Moon Gardening: Building Food and Seed Security
In this Leaf Unfurling Moon, we see the surge of vitality all around us. It is as if the fresh, new green tentatively sniffs the air and temperature for a safe emergence. Then, as things warm, they emerge with great abandon! Hearing the breeze first ruffle the new leaves is a springtime joy, as is watching robins gathering worms and insects for their nestlings who then show up as fledglings unaccustomed to wings. Once again, the Life principle is reaffirmed, vigorously pulsing through the Earth and all beings, renewing our hope and reharmonizing our soul. We ought not take the miracles of this seasonal emergence moment for granted.
In the past, I have planted my garden loosely by the moon phase. As I have a regular observance for the full and new moon, this year I decided to rigorously plant by the moon, as one more way to live by the patterns of the natural world. It is a big part of my ethnic heritage too, observed whenever my dad routinely purchased and consulted the farmer’s almanac. I always thought he was checking weather, but moon phases are a key part of the almanac’s offerings. So, I studied up to understand the nuances of moon planting, in addition to juggling for soil temperature, air temperature, sunlight, frost, and rain, as do most gardeners and farmers.
Moon planting is an ancient practice, but it has been revived as a key concept in permaculture as well as in biodynamic agriculture. Biodynamics is based on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Interestingly, Steiner was from the ancestral locale of both my grandmothers in Silesia and thus his ideas were pioneered in Germany, Austria, Poland, and Switzerland before migrating elsewhere in Europe, North America, and Australasia. Both these approaches understand soil, plants, livestock, seasons, weather, and planetary movement as integrally connected. The impetus for biodynamics began as Steiner witnessed the degradation of crops and land from chemical fertilizers. This was one origin of “organic farming” with the goal of avoiding chemical treatments and external inputs to work instead with natural processes and cycles. Each approach uses appropriate garden siting, crop diversity and rotation, soil health through animal and green manures, less or no tillage, perennial plantings, and attention to disease and pest vectors and cycles. Biodynamics also includes some interesting mystical ideas—related to folklore, star constellations, medicinal plants, and energetics—that migrated into the philosophy.
So, what is “moon gardening”? Just as the moon has a gravitational pull on the water creating ocean tides, so water in the ground and in plants are likewise impacted. Just like the highest tides occur at new and full moon, so moisture rises in the Earth at the same times, both in plant sap and the water table. Further, the strength of moonlight impacts plant growth which largely occurs at night, increasing leaf growth as moonlight increases. For my early crops, I planted several beds in this way, and I am amazed at the results! The plants literally popped out of the ground and were much more vigorous. So, why does it work?
The basic theory is to plant seeds during the waxing moon as it moves toward full moon, when the Earth’s moisture rises and swells the seeds. With the waning moon, as moonlight decreases toward the new moon, sap flow is drawn down into roots. So, seedlings and root crops are best planted as well as harvested at this time.
Avid moon gardeners follow each quarter of the moon which is seven days in length. In the first quarter of the new moon as it is waxing, it is best to sow seed leafy crops where we eat above ground elements. It is good also for seeding annuals as well as transplanting, as both seeds and roots will absorb the most moisture. During the second quarter, sowing fruit bearing crops such as tomatoes, corn, or beans up to the full moon is recommended.
When the moon is waning toward its third quarter it is best to sow or plant root crops such as potatoes and beets as well as divide plants and take cuttings. Finally, the last quarter is best avoided for planting. There are a few days in each quarter where the moon is transitioning from one phase to the other when seeds will rot or no growth occurs. Overall, this strategy enables seeds to germinate sooner and creates more vitality as plants grow faster and remain healthier, produce more yield, and more effectively repel pests. Both permaculture and almanac calendars will guide you in this process. Farming cultures typically had names for these moons, such as the Sap Moon, Seed Moon, Grass Moon or Harvest Moon. Any amount of your own experimenting will quickly establish the validity.
This is another way that the Earth breathes moisture in and out. It is the cyclical movement of energy up into the leafy growth for two weeks and then down into the roots for two weeks, with rest periods in between. This technique harmonizes growing and harvesting within this natural flow of moisture and energy as it cycles through the lunar phases.
It is easy to see how modern agriculture works against most natural processes. After WWII, agricultural chemists intensified their goal of producing synthetic chemicals that would aid growth, such as fertilizers, and repel pests and disease through pesticides and herbicides, repurposing wartime factories and chemicals. The core principle was efficiency rather than harmony. The argument was that by using these external inputs, much more food could be produced on less land for more people.
As Canadian farmer Brewster Kneen recounts in his book “Farmageddon”, the first steps farmers took into modern agricultural “improvements” were replacing AI (artificial insemination) for natural reproduction in animals, then using new seeds, such as the reconstructed rapeseed into canola and genetically altered soybeans, corn, and cotton. The altering allowed the plants to withstand large doses of agrotoxins, in this case herbicides. Step by step farmers were lured into modern farming and the industrial principles of rationalizing production. They adopted the industrial ideas of speed, precision, and uniformity for the cause of “maximizing profit”. Yet, he asks, “what was the problem that modern farming was solving?” Was there a problem?
Kneen argues that while agriculture is part of the “life sciences,” it is a science that is "devoted to ridding the world of designated enemies – designated culturally as weeds, in whatever biological form – on the basis of a philosophy that says there is insufficient room and resources for all life, that life is competitive “survival of the fittest,” and that the life of some requires the death of others." When I wander through the garden aisles and see a product named “End-All”, it is clear we have gone off the rails, creating a death culture. Death to some species has reaped dire consequences for ourselves, as well as the delicate interrelations within ecosystems.
