Gardening by the Moon

Pliny the Elder did it, and so did your great grandparents. They planted gardens by the phases of the moon, using a method practiced in rural communities for over two thousand years.

It was so well established in the first century AD that it became part of the 'natural history' that Pliny wrote about in his series of the same name.

A method proven successful over that length of time deserves more than a label of folklore. It deserves a trial in our gardens too.

Superior gardens are what gardeners want for their efforts, and planting by the phases of the moon makes this possible. Seeds germinate faster. Plants are hardier and more disease-resistant.

They blossom sooner and bear more fruit. Just as importantly, they are better able to resist the stress of harsh weather, drought and insect infestation.

Naturally, good gardening techniques must still be followed. Gardens need to be watered, pruned, mulched, hoed, weeded and fertilised. Paying attention to the moon phases may be the easiest part of our gardening experience, but one with the biggest rewards.

What are the Moon's phases?

If we plant by the phases of the moon, we first need to identify them correctly. The most obvious way is to look at the night sky. As the moon cycles around the earth and the earth around the sun its position relative to the other bodies changes. The four resulting moon phases are called 'quarters'.

The moon is 'new' when it comes directly between the earth and the sun and can't rcflect much of the sun's light. A 'new' moon cannot be seen from the earth. It is too close to the sun in the sky and only the dark side is facing us.

At 'f irst Quarter' we see half of the moon. It rises around midday and sets around midnight. A 'Full Moon' rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. We see the entire sunlit side. At 'last' or 'Third Quarter' we see half the moon. It rises about midnight and sets around midday. The light of the moon increases each night until it reaches the 'Full Moon' stage. When the moon decreases from 'Full Moon' back to the 'New Moon' phase, it looks exactly the opposite of a 'First Quarter' moon.

Cycles of the sun, moon and earth

When our rural ancestors planted by the phases of the moon, they were not acting out of ignorance or superstition. They were making a deliberate attempt to align their actions with the natural cycles of the earth.

We do this today with solar cycles. The sun's movement in relationship to earth establishes the primary natural cycle we're most familiar with.

The first thing gardeners in the Southern Hemisphere learn is to plant tender crops after the last average frost date. This date depends on the annual cycle of the sun north and south of the equator.

The waxing and waning moon

Although the sun's cycle is primary, considering the phases of the moon can further refine planting dates. The goal is to plant in harmony w ith these phases so crops will thrive. Different types of crops are planted at varying times because of their affinity with a certain phase.

Crops that set their edible crops above the ground arc connected to the moon's increase in size from 'New Moon' to 'Full Moon' (the waxing period) because the moon is growing 'up'.

Crops with the edible part growing below- the ground arc related to the phase between the 'Full Moon' and 'New Moon' when the circle of light diminishes or grows 'down', (the waning period).

There is a further refinement of this method that considers the quarters of the moon as well. Experienced moon phase gardeners have found each quarter phase is connected with the follow ing kinds of plants and activities.

First quarter moon

Plants that produce their seeds on the outside, such as lettuce, broccoli, annual flowers and herbs have an affinity with this quarter of the moon. Sow- and transplant them during this phase.

Second quarter moon

Plants that set seeds inside a pod or skin do best when planted in this quarter. These are primarily vegetables such as beans, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers.

Third quarter moon

All vegetable root crops such as potatoes, onions, carrots, radishes and beetroot do best planted in this phase. Perennial flowers, flower bulbs, shrubs and trees also prefer the third quarter. Fourth quarter moon

ITiis phase is reserved for garden clean up. This is the best time to pull weeds. As you plan your garden this year consider timing your plantings by the phases of the moon.

Once you see the great results, you'll know why centuries of gardeners swore by tliis method. OsD

Mulching

Many people think that mulching in the garden is a new idea, but nothing could be further from the truth. Nature has been the grand exponent of mulching forever!

Everything that grows, every limb and leaf, from forest giant to tiny moss, every last feather and bone, fur, gristle, from the massive to the minute, all eventually returns to the surface of the soil as the biomass.

This vast, diverse and abundant biomass of organic material is the natural mulch of Nature. We but copy Nature's success story.

There is nothing complicated about mulching in the garden. A few simple basics to understand and anyone can do it.

Anything that has once been alive can be returned to the soil

Another basic—anything that has once been alive can be returned to the soil. However this does not mean that it is all good as garden mulch.

Just imagine a garden mulched in fish heads and abattoir waste—phew! Okay, I'm joking a little but using an extreme does illustrate a point.

It's best to exercise care and sensibility in what you choose to use as a mulch.

Mulching a basic practice

Mulching, like composting, is a basic practice of organic gardeners. Nature hates bare earth and will cover it as quickly as possible to conserve the soil.

Have you ever noticed how a bare patch in the garden becomes quickly covered with weeds and grasses?

