Getting started with Biodynamic Gardening
by Tom Petherick
(This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of star and Furrow)
As biodynamic gardening reaches new audience levels the question arises as to how it is possible to apply its principles and techniques on a home garden/small space basis, particularly if one is starting out for the first time.
Where does one start with biodynamics on such a scale? When I first began as a biodynamic novice, my neighbour Jeremy Weiss, (veteran of these pages, Waldorf-educated and a Demeter symbol holder to boot) told me that biodynamics was a lot to do with intent. I know from my own experiences of life that holding an intention around something is a very powerful tool and over the last few years he has been proved right, the more you put in the more you get out.
This does not mean that everything has to be followed to the letter of the law, one can only do so much and gardening has to be fitted in alongside everything else in our busy lives. However if you make an intention to go the biodynamic route it will open up for you, so fascinating and rewarding a journey is it.
It would appear that many people come to biodynamics from an organic place, or at least one that honours and reveres nature. This is a sound base from which to begin, as it is not possible to practice biodynamics from any place other than organic. We are dealing with subtle energies and influences that cannot be combined with the use of chemicals, even the tiniest of slug pellet. The intention must be to work with nature rather than to try and dominate and subdue her.
The second place from which people are drawn to biodynamics is from the concept of working with unseen forces, often of a lunar nature. We are many of us aware of the influence of the moon on large bodies of water in terms of the tides, and of similar in the reproductive cycle of female mammals. This might lead us on to recognize that the gravitational pull of the moon is also moving water through plants. The moon waxes and it wanes, it ascends and descends and in all of its movement it has influence on plants. If the moon is such a big influence on plants, what about the other planets and everything else that makes up the cosmos? This is the great mystery of life and it is why biodynamics is so exciting because it allows that everything is influential and that this is no accident.
Perhaps the first action is to begin looking at your garden as though it was an organism. Just as Rudolf Steiner saw the ‘farm organism’ as a self-contained and self-supporting unit with all the different components of the farm acting as microcosms of a greater whole, it is good to look at a garden this way, however big or small it is. After all, your garden contains soil and this is an organism in its own right. Nature does not separate a bed of potatoes from a window box of lettuces; they are both part of the individuality of the garden. If you hold this then the use of the practical biodynamic applications will be much more effective.
Loosely biodynamics can be broken down into the following areas:
- The use of two field sprays, BD 500 (horn manure) and BD 501 (horn silica).
- The use of five compost preparations that are healing herbs added to the compost heap.
- The use of a planting calendar that gives clear indications when to carry out tasks in the garden.
This is the bedrock upon which biodynamic practice is founded. Anyone can do it, it is not limited to those with an Anthroposophical background or interest, and most of the raw materials with which to get started are available from the Biodynamic Agricultural Association in Stroud. In fact many of the ingredients that are needed, with a little application and purpose, can be made at home.
How do you do it?
If we look at point three for a moment longer, the planting calendar, we see that from a combination of Steiner’s work and that of the German farmer and grower Maria Thun, who produces a planting calendar annually, there has arisen a correlation between the various different parts of the plant and the signs of the zodiac.
Staying with this we start by looking at the four elements that nature so graciously provides us with – earth, air, fire and water. Then lets match each element to a part of a given plant – earth to root, air to flower, fire to fruit and seed and water to leaf. Now let’s match each of those parts of the plant along with their element to the twelve signs of the zodiac. Then we can see that as the moon moves through each of the twelve on its 27 and a bit day journey around the earth every month it will influence those parts of the plant relating to the zodiacal sign e.g. Pisces=water/leaf, Capricorn=earth/root.
As organic gardeners we are aware of the need to build soil fertility and break the life cycle of certain pests and diseases. One of the ways to do this is to rotate annual crops around the garden. We find that if we start planning our cropping around leaf, flower, fruit and root we are choosing a healthy mix of plants and practicing diversity by default. If we use a legume (pea or bean) as the fruit element we are adding valued nitrogen. Granted there are not many edible flower crops but I take this as a sign to grow a long row of sweet peas instead and bring in and pay tribute to the flower kingdom and the beauty that it brings. I feel an important part of biodynamics is that we respect the soil and do not try to force it to produce as much as it can just because it can. It is the critical raw material that we are working with so we must nurture it and of course feed it so that it can in turn feed our plants.
This leads on to composting. However big or small the garden it is vital that we recycle nutrients round the garden. If we do make compost and treat it with the biodynamic compost preparations (yarrow, chamomile, nettle, dandelion and oak bark) we have a very potent brew on our hands.
Traditional wisdom in biodynamic practice holds that a compost heap should be assembled, made and finished in one go. The preparations are then added and the heap is covered and left. This may not be practical for all gardeners, many of whom will not have enough material. I am not a fan of contained compost heaps, bins and so forth. I prefer an open heap, preferably with a soil base to allow the worms access, to which I add material continually. I do not turn the heap because a compost heap forms its own skin like the earth. If I am making one it needs to be at least a meter and a half square and the same in height. Usually it takes four months to cook. Weed seeds might appear when you spread it but that’s part of gardening, so is the hoe. Whatever you are able to gather, chuck it all together, chopped up small, and make sure there are no big air spaces. When it is to your desired size insert the preparations. These are also available from the BDAA along with a range of small pots for storage. What may be challenging for gardeners with small spaces is finding somewhere to keep the box filled with peat that holds the ‘preps’. A cool, dark place like a garage or shed is perfect.
The Field Sprays and Barrel Preparation.
These are two powerful sprays that really define biodynamics. Once you start using them on a regular basis there is no turning back. It may be tough to take this on board but in my opinion they really do change the energy in the garden, they lift the vibration. Maybe it is because we change ourselves by the very act of using them but the difference is quickly noticeable. Whatever the size of your garden do try and use them because they really work.
The way to use them is well documented suffice it to say that BD 500 works in the root zone and BD 501 is active in the area of light and growth.
The barrel preparation is a very good avenue to explore, as this is a way of getting all the compost preparations on to the land. Traditionally a quantity is added to a stirring of BD 500 for the last fifteen minutes. It has to be kept fresh so the alternative is to use the Mausdorf Starter that is a dried version of barrel preparation or cow pat pit to give it its other name. It only needs stirring for twenty minutes as opposed to the full hour for the two field sprays.
Small amounts of the Mausdorf Starter can also be added to compost heaps that are continually being added to. For many gardeners who do not have a great deal of room this is how most compost heaps are made – over time. Similarly, if you have a barrel or bin for making compost heap you can add a pinch of the Starter in between new layers from time to time. This will temper the heap, keep the smell down and the flies away.
It should come naturally for gardeners to save their own seed. It happens in nature and it is easy to save the larger seeds such as potatoes, beans, peas and shallots. Failing that try and use biodynamic seeds that have been produced in an environment where the biodynamic measures are in use.
Finally, even though I am a relative novice of only three season’s practical biodynamic experience, I have noticed plants behaving differently under this discipline. I find working with the knowledge that the wider universe has influence on us and the plants we grow very uplifting and as this has heralded a change in me so it appears to have done the same in the garden. Some plants seem to take longer to go to seed, typical offenders such as dill and coriander have changed their attitude completely and come right into line. Also having experimented with the planting calendar there have been some things to note. For example the tomatoes that I pricked out on the leaf day that followed the fruit day on which I did the first batch are not half the plants of the first lot, the difference is marked – weaker, poorer leaf colour and generally second best. And last of all the energy of the place has completely changed, it seems more alive than ever.