Is this the year you plan on growing healthier food, taking better care of your land, and cultivating a deeper understanding of nature? As homesteaders, these are values that are important to us all. Even when we think we are finally doing the best we possibly can, we are always eager to learn new (and old) techniques that could benefit our families and our farms. Biodynamic farming is one of the old techniques that offers those benefits to anyone who wants them.
Biodynamics is both a philosophy and a method of agriculture developed by Rudolph Steiner, a researcher who saw a connection between science, nature, universal laws and spiritual concerns. The agricultural principals at work in biodynamics help people work with nature in order to grow healthier food with minimal environmental impact.
Steiner’s biodynamics includes the usage of nine homeopathic sprays, but for the purposes of this article, I will focus on how you can incorporate biodynamic principles without purchasing these homeopathic sprays.
Biodynamic gardening shares certain principles and techniques with organic gardening, such as keeping the soil chemical-free, using compost, raised beds, crop rotation, and companion planting. But biodynamics includes much more. Biodynamic gardening takes the organic garden to the next level and if you are already an organic gardener, incorporating the principles of biodynamics will be simple and beneficial.
Biodynamic gardening first focuses on soil health and the integration of different plants and animals. One of the ways biodynamic gardening differs from other techniques is that it encourages people to take the time to understand their crops and livestock. A key part of the biodynamic philosophy is to know what each individual plant and animal needs to thrive, and then to give it to them. What crops are the best for your pastured livestock