Traditionally, the "harvest moon" is the nearest full moon to the beginning of autumn -- this year, Oct. 2. But for believers, it's much more complex than that.
Certainly, there are proven, scientific ways to know when to harvest. But for centuries, many people have used the phases of the moon as a sign for many farm and garden chores.
A Quick Primer
Those who have never turned to an almanac may not be familiar with the signs and phases of the moon. So a quick primer is in order.
First, there are 12 signs in a lunar month. They have the same names as the solar signs. So don't confuse the two. Whereas a solar sign is active for around 30 days once each year, a lunar sign occurs once each month for a little less than two and a half days.
The lunar signs are named for constellations as ancient people understood them and are correlated to a part of the body. For example, Aries (or the ram) relates to the head. Leo (the lion) relates to the heart.
So when someone says the signs are in the feet, it means the moon is passing through the sign Pisces (the fishes).
The signs are further grouped into masculine and feminine signs and also into groups of earth, fire, air and water. For instance, Libra (the scales, kidneys or reins) is a masculine sign and also an air sign.
Barren, Fruitful Signs
With a couple of exceptions, signs that represent fire and air, which are all masculine, are barren signs -- times for harvesting, clearing land, etc.
Signs that represent earth and water, which are all feminine, are fruitful signs -- times for planting. Virgo and Libra are the exceptions. Virgo is a barren sign and Libra a fruitful sign.
The moon goes through its cycle in 29 days, 12 hours and 44 minutes. During that time, the moon passes through four phases: new moon, first quarter, full moon and last quarter.
From new moon to full moon, the moon is growing, or waxing. This is known as the light of the moon. From full moon to new moon, the moon is shrinking, or waning (the dark of the moon).
Do It by the Moon
So what does this have to do with harvesting?
For many, absolutely nothing. But for a declining segment of rural America, it's the authority.
The signs and phases best for harvest depend on the intended use of the crop. Harvesting crops to be stored without any type of processing is best done when the moon is waning and in a barren sign.
Aquarius, Sagittarius or Aries are the weakest of the barren signs and preferred for such harvests. With air and fire signs, the produce is at its lowest water content and thus more suitable for storage. This is important for crops like potatoes and onions.
Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces are water signs. So fruit harvested under these signs will have a higher water content and won't store as well.
Harvesting for Now
But for crops that are to be used right away, the water and earth (fruitful) signs, along with a waxing moon, may be preferred because the fruit will be more plump and juicy. However, it may also make them bruise more easily.
Produce may get ripe when the signs aren't right. However, you can target its use based on what's best for the sign you harvested under.
For keeping and storage, harvesting under a barren sign is most important, no matter what the phase of the moon.
Now, there may be no scientific basis for using such tools in gardening and farming. But just try to tell that to someone who's lived by it for the past half-century.
(Terry Kelley is a former University of Georgia Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)