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The Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner came up with the term Biodynamics when he said that there was more to growing productively than planting and harvesting. He concluded that disease problems, pests and a reduction in soil fertility were due to the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Since a series of lectures he gave in 1924 the work has continued and the Biodynamic movement has followers around the world. They believe that the Earth is ailing and requires more than just organic means to be healed. A holistic approach is needed that includes spiritual and cosmic forces along with the use of Preparations to enhance the growing conditions.
Rudolph Steiner proposed that the ideal farm should be self-contained with the animals providing enough manure for fertility, and the crops produced would feed them. This is not to far from the concepts proposed by the Permaculture movement. In the garden we can recycle all of the vegetable waste and food scraps through composting to keep the soil 'alive'.
The soil is alive and is kept in its most vital state by the build-up of stable humus through composting. This healthy, living soil provides food which has greater quality than that produced by chemical farming which has the emphasis on quantity.
Steiner was not the first to link good cultural practice with celestial influence. In The Gardener's Labyrinth, the first popular gardening book published around 1577, Thomas Hill who was an astrologer as well as a gardener, laid out complex schemes linked to the Zodiac for planting and harvesting. He referred to earlier Roman writings by Lucius Iunius Moderatus Columella (AD 4 - ca. AD 70), and Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC). Of the former he wrote:
To follow the Biodynamic method a number of principles have to be taken on board. This is when it all gets complicated and somewhat mystical.
The Moon reflects light and has a gravitational effect on the Earth. Steiner proposed that this affects plant growth. The Moon has a roughly elliptical orbit so the gravitational pull varies throughout its 28 day cycle. Root growth is improved when Moon moves further out causing a decreased pull on the Earth and vice versa - this force also causes the ocean tides.
In a more extreme interpretation of the Lunar effects it is thought that the 'life-forces' which give the Earth its vitality are driven by a number of sources. As the Moon orbits it collects energy from the sun, the planets and the stars which it transmits to the Earth. The Biodynamic Calendar sets out how to use these rythms so that cultivating crops can be timed to best effect. There are 12 constellations and they influence the four elements on different days - three constellations per element which correspond to the four phases of the Moon and affect different parts of a plant.
This helpful little calculator shows the current moon phase
where you are, based on the viewer's computer clock,
which is assumed to be correctly set for the time zone (date and time)
New Moon Waxing Moon Full Moon Waning Moon Roots and Shoots enhanced Roots rest, Foliage grows Roots develop, Foliage slows Roots and Foliage rest
Element Plant Part Affected Constellation Earth Root Virgin, Goat, Bull Water Leaf Scorpio, Fishes, Crab Air Flower Scales, Waterman, Twins Fire Fruit Archer, Ram, Lion
To plant a root crop such as potatoes the best results are obtained if they are planted and harvested on a Root day. If they were planted on a Leaf day there would be plenty of top growth and a reduced crop.
Similarly for a leaf crop such as cabbage sowing or planting and harvesting should be done on a leaf day. For best flowers work on a Flower day and for a good fruit harvest, work on a Fruit day.
(There are those who believe that light from the moon can be beneficial to health and one businessman has constructed a giant reflector to collect 'moonbeams', in the Arizona desert.)
There are Breathing Cycles to consider. The Earth 'breaths in', ie. draws in energy, from mid-day to midnight and 'breaths out' from midnight to mid-day. This energy nourishes the soil and the roots as it is drawn in, and the leaves and flowers as it eminates upwards.
So sowing and planting are best done in the afternoon as it involves the soil, while work with leaves, flowers and fruits is best in the morning when the energy is being released.
To enhance the soil and improve plant health and growth, there are eight Preparations to use. They are prepared to a strict formula using plant and animal materials on beneficial days determined by the Biodynamic Calendar. Preparations 500 and 501 are 'matured' or 'fermented' in a cow's horn and used on the soil and plants.
Preparations 502 to 507 are 'fermented' in various animal organs which are buried around the area then used to improve compost and animal manure. There is a special pattern in which they have to be applied to the compost heap, 502 to 506 are poured into 50cm deep holes, 1.5 to 2 metres apart and 507 is sprayed around the edges.
An additional Preparation, 508, is made from Horsetail and used as an antifungal spray.
