DesignGeneralWhy Permaculture?

It’s the Time of the Season and the Moon is Bright: Time-Stacking, Planting by the Moon and Other Marvels Tic Toc-ing Along

To be completely honest, the time element of permaculture is something that hasn’t gotten its due attention from me, but coming to this realization, it’s also an idea that I’m spending more and more moments pondering. No doubt, timing can make a huge difference when planting, creating guilds, pruning, harvesting, and countless other –ing activities. The cycles of the moon, the change of the seasons, the rate at which things grow—they all matter and can be used to our advantage as purposeful cultivators.

My excuse is that I’ve been living in the tropics for too long. The length of days stays relatively the same. The temperature doesn’t fluctuate all that much between times of year. There is rainy season, when everything goes crazy green, and there is dry season, when some the green goes to brown and falls on the ground. And, it was in this change of seasons that I recently became increasingly aware of the need to begin bringing my attention to time along a little further in my practice, regardless of where I am.

The Living Fence and Falling Leaves

Madre de Cacao, courtesy of Emma Gallagher
Madre de Cacao, courtesy of Emma Gallagher

At the farm in Belize on which I’ve been most recently working, my wife Emma and I have built gardens that adjoin to chicken yards, which are rotated with layers. Because there are other birds—turkeys and local “meat” chickens—roaming around free all day, we have fenced in our gardens, and excitedly, we’ve done so using living fence posts made from a nitrogen-fixing legume tree, madre de cacao.

Aside from the obvious benefits the fence posts not rotting and the soil amending, the other part of the design I was keen on was the time element. In dry season here, the sun is sizzling, so much so that a local technique is to build shade structures, suspending the palm leaves above crops, in order to subdue lessen the intensity. Because much of our garden was along the fence line, I was excited about the post sprouting shade-producing branches in the dry season to perform this function.

Meanwhile, as the precipitation stays away, the leaves begin to rain, so we rake pathways and patches of grass, using the fallen leaves—particularly the small ones—for mulch, as well as making large piles to produce leaf mold for even better mulching in the years to come. Whatever the case, dry season is the perfect time to get a good cover on the beds. Doing so, as we all know protects the soil from drying out, makes the watering (now a necessity) more efficient, and helps to house microorganisms and soil life at exactly the time it needs it most.

Ultimately, at the onset of wet season, when water becomes overly abundant and the sun much less radiant, the fence posts can be pruned completely back to provide a nitrogen boost for everything, right at the best time to plant, as well as provide chop-and-drop mulch, now that the dry season leaves have stopped falling. The post can be maintained this way throughout wet season, so the sun will be able to get to the plants better, just when that’s needed most.

I also recalled a project I did in Panama, revitalizing a patch of dried out soil with loads of biomass: I’d used leaves in dry season, and in wet, I’d scavenged the neighbor’s lawn clippings for soil building layers of mulch. The time element hadn’t occurred to me, but the ability to stack the two elements—a carbon and a nitrogen—eventually created pretty well-balanced composted richness.

Experimenting with Time-Stacking

Pigeon Pea, courtesy of Emma Gallagher
Pigeon Pea, courtesy of Emma Gallagher

Watching my Geoff Lawton videos, I also have heard him many times talk about time-stacking elements in swale and berm situations, and obviously, the idea seems both logical and brilliant at the same time. We plant nitrogen-fixing ground cover to boost the perennial food forest that we are trying to grow. So, I’ve also consciously given that a go on my most recent (and much smaller scale than Lawton’s example) swale here.

The berm has been planted with longer term additions, including fruit trees (papayas and tomate de arboles—tree tomato), nitrogen-fixing trees in the form of pigeon peas, and perennial aji pepper plants for the understory (There are already canopy trees). The rest of the berm is covered with several dozen annual legumes—cowpeas, black beans, and pinto beans—that will provide services for the trees as they grow, creating a living ground cover, chop-and-drop mulch, a crop of legumes and soil enhancement.

Elsewhere, our gardens have been cultivated in a similar way. We’ve planted perennial trees like cranberry hibiscus, okra, Chaya, papaya, tomate de arbol and pigeon pea (again, the canopy is already spoken for) and assorted perennial pepper bushes, Malabar spinach, and culinary herbs. Around them, we’ve experimented with hundreds of fast-growing legumes, including mung beans, black beans, pinto beans, urad, cowpeas and red beans. Additionally, we have sweet potato and mustard providing more ground cover and helping to loosen up the clay soil.

Seeing the Moon through Its Phases

The Blood Moon, courtesy of Emma Gallagher
The Blood Moon, courtesy of Emma Gallagher

In our time here, I’ve also become very interested and inspired by palm thatch roofs, and in learning about them, I discovered that the state of the moon has a huge impact on the durability of the roof. The palm fronds must be collected during the full moon, else the roof will suffer from rot and insect infestation. It means the difference between eight or ten years or two or three years. It just amazes me that the moon has such an effect on the palm. Of course, this effect isn’t anything new to agriculture, but it certainly has brought to light my need to be expanding my knowledge.

One of our next plans of action is to begin following the cycles of the moon more closely, using them to our advantage. I have no idea why we haven’t been doing it. Some time ago, I was told that the best time to sow seeds is during a full moon, as the extra sunlight reflected to earth during those nights provided a boost to the process. It makes sense, but it’s something that I need—have long needed—to investigate more, so what better excuse is there than researching an article.

Essentially, what I’ve discovered is that the moon’s effect on gravitational pulls and moonlight are, quite sensibly, at the crux of planting by the moon. While there are much more complex systems than the following, what I’ve come to accept is that I’ve got to take baby steps moving into moon phases. It’s taken me this long to look up this information, let alone to start implementing it. Plus, simplicity just feels better to me.

• The new moon pulls water upwards, causing seeds to swell, which makes it a great time for starting annual crops with seeds outside the fruit, such as lettuces, grains, and cruciferous vegetables. The increasing moonlight also helps to balance leaf and root growth.

• The second quarter, or waxing moon, is a great time for planting, especially getting nearer the full moon. While the gravitational pull upwards is less, the light reflected is more, which encourages leaf growth. This is the best time to plant crops with fruits that have seeds inside, such legumes, stuff from the squash family, and tomatoes.

• The full moon changes the direction of gravity, pushing moisture back into the soil and the roots of plants. Consequently, this is the best time to plant root vegetables, as well as perennials, which will be looking to establish a strong root system before doing to much work up top. It also the best time to prune.

• The fourth quarter, waning moon, is when the gravitational pull has decreased and the light is becoming less and is considered resting period. This phase is best used for preparing beds, weeding, harvesting, and transplanting.

Feature Photo: Time-stacked Garden Bed, courtesy of Emma Gallagher

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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