One of my aunts has witnessed the loss of biodiversity around her farm. Every year she reposts her signs telling the county “Do Not Spray” the ditches that border her property. She relishes the beautiful wild wetland flowers from marsh marigolds, like little buttercups, to shooting stars. Her neighbours say her lawn looks disheveled, but she replies, “aren’t you happy I am feeding your bees?”, bees which have been placed on nearby canola fields for pollination!
She tells the story of one farmer in her community. He sprayed his fields but noticed the barley was not germinating. He reasoned it must be too much rain. So, he sprayed the field again with herbicide. Incidentally, some of the biggest spraying machines are now operated by satellite. Four years later, his garden bed needed soil replenishing, so he wheeled over barrows of soil. Within a very short time, his vegetable garden began wilting. Perplexed, he took in a soil sample. They told him he had so much chemical in it that it appeared as if he had sprayed that year instead of four years ago. In essence, the soil was dead, all the microorganisms poisoned. But, in their defense, many of her farmer neighbours say, “we are feeding the world”. She remarks “No, we are poisoning the world. It is as plain as the hand in front of my face, that we have to change”. Some family members and neighbours have now shifted to organic agriculture, and while the yield may be slightly lower, the price is higher, and they end up with the same income while fostering life-giving processes.
Kneen calls this moral imperative of feeding the world, the moral blackmail of farmers. Just like Kneen, I remember being told as a child to “Eat everything on your plate…think of the starving child in Africa”, as if this was a personal responsibility rather than a societal one, in part a result of colonialism. It was a disingenuous moralism that Western farmers are feeding the world, especially as the world has largely lived very successfully from subsistence farming for much of human history, albeit with lean times. This was radically disrupted by corporate industrial farming…still sending millions into cities to eek out a living. During the 20th century, the concern became how to feed the quickly rising global population. The concern for overpopulation is not heard anymore, however. Agri-industry and other corporations quickly realized that the higher the population, the more they could sell.
As biotech is now genetically engineering DNA for the creation of new crops more amenable to machines, chemical inputs, and global transport, the pressure to “go big”, primarily through massive debt, has meant the loss of the family farm around the globe, as well as farmer suicide. Rural countrysides everywhere have been gutted of people as well as a diversity of plants and animals. Many families hope their children will “make it good” in the city. But in Greece during their economic crash, many unemployed professionals with no hope of jobs fled back to the abandoned family farms to restore them. This could very well be our future globally, as many believe that the future will be rural.
One consequence of modern farming has been the loss of seed diversity and thus “real” food security. Canadian ethnobotanist Fiona Hamersley Chambers indicates that 94% of the food seed in North America has been lost. Chambers says that she can access only about 6% of the plants that were grown only 100 years ago. My aunt agrees, as her and some of her neighbours try to bring back the “antique” plants that my grandparents grew. In 1995, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization indicated that 75% of the seed varieties for food have been lost globally. Vandana Shiva suggests it is closer to 90% now. Yet, with climate change, it is this diversity that will enable us to survive. Fiona says that 427 varieties of lettuce were listed in an 1885 seed catalogue and today, at my local seed distributor, there might be 5-10. Many growers are now promoting heirloom seeds and so my seed catalogue has 40 varieties, still a far cry from 427. As the corporate world takes over our food and seed production, we are less and less able to even save our own seeds, given they are now legally protected commodities. We can no longer expect the seed to be true to its heritage either. Yet, Chambers says her seed sales increased 5000% during the pandemic…good news if “good” seed is used that helps increase our seed and food security.
As my aunt says, another consequence has been the poisoning of ourselves. Currently, in Canada, there are over 500 synthetic chemicals approved for use on foodstuffs. Consumers Report says that while pesticide residues on produce have actually declined since 1996, more than half of all produce has residues of two or more pesticides. On average, there are 29 pesticides in the average American body, with little research on how this toxic cocktail mix impacts us. There are fewer legal limits than one would expect. Corporate pressure caused the EPA to increase its allowable limits on certain toxins, and the USA has fewer banned substances than the EU, Brazil, and China. The poisoning of farm workers is just "part of the system".
A 2010 report from the President’s Cancer Panel says, “The entire USA population is exposed on a daily basis to numerous agricultural chemicals…with known or suspected carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting properties.” This causes infertility, reproductive disorders, birth defects, immune system damage, kidney disease, neurological disorders from autism to Alzheimers, and multiple cancers. Children are particularly susceptible, with twice the chances of developing attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. The American Center for Disease Control indicates that at current trends, half of all American children will be on the autism spectrum within 20 years. We must question a species that poisons its own offspring.
The 500 years of thinking of the living world as a machine, the 200 years of fossil fuels, and the 20 years of corporate globalization needs to come to an end, says Vandana Shiva in her newest book ONENESS vs the 1%.
In her 2106 book she asks, who (really) feeds the world? It is ecological farming, the web of life, living soil, pollinators, biodiversity, small-scale farmers and gardeners, local growers, seeds, and women who have traditionally, and can once again, feed us….well!
Eating organic puts your risk of pesticide consumption into low or very low risk categories. The EU is reducing pesticide use 50% by 2030 and transitioning one quarter of all farms to organic. In a study by the Small Planet Institute, of “Diet for a Small Planet” fame, shifting to organic produce can reduce pesticide levels in your body by 70% in just one week! Washing your produce with running water for one minute, scrubbing where necessary, removes many residues. Study up on the Dirty Dozen to avoid.
Better yet, the incredible satisfaction of eating your own produce augmented by local organic produce, with far more taste and nutrition, cannot be beat. In springtime, picking fresh herbs of all varieties, leafy vegetables, overwintered leeks and celery, as well as new green onions is a taste fest. As you experiment with harmonizing your planting (or harvesting) by the moon this month, may you celebrate the living fire that animates all life!