What is biodynamic farming and gardening and how is it done? People often avoid a complicated explanation by referring to biodynamic agriculture as ‘organic plus’ or ‘über-organic’. Biodynamics offers a holistic approach to nurturing soils, biodiversity, resilience and tuning into seasonal cycles, with the aim of long-term ecological sustainability. Biodynamic food is highly acclaimed for its quality and exceptional taste. Consumers who choose biodynamic produce know that their food comes from environmentally sound farms and gardens where the animals are respected and healthy. Yet its methods involving herbal teas, cow horns and astronomy are still a mystery to many.
The lack of an accessible book on the biodynamic approach has made it difficult for people to learn about and appreciate its philosophy and methods. Biodynamics is a holistic approach to agriculture that considers every farm or garden as a living, evolving organism. All parts of the system – livestock, crops and soil – are interdependent. But what does this actually mean in practice? The recently published Biodynamic Gardening: Growing Healthy Plants and Amazing Produce with the Help of the Moon and Nature’s Cycles (2015) by Monty Waldin reveals with clarity and detail how biodynamic gardening is done. It’s a fully illustrated step-by-step guide to all the main biodynamic principles and getting a garden started. According to Rachael O. Kelly, trustee of the Biodynamic Association, in contrast to many other books on biodynamics, “this is both a ‘how to’ gardening book and an explanation of the theory behind the practice. Designed to be picked up regularly and accompany you through the growing season, this really is a most comprehensive, practical book.”
The biodynamic approach is in stark contrast to chemical-based industrial agriculture, which has developed many technological advances but with irreversible side effects on soil, biodiversity and natural resources. According to Waldin, biodynamics was the first ‘green’ farming movement. It emerged in the early 1920s after the end of the First World War, before the emergence of the organic movement, which started after the Second World War. Instead of attempting to control the natural environment, biodynamics seeks to optimise the potential of natural elements and cycles in order to work with ecological principles rather than against them.
Tom Petherick, author and biodynamic farmer, suggests that it is not possible to practice biodynamics without a grounding in organic agriculture, so many people come to biodynamics with an understanding of organic growing principles. Waldin’s Biodynamic Gardening begins with a guide on how to set up an organic garden, including how to make compost, compost ‘teas’ and natural remedies for pests and disease, and advice on companion planting and seed saving. Instead of using chemical herbicides to combat weeds, plant teas are used in organic and biodynamic systems. Waldin explains that these work by using the weeds in your garden, which contain the exact combination of nutrients that the garden lacks.
In addition to organic methods, biodynamics includes a set of practices developed by Rudolf Steiner that are designed to enliven the soil and plants by working with the influence of invisible energies and forces. ‘Biodynamic’ derives from the Greek, with ‘bio’ meaning life and ‘dynamic’ meaning force. Petherick explains that the purpose of biodynamics is to allow ourselves, soil and plant life to become more receptive to these unseen but powerful life forces that underlie nature’s process in order to produce high quality food. The main biodynamic methods include: six different compost preparations using the healing properties of herbs such as yarrow, chamomile, valerian and nettle; two field sprays that use horn; and a planting calendar that outlines when to carry out key tasks such as planting and harvesting.
Waldin’s book gives directions on how to make the field sprays and compost preparations from scratch. These involve combinations of mineral, animal and plant-based ingredients, although for small-scale growers it can be easier to buy them ready made. For example, the horn manure 500 preparation is made from cow manure stuffed into a cow horn and buried in the ground to ferment for six months over winter before being diluted with water, stirred and sprayed onto the land. Waldin explains that by using cow horns, the beneficial life forces from the cow transfer into the manure, as well as the physical salts and minerals the cow took out when grazing. This preparation feeds the soil and improves humus formation by benefitting organisms such as bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi and earthworms.
While all growers are bound up with the seasons, the biodynamic approach tunes into some of the finer complexities of nature’s cycles such as the movements of the stars and planets. One key aspect of it is using the lunar cycles to time important tasks such as sowing, planting and harvesting. Biodynamic Gardening explains in detail the influences the moon has on the plant world. For example, during an ascending moon the plant sap rises and the upper part of the plant is filled with the most vitality – this is a good time to harvest. When the moon is descending, more vitality goes into the roots of the plants making it a good time to plant seeds or stimulate root activity such as adding compost.
Although the influence of lunar cycles has not yet been widely explained by peer-reviewed scientific research, biodynamic methods are used by more than 4,200 farms worldwide, especially in viticulture. In a time when soil is under threat from industrial farming methods, results from long-term field trials show that biodynamic methods, compared with conventional and organic methods, increase soil organic carbon and biodiversity, and improve soil structure.
As Biodynamic Gardening points out, “working to lunar cycles is free”. The same is true for leaving areas of garden untended for wildlife diversity, using plant teas and making compost. In fact, nearly all the ingredients for biodynamic gardening are free of charge and natural. Yet biodynamic food often carries a high price tag, and is sometimes perceived as a privileged consumer choice. It is ironic that methods using freely available resources should be more expensive than industrial methods, which use expensive, chemically manufactured pesticides and herbicides, fossil-fuel based fertilisers and patented seeds. If the true costs of these different food production systems were taken into account, including the environmental and human health impacts, surely biodynamic produce would be the cheapest. The aim of biodynamic gardening is not just to have a light carbon footprint or reduce pollution, it is, as Waldin says, to enhance and improve the natural environment by “putting more back into the land than you take out of it”.
Sebastian Parsons, biodynamic farmer and owner of the Stockwood Community Benefit Society, celebrates Waldin’s clear and practical guide. “What sets his book apart from all before is the way it tackles both the accessible and the more difficult aspects of biodynamics in the same simple and down-to-earth manner.” More and more people are taking the plunge into biodynamics, he says, “and not only does Monty Waldin explain why, but he also explains how.” This book is not only useful as a guide for those new to biodynamics but also as a reference for experienced farmers and gardeners. Yet it can never be a substitute for the first-hand experience of visiting a biodynamic farm or garden, or eating biodynamic food: nothing is more compelling than the evidence of seeing and tasting for yourself.
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