing in magazines and books and especially on the internet about gardening by the moon. It is something I have never bothered with because, frankly, I have always found it challenging enough to get all the jobs done in the garden without adding the extra constraints of working to the lunar calendar.

Now, I know lots of gardeners, especially the biodynamic followers of Rudolf Steiner, are into astrological planting and sowing, but I am into doing what I can, when I can. I find there are enough rules and constraints in life without following some mystical rules of gardening as well.

Seasonal change, with the "short" days of winter and "long" days of summer, as the earth rotates through the year, I understand. Plants live by sunlight which dictates how they photosynthesise and produce food. No issues there.

It is the role or otherwise of the moon on plant growth that has me foxed. Common sense might tell us that moonlight adds extra light levels at night and might, therefore, encourage faster plant growth at full moon. And, we all know that tides are dictated by the gravitational pull or otherwise of the moon.

But does the moon and its light and gravitational pull make a difference to plant growth? Are all these commonly held concepts actually proven, I ask myself?

Garden writers are sometimes criticised for perpetuating unproven, often new-age, urban myths. One that comes mind is that of recommending adding weeds to a compost heap so the heat kills the seeds.

In reality, a heap would have to get to unattainably high temperatures to render seeds inert. Best advice is not to let your weeds go to seed.

So, in the interests of inclusiveness and attempting to understand what others believe and, because the dodgy weather forced me in from the garden again this week, I thought I would engage in a little cyber-sleuthing to see what imperially backed information I could find to support lunar growing and see if I need to up my game in the garden. And, it seems, the evidence is pretty hard to find.

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Not surprisingly, there is plenty on the websites relating to biodynamics and what was referred to by Steiner as anthroposophy, or the existence and influence of a spiritual world. In addition to the organic principles of sustainability, Steiner promoted the use of the astrological calendar as a spiritual and mystical tool for successful agriculture and gardening. And, most of you will know biodynamic gardening and growing has gone mainstream and legitimate in vineyards, orchards and farms as well as home gardens.

Plenty of people follow these principals and also what skeptics regard as the pseudo-science of burying ground quartz in a cow's horn to harvest the "cosmic forces of the soil".

Now, before all the biodynamic growers among you jump on the email button, I want to say that, while I personally do not follow such beliefs, I certainly do not have any problem if others do.

But, what I follow is science. And, yes, I fully concede that science is a work in progress. That is how it functions.. New research and empirical evidence is always adding to what we know about our world.

But, what is surprising to me is that the most authoritative reference I could find about the effects of the moon on plants was published in Nature journal No. 4017, October 1946, titled The Moon and Plant Growth. Its author Dr C.F.C Beeson identified two groups of literature about the moon and plant growth, the first being reiterations of peasant beliefs and myths, both ancient and modern, and the second being that of experiments supported by statistics and analysis. The second group includes two schools; the experiments mostly of the Steiner-based anthroposophical school, demonstrating the existence of lunar effects on plants, and those of the research of professional horticulturists and foresters finding no such effects.

However, one researcher, L. Kolisko, found in work conducted between 1926 and 1935 that the particular phase of the moon at the time of sowing influenced the period and percentage of germination and subsequent growth of some plants. Kolisko found the most favourable time to sow was two days before the full moon for leaf and fruit-bearing garden plants, root crops, flowering annuals and for wheat and maize-type crops.

"In general, these plants show better germination, more vigorous growth and greater yields than those sown just before the new moon."

Kolisko also concluded that such benefits from the lunar influence were not fully effective unless accompanied by watering during germination, but that the benefits, once acquired, remained during the plant's life cycle.

Beeson concluded in his paper that at the time Kolisko's work was the only published evidence of the existence of lunar influence on plant growth. Other researchers were unable to find any such consistent co-relationships and still others concluded that "if a lunar effect does exist, it is so obscure as to have no value in agricultural practice".

Now, before all the moon gardeners among you dismiss me as a skeptic, I must add that what surprised me is that there is such a dearth of published material and research findings since Beeson and Kolisko's work. If moon gardening is so effective, why is not there more research showing not just the practitioner and production benefits, but also quantifying the economic benefits?

What I can say is that for many years I have noticed a significant increase and renaissance in the beliefs, advice and practices about gardening by the moon and a plethora of books and calendars you can buy on the subject.

I have also noticed an increase in what I, and some others refer to, as the dumbing down or dismissal of science. Are the two related, I ask myself?

But, I would also say that one thing gardening by the moon offers is an opportunity to ritualise what could otherwise be regarded as a mundane and, in some a cultures, peasant activity. It offers a mystical dimension in a world where people have let go of other belief systems, such as religion.

Adding mystical and astrological (anthroposophical?) dimensions may give some gardeners more meaning to their activities. It may also allow them to out-place accountability when things do not quite go to plan, when a crop fails or is lacking.

Me, I just go with the flow of the weather and the seasons. Midwinter, or thereabouts, is time to plant the garlic and shallots and start pruning the roses. Conversely, mid summer is the time to harvest.

Mostly, I simply manage to lurch through the seasons, and especially so when my children were growing up and life was a series of lurches from one activity, one week, and month, to the next. I was always impressed by those who were so organised they had time to not only garden in an orderly fashion but did so by the phases of the moon.

All I can conclude is if there is a discernible benefit to gardening by the moon, Possums, then it's lost on me. But good luck to those who say there is.

Read more on gardening by the moon at: howplantswork.com and biodynamic.org.nz

- The Nelson Mail

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