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Landscaping 101: Biodynamics for the Edible Garden

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Landscaping 101: Biodynamics for the Edible Garden

January 25, 2018

The ideas that Austrian philosopher and edible gardener Rudolf Steiner proposed nearly a century ago to nourish soil—he recommended burying stag bladders full of flowers, animal skulls packed with bark, and cow horns brimming with dung—never caught on in a big way. (Wonder why.)

But Steiner’s principles of biodynamic gardening are having a moment, among winemakers and organic farmers who say a holistic approach to replenishing the soil promotes healthier crops and ecosystems. Are they right? If so, can biodynamic techniques be useful for the home gardener who grows organic vegetables, herbs, and fruit? Read on to find out everything you need to know:

What is biodynamic farming?

Founded in \198\1, Quivira Vineyards in Healdsburg, California was one of the first vineyards to be certified biodynamic in the United States. A bottle of \20\15 Refuge Sauvignon Blanc is \$30.
Above: Founded in 1981, Quivira Vineyards in Healdsburg, California was one of the first vineyards to be certified biodynamic in the United States. A bottle of 2015 Refuge Sauvignon Blanc is $30.
Devised in 1924 by theorist Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic growing was a response to declining fertility of farmland—a topic that is still a talking point almost a century on.

Proponents of biodynamics consider the land as intrinsically linked to everything else around it, and the aim is to help it reach its full potential, maximizing the health and goodness of everything that grows from it. The techniques have recently become more popular, spearheaded by winemakers around the world, from Quivira Vineyards in Northern California (shown above) to Colombaia in Tuscany. Experts acknowledge that some of the best wines in the world come from grapes grown in biodynamic vineyards.

How does biodynamic farming work?

Photograph by Howard Sooley. See more in The Best Vegetables You&#8\2\17;ll Ever Taste.
Above: Photograph by Howard Sooley. See more in The Best Vegetables You’ll Ever Taste.

Biodynamics is a two-fold approach to growing, whether on farms or on a smaller domestic scale. First, organic preparations are used at different times in the growing cycle. And secondly there is the biodynamic calendar—which encourages growers to look to the cosmos for the optimum planting time—the aspect, perhaps understandably, that prompts criticism  the movement. Of any growing practice or philosophy it is perhaps the most controversial, disputed by some scientists yet revered by the growers who follow it.

To anyone already practicing organic growing,  the biodynamic preparations make sound growing sense. The fermented tonics boost soil health, increasing the microbial population (in a way which is not dissimilar to the good habit of applying a rich mulch of compost or manure to the soil). Field sprays are made from “horn manure” (cow manure is over-wintered in a cow horn and then diluted to create a spray which is used in the evening) and “horn silica” (a finely ground quartz meal that spends the summer in a cow horn before being misted onto plants in the morning). Even the way in which these additives are stirred is very precise and, let’s face it, slightly kooky sounding.

At Rosendals Tradgard, biodynamic principles are practices in both the garden and greenhouse. Photograph via Rosendals Tradgard.
Above: At Rosendals Tradgard, biodynamic principles are practices in both the garden and greenhouse. Photograph via Rosendals Tradgard.

But perhaps more controversially (at least for the academics who believe there is no scientific proof to back up biodynamic principles), the method also advocates using lunar cycles to optimize the sowing, cultivation, and harvest of crops. As the moon, sun, and planets move around the earth, they cross between specific constellations. Each constellation is associated with air (flower), water (leaf), fire (fruit), or earth (roots); in a biodynamic calendar root crops would be sown and harvested on an earth day, while flowers would be cut on an air day and so forth.

What is the difference between biodynamics and permaculture?

Food editor Allan Jenkins and photographer Howard Sooley employed biodynamic techniques to grow rainbow chard in their shared London garden. See more in Bounty from a North London Allotment.
Above: Food editor Allan Jenkins and photographer Howard Sooley employed biodynamic techniques to grow rainbow chard in their shared London garden. See more in Bounty from a North London Allotment.

Each philosophy shares certain values:  considering the entire ecosystem of a site, a focus on improving the soil without using chemicals, and using organic methods. But permaculture does not have specific preparations or the metaphysical approach of biodynamics and it’s a looser system more open to shifts or new methods.

Does biodynamic farming improve soil and increase crop yield?

  Allan Jenkins communes with the soil in his biodynamic garden. See more in Bounty from a North London Allotment.
Above:  Allan Jenkins communes with the soil in his biodynamic garden. See more in Bounty from a North London Allotment.

There is still much debate about exactly how much biodynamics improves soil and plant health as well as the surrounding environment. Many field trials have been flawed (often by failing to apply rigorous scientific conditions). Yet, as with any any organic practice that focuses on boosting soil health, biodynamic growers would certainly argue that they can see the difference in the health and vitality of their crops.

How do you use biodynamic growing principles in a small garden?

Organic gardening in Marin County, California. For more, see Slide Ranch, at the Edge of the World. Photograph by Katie Newburn.
Above: Organic gardening in Marin County, California. For more, see Slide Ranch, at the Edge of the World. Photograph by Katie Newburn.

All of these ideas can of course be applied to any space where plants are grown, whether as edibles or ornamentals. Tonics can be applied in much the same way, just on a smaller scale, and the calendars can be used to sow and harvest crops or flowers at optimum times. The idea of treating your garden as an entire ecosystem, refreshed with organic goodness and without any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides would, sounds like a good use of time.

What are the benefits of biodynamics?

Photograph by Katie Newburn.
Above: Photograph by Katie Newburn.

Many academics are skeptical about biodynamic farming, arguing that it is unproven. But advocates and growers, including the Herefordshire farm Fern Verrow, believe that this holistic approach promotes healthier crops, soil, and ecosystems on the land.

Does biodynamic farming have drawbacks?

Photograph by Katie Newburn.
Above: Photograph by Katie Newburn.

Only time and organization; if you are sowing and planting anyway it’s not too much trouble to rearrange this according to the biodynamic calendar (which you can buy each year). Take a pick-and-mix approach. It’s more about how you view your bit of a land as a whole ecology.

Where can I find out more about biodynamics?

Writer and wine maker Monty Waldin’s Biodynamic Gardening gives a good illustrated overview of how to apply these principles on a smaller scale. A paperback copy is £\1\2.\28 on Amazon UK.
Above: Writer and wine maker Monty Waldin’s Biodynamic Gardening gives a good illustrated overview of how to apply these principles on a smaller scale. A paperback copy is £12.28 on Amazon UK.
Joel Morrow’s Vegetable Gardening for Organic and Biodynamic Growers (£25 via Amazon UK) offers a thorough introduction to growing edibles with an alphabetical guide of 76 vegetables to grow.

N.B.: Looking for more ways to enrich the earth in your garden? See:

Finally, learn how to successfully design and create an edible garden with our Hardscaping 101: Edible Gardens guide.

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