Mulching offers several advantages. For example, a mulched plant is not subjected to the extremes of temperature that affect an exposed plant. Mulch keeps the soil warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

Finished with weeding

When you mulch your garden properly, you have also finished with weeding. Only the odd weed here and there will manage to get a foothold and can be pulled out easily.

Let's look at a few basics. First, never dig mulch into the soil. All mulch is laid 011 top of the soil and slowly breaks down as the aerobic micro-organisms chew into it. Aerobic means oxygen-needing.

The soil life at the surface of the soil and in the top few centimetres, consume the mulch for their regular meals.

Another basic—compost is not really a mulch. Compost is a perfect soil ready for plant life to take the nutrients from it.

Mulch is in a raw state and it is not until the soil life turns it into compost within the soil that it is ready to release and share its nutrients.

Two basic types of mulch

There are two basic types of mulch—one is called a cover mulch, and the other is a feeder mulch. They are very different.

Cover mulch

A good example of a cover mulch is wood chips, pine bark and the like. They cover the ground keeping it cool and moist and they will last for years. But they won't feed the soil in any real or significant way.

A cover mulch is good for shrubs and trees, both native and exotic, in those areas of the garden that are usually in a permanent state.

A garden mulched with wood chips

Thick mulch breaks down into rich humus

Feeder mulch

A feeder mulch is quite different. This not only covers the soil, but it also feeds the soil life.

It can be applied all over the garden—around shrubs, trees, roses, flowers plants and vegetables.

A feeder mulch is the most efficient for labour saving, is time and cost effective, saves your back and is a healthy way to garden. So what is a feeder mulch? Luckily, there are plenty of them.

  • Grass clippings
  • Straw or hay: these can be wheat, barley or pea straw or lucerne. Pea straw and lucerne contain more nutrients but are more expensive
  • Sugar cane mulch
  • Mushroom compost

Spent mushroom compost is the residual waste generated by the mushroom production industry. It is readily available and consists of a combination of wheat straw, blood and bone, horse manure and agricultural limestone composted together.

Although much of its nitrogen content will have used up by the mushroom crop, it is an excellent source general nutrients. It is however an alkaline product shouldn't be used around acid-loving plants.

A combination of mushroom compost, covered with either sugar cane mulch, straw or hay would be a very effective feeder mulch. Mushroom compost will quickly break dow n to feed the soil.

Rough grass hay is equally as good as sugar cane mulch or wheat or barley straw.

The coarser mulches are much slower to break down than mushroom compost, and will cover and feed the soil for six months to a year depending on your soil type and local conditions.

Material

Carbon

Nitrogen

Compost

12

1

Green legumes

12

1

Rotted manure

20

1

Legume hay

20

1

Fresh manure

33

1

Soft plant debris

36

1

Straw

80

1

Wood chips

400

1

Pine bark

400

1

Sawdust

400

1

or wood shavings

You can see by this table that everything down to straw are all effective feeder mulches for garden soil.

The wood based mulches are so high in carbon that they not only take years to breakdown, they can also rob the soil of its precious nitrogen content.

Remember the closer to 12 parts carbon, 1 part nitrogen you can get, the better it is for your soil. This scale is of course an approximation, as conditions of growth and climate can vary the C/N ratio, but not enough to matter.

Thick mulch breaks down into rich humus

Mulch the garden liberally

Mushroom compost gives the soil a real boost and can create a wonderfully rich soil with countless numbers of earthworms, and it will all occur naturally.

'Hie top layer of mulch will last for two or three seasons, keeping the soil cool throughout the summer and protecting it from erosion and heavy rain damage.

The number one rule

The number one rule of mulching is to mulch deeply. Mulch should be at least 20 centimetres deep. A thin scattering of mulch is not only practically useless, it will promote weeds rather than prevent them.

The following table give an idea of the Carbon/Nitrogen ratio of mulches.

The C is carbon, N is nitrogen. The C/N ratio of perfect soil is approximately 12 parts C to 1 part N.

In sub-tropical and tropical areas of Australia, weeds can be completely controlled by the follow ing method.

At the start of spring, scatter some compost and chicken manure pellets over the surface of the soil around plants, shrubs and bushes.

Lay several sheets of neivspaper over this, overlapping the edges. Cover with a 20 cm layer of straw or dried grass clippings. You shouldn't have to weed right through summer. If using grass clippings, make sure they are dry before applying as mulch. If put down damp or wet, they can form a thick thatch that is impenetrable to water.

Mulch your garden generously and liberally and always keep it mulched. The condition of your soil will improve dramatically.

Clay soils will open, creating better drainage with water retention, while sandy soils will close through the generation of humus, retaining the precious moisture. Nature has it all worked out, so you can't lose. 13

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