What a Little Moonlight Can Do

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

I admit that when I first heard about gardening by the lunar cycles I was, to say the least, extremely sceptical – it just seemed a bit too woowoo for my stolid northern soul.  But then – and I don’t know why – I decided to try it out…and became a convert!  How could I not when my peas went from planted to harvested in less than a month, a good week and a half before the seed packet said they were supposed to be ready?  And I noticed other things too, like the fact that shrubs respond better when pruned during a waning moon, or that weeds take longer to come back if beds are weeded during a waning moon.

But don’t take my word for it…try it for yourself. 

I’ve included a link to an online site that shows phases and signs but I rely exclusively on the book  Guided by the Moon: Living in Harmony with the Lunar Cycles by Johanna Paungger and Thomas Poppe.  It’s the reference I use when, for example, I need to calculate the correct time to start sowing my seeds, which is what I did the other day. 

After calculating the number of weeks to last frost – typically, May 7th, here in Edmonton – and determining the length of time needed from seed to tansplanting for each type of plant, I cross-reference the date of planting with the moon phase and sign to find the optimal sowing date.  For example, tomato seeds need to be sown indoors 7 weeks from the last frost date which puts that sowing at March 19th.  But since tomatoes are a fruiting plant that bears above ground, they’re best planted during a fruit sign and a waxing moon.  The closest that those appear to March 19th is March 17th and 18th – Aries in a waxing moon.

Too complicated?  Sometimes it can only make sense if you do it but if you’re still feeling overwhelmed, I’m linking a spreadsheet showing my planting schedule based on the lunar cycle.  Using my schedule and the website I linked to, you should be able to calculate something similar, keeping in mind the following guidelines:

  • Plants and vegetables that grow above ground should be sown when the moon is waxing.  The exception is lettuce, which should only be sown when the moon is waning.
  • Vegetables that grow below ground should be sown when the moon is waning.  With the potato though, you should plant as close as possible to the full moon.
  • Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius are fruit days.  All fruiting plants are marked in red on the spreadsheet.
  • Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces are leaf days.  All leaf plants are marked in green on the spreadsheet.
  • Virgo, Taurus, and Capricorn are root days.  All root plants are marked in orange on the spreadsheet.
  • Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius are flower and medicinal herb days.  All flower and herb plants are marked in purple on the spreadsheet. 




My Most Useful Tool

Friday, March 5th, 2010
Tools too delicate to store in the shed

Tools too delicate to store in the shed

Along with the expected arsenal of gardening tools – trowel, spade, fork, pruners – I count my books; in particular, The Kitchen Garden: A Passionate Gardener’s Comprehensive Guide to Growing Good Things to Eat by Sylvia Thompson is the one I reach for most often. 

Every gardener who grows food is concerned with taste.  After all, isn’t that one of the strongest reasons why we put in all that time, sweat, and money? – to eat something that resembles a grocery store vegetable in appearance only?  But it’s difficult to find a book that has extensive information of even the most popular plants, forget the more unusual ones.  And taste seems to be a criteria that is rarely mentioned as part of the reason why one should grow a particular plant (unless it’s to rave about the sweetness of some cherry tomato).

The Kitchen Garden covers it all from yard-long beans to Jerusalem artichokes to edible flowers to lemon cucumbers to scented geraniums to lemon verbena to Asian greens to dandelions to tomatillos to strawberries to…well, I could go on and on!  But it’s not enough to merely list all the things you can grow in your kitchen garden, Sylvia Thompson can also describe what they taste like, describing ripe tomatillos as having a “sharp-sweet” flavor or garden sorrel being like a lemony spinach without the aftertaste.  And, while she describes the Sweet 100 cherry tomato as being sweet, she discouragingly says it’s “cloying” with no “sharpness”.  Strong opinions abound in this book, understandably so, since this was written by a gardener who’s spent a lot of time and effort trying out these different plants – if she felt her time was wasted, she honestly says so!

A small selection of my kitchen garden books

A small selection of my kitchen garden books

But it’s not just the extensive listing of edibles and notes on their flavor that makes this such a useful book; in fact, that’s just a small part of this book.  What makes it so helpful is the amount of information on the cultural requirements, history, aesthetic descriptions, recommended cultivars, and her personal experience of each and every plant.  And if that wasn’t enough, the charts at the back of the book detailing plant tolerances, optimal soil, optimal sun, seed/tuber life expectancy, length of growing season, optimal soil temperature for germination, sowing depth, days to germination, minimum weeks to transplanting size, intensive bed spacing, watering requirements, days to harvest, length of harvest…well, I’ve never found another book as comprehensive.

To top it all off, this a good book to just sit down and read for pleasure.  Sylvia Thompson’s writing shows her to be a truly passionate gardener and that passion is infectious.  Best $13.48 I ever spent on a tool!

Square Foot Gardening

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

I wonder why it sometimes happens that a topic or thought I’ve been utilizing suddenly starts popping up in unrelated places?  Have you ever had this happen to you?

Last week I pulled out my copy of Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew while planning our 2010 potager.  A few days later, a woman in my knitting group, out of the blue, asked me whether I’d heard of the book and what I thought of it.  And a few days after that, I pick up a new magazine called Urban Farm, only to discover that there is an article on square foot gardening methods in it.  On the off chance I’m being told something, I thought I should post about what I think is a pretty fabulous method of growing food.

For those who aren’t familiar with this technique, square foot gardening is the process of planning and planting based on a square foot grid system.  It was created by Mel Bartholomew after observing gardeners in his community garden in the 70’s.  It seems that every gardener starts out with good intentions and high hopes in the spring (I know those emotions well) but very few remain diligent enough throughout the season to realize the dreams they had in the beginning; vacation plans, barbeques, cocktail parties, and lounging in the shade seeming to be more important than weeding, watering, staking, and harvesting.  So Mr. Bartholomew set about to create a system that, in his words, would “be so simple and easy that anyone can enjoy a weed-free garden all year and produce a continuous harvest” (Bartholomew, Square Foot Gardening 2). 

Basically, the growing space is gridded, typically into 4 ft. by 4 ft. beds, although you could set up a 4 ft. by however-long-you-want (2 feet is the maximum distance an average person can reach into the centre of the bed from either side), and that 4 ft. by 4 ft. bed is further gridded into 1 ft. square increments.  Those 1 ft. squares are then each planted with your vegetable/fruit/herb choice, except in the case of some larger plants that might require 2-1 ft squares.  This is a highly efficient system that makes succession planting and crop rotation a breeze and, because you plant tighter than you think you should, you get more food from a small amount of space.

If you’re a newbie gardener, this is the best ‘grow by numbers’ system I’ve encountered to date, since, in addition to garden plans for 1, 2, and 4 person households, the book does a lot of hand-holding and details exactly when to fertilize, how much to water, when to harvest, and even has suggestions on how to eat the fruits of your labor.  If you are apprehensive about where to start, have a small amount of growing space, and/or are only concerned about gardening efficiently, this is the book for you.

As an experienced gardener and designer, I use the book differently.  Already possessing numerous books on French kitchen gardens before Square Foot Gardening found it’s way onto my shelves, I’d been looking at why North American food gardens were always planted in rows (has to do with the size of the machinery typically used), and I’d been experimenting with other types of garden layouts and sizes (edible landscaping and permaculture systems being a couple of the easily identifiable ones).  But the design schemes those systems generated didn’t satisfy my formalist (okay, I admit it, control) aesthetic.  I had a typical small urban plot of land that needed to be efficiently yet beautifully (as I defined it for me) planted and, when I started reading this book, I realized that it lends itself wonderfully to my kitchen garden style – a potager where beds are bordered with basil and lettuces and edible flowers, and plants are arranged with an eye toward complementary and contrasting color and texture pairings.  My beds revolve around the 4 ft. by 4 ft. dimension although I sometimes make them longer when I want to accomplish a design attribute like, for example, a strong axis, or I’ll lop off  a corner (as I did last year) to make a wider path.  When I pull this book off my shelf – which I do every time I start planning the coming season’s garden – it’s to refresh my memory on the spacing of the plants and seeds, which I plant in each bed in squares or rows as the design dictates.

Spinach and bush beans - planted using the spacing from the Sqaure Foot Gardening book.

Spinach and bush beans - planted using the spacing from the Sqaure Foot Gardening book.

That’s my contribution to the square foot gardening zeitgeist.