Urban gardener, Cleve West: Our man on the moon

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The Independent Online

Hmm ... this seemed a good idea as an opening for this week's column but I've had to pluck up some courage to leave it in. The thing is, you see, is that it wasn't until my 40th birthday that I saw the Man in the Moon. For someone who never had trouble enjoying quirks of perception by the likes of Escher, the fact that I've never been able to make out the face that everyone else has seen and known about since childhood is frankly embarrassing. My only hope in this admission is that there might just be someone else out there who is yet to experience the moon's face for the first time.

Anyway, now I've got that off my chest I'm pleased to report that the green cheese is having quite a significant influence on the way we have been gardening at our allotment this year, and I have a hunch that gardening by the lunar calendar will become more popular than ever. It's nothing new. The Romans, Greeks and Chinese used the moon as a guide to sowing and harvesting their crops, and now, as growing our own food is undergoing a renaissance, the ancient belief that the moon's gravitational effects can affect growth has much more relevance. Ears are pricking up.

It's not the first time I've heard about it. Some 15 years ago, on holiday in Mexico, the owner of a vegetarian restaurant (a rare thing in those days) took us to a hacienda where he grew the organic vegetables he needed every day. The gardeners there explained that using the lunar cycle enabled them to grow healthier and tastier crops that stored well. At the time I was relatively new to gardening and, free from any pre-conceptions as to the 'right' way to do things, found it easy to accept. When you consider that the moon's gravitational forces affect our oceans, it seemed reasonable enough to assume that these same forces might affect the water in the soil, and even the sap in trees and plants. Indeed some believe it can even affect the fluids in our bodies, influencing certain illnesses and behavioural patterns, and a nurse I know swears there is more activity on the maternity wing at the hospital she works whenever there's a full moon.

Advocates such as John Harris, the head gardener of Tresilian House Gardens near Truro, and Nick Kollerstrom, have written books on the subject, making it easier to digest by providing a calendar to tell you the best time to sow, prune, graft and harvest. Harris has been practising lunar planting since the Sixties and reckons by doing so has reduced his need for fertiliser by half.

Seed germination and transplanting is advised during a waxing moon when the moisture level in the soil is high, while pruning is better when the moon is waning and moisture is low (so the plant is less likely to bleed). The lunar cycle also uses the constellations of the Zodiac: Earth (root crops), Water (leaf plants), Air (flowering plants) and Fire (fruit or seed plants) so that when, for example, the moon is in Taurus, Virgo or Capricorn (Earth signs), only tasks associated with earth-related veg (potatoes, carrots, parsnips, etc) should be tackled. By planting, pruning and picking tomatoes when the moon is in Sagittarius (fire) the plant should grow with more vigour and health, and harvested fruit will last longer.

The best thing about using the moon as a guide is that, apart from anything else, it brings a sense of calm and order when everything at this time of year needs doing at once, leaving little time to enjoy the process. I have tried to follow Kollerstrom's advice in his book Gardening & Planting by the Moon 2007 and so far so good, although I haven't found the time to prepare trial beds in order to make a more objective judgement. If you can only spend weekends gardening then this becomes a problem for which my advice would be let it go and plant when you can. On no account get worked up about it, as it will only cause hair in embarrassing places, goofy teeth and an undignified tendency to howl before supper.

Believe me, I've been there.

Visit Nick Kollerstrom's website at www.plantingbythemoon.co.uk, and John Harris's at www.moongardening.cwc.net