- Preparation 500 (Horn Manure) - bury cow manure (preferably organic) in a cow horn over the winter from autumn equinox to spring. Add a small portion of this matured manure, about the size of a ping-pong ball, to a bucket of preferably spring water and stir clockwise with a wooden stick for 20 seconds to form a vortex which funnels to the bottom of the bucket. Reverse the direction for 10 seconds and continue changing the direction of stirring for one hour. This is then sprayed or splashed with a brush over the soil - use within an hour or two or it goes off.
- Preparation 501 (Horn Silica) - make a paste of finely ground silica (quartz crystal) place in a cow's horn and bury from Easter to Michaelmas where it will absorb energies over the summer. Make a stirring as above using a fingernail-size portion of the paste to a three-quarter full bucket of water (1g to 10 litres) which is sufficient to treat about an acre (4,000 m2). Strain into a sprayer and apply to the plants. For best results do the stirring one hour before sunrise and apply within two hours after sunrise. Of course there are days determined by the Biodynamic Calendar, when to use, eg. on a Flower day for good flowering or on a Root day a few days before harvesting for good root crops.
- Preparation 502 - uses Yarrow, Achillea millfolium
- Preparation 503 - Chamomile, Chamomilla metrecaria recutita
- Preparation 504 - Nettle, Urtica dioica
- Preparation 505 - Oak bark, Quercus robor
- Preparation 506 - Dandelion, Taraxacum officianalis
- Preparation 507 - Valerian, Valeriana officianalis
- Preparation 508 - Horsetail, Equisetum arvense
A Compost Starter containing the compost Preparations 502 to 507, the soil booster 500 and various microbial inoculants can be purchased from the same people who promote and sell the Biodynamic Calander, and all the other 'essentials' for this method of culture.
Ashing Pests and Weeds
To control invertebrate pests some of them are collected and burnt, the ashes are then ground with some wood ash and the resulting 'pepper' is sprinkled over the affected area. For vertebrate pests the skin is burnt and the ashes scattered. The preparation and scattering have to be done in accordance with the Constellations, eg. work with vertebrate ashes must be carried out when Venus moves through Scorpion. If the pest is causing problems when the timing for Ashing is not favourable, the specimens should be preserved in alcohol until these conditions return.
For controlling weeds, the seeds are collected and after burning the ashes are scattered. This is best done when the Moon passes through a Fire constellation.
All Ashing treatments are best if carried out just before a New or Full Moon.
Followers of the Biodynamic method call it "a science of life-forces", but believers in "intelligent design" say that it has scientific merit! Maybe they could be described as "Organic Fundamentalists" or an Extreme Organic movement!
The principles have some validity with scientific scrutiny. Light is essential for life and following the sun is understandable, but whether light from the moon, planets and stars has an effect is less believable. Certainly their orbits are predictable and regular so using their motion to determine the time of planting and harvesting is valid, but with our changing climate many of the indicators are no longer synchronous.
The gravitational effects of the moon are of great significance as they produce the tides. These had an even greater influence billions of years ago when the moon was much closer to the earth, creating massive seas which eroded the land mass to provide the raw materials for life to begin. Since then it has moved further away and continues to do so by about 38mm a year. Whether this has any effect on plant growth is what is being considered here. This could be an effect on ground water and the movement of sap.
Adding the Preparations to compost would provide some micronutrients, but the lengthy stirring and sprinkling them around has more of a ritualistic overtone than anything horticultural. The method of preparation has similarities to homeopathic remedies, perhaps it's 'homeopathy for the garden'.
Using biodynamic techniques may well improve crops, but this could be due to better husbandry. It provides a discipline of cultivation through soil improvement with lots of organic matter and more care when planting. It is often said that growing potatoes is a great way to improve a garden, this is due to the extra digging and organic matter used when cultivating the soil and not the potatoes themselves, although the dense topgrowth does crowd out weeds. There is no doubt that growing organically with natural manures, composts, and without chemical fertilizers, produces crops which mature slightly slower and taste better. However, the lower yields would not be a sustainible way to feed the nation even if we all become vegans with our own little plot - also where would the cow horns and manure for the Preparations come from?!
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