The Self-Taught Gardener: Lunar Landscape

Some gardeners sow the seeds of pumpkins on the full moon with the belief that fruiting vines are helped by the gravitational pull of the moon.

Stockbridge — An insomniac friend, who recently shared his resentment of my ability to fall asleep easily and to slog on through the night, might be surprised to find out that the full moon has always had an impact on me that I have struggled to comprehend. (My answer to why I normally sleep well, on the other hand, was easy to comprehend: plenty of physical labor and a clear conscience — or none whatsoever.) My full-moon sleep pattern often involves confused restlessness or a desire to go out and do something, almost anything, as long as it gets me out. That makes very little sense at the end of a long day of hard work in the garden. But then, when I head out for a walk, a game of billiards at a local bar, or a late night ice-cream run, or even if I stay in and watch an entire season of Dexter in one sitting, I look up and see the full moon and know why I am up and about.

We are often told that statistics bear out the influence of the moon – more crimes are committed (and not just on Dexter), emergency rooms overflow with patients and some gardeners (and the Old Farmer’s Almanac) even hold forth that the phases of the moon impact plant growth and should be considered in determining sowing time. In their opinion, the ideal moment to plant pumpkins and tomatoes and other fruiting vines is when the moon is full.

Some gardeners sow the seeds of pumpkins on the full moon with the belief that fruiting vines are helped by the gravitational pull of the moon. This skin of blue-fruited form has a moonlike cast. Photo: Lee Buttala
Some gardeners sow the seeds of pumpkins on the full moon with the belief that fruiting vines are helped by the gravitational pull of the moon. This skin of the blue-fruited form has a moonlike cast. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

A midnight walk on the last full moon through the eerily lit garden at my house taught me something else. As Fred and I walked about., stepping out from under sugar maples, oaks, and leafed out elms in the mid-section of the garden, I came across a landscape that I had never seen before. For Fred, the scents came forward in a way that led my sweet little beagle on endless trails of mice and squirrels whose serpentine tracks were borne out by the path he took with his nose to the ground. For me, there was something else that had previously gone unnoticed. In the soft, green light that was casting itself about, the garden had a new aspect and I began to see all that was there in a manner that gave me a deeper sense of the architecture of the garden.

Moonlight has a tendency to absorb color and leave a gray-scaled sense of the world that is of use to a gardener who is trying to understand the landscape about him. As we exited the shadows into the back meadow and saw the sculpted yews and the conical balsams in silhouette, I came to see the composition of the garden without the distraction of color. A grove of four lindens showed their magic in a way that was not apparent in the afternoon light and made me understand their merit in the composition of the landscape. A craggy old apple tree added character that would bear highlighting even in the light of day and would benefit from an underplanting of hellebores to call attention to its playful form.

Moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) bloom at night. Their white flowers and scent lead insects through the dark to pollinate their flowers. Photo: Lee Buttala
Moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) bloom at night. Their white flowers and scent lead insects through the dark to pollinate their flowers. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

Plantsman Dan Hinkley once told me to look at black and white photographs to understand the composition of the garden, to take away the distraction of color, and to see what is missing from the composition. As I walked about this lunar landscape I was doing just that sans camera– seeing spots that could use the bold foliage of a rodgersia, a place that was ideal for a weeping cedar, and other areas that could benefit from the ferny stems of bugbane or the upright silhouette of a shrubby willow. By the end of our sojourn, I was filled with ideas for the garden and almost too excited to sleep.

When Fred and I finished our walk, both having seen the world anew, we came inside where he immediately ran to a little chair at the upstairs window and promptly took his position there as the night sentinel. Whether his eyes were open or closed in his perch, he was dreaming of a world that he had seen anew. I think I may need to reposition my own bed, so that I can join him and continue to dream. Perhaps with a notepad at hand to jot down a list of tasks to be taken on in the garden in the light of day.

Fred does not leave his spot as sentinel on nights with full moons although he takes the occasional nap. Photo: Lee Buttala
Fred does not leave his spot as sentinel on nights with full moons although he takes the occasional nap. Photo: Lee Buttala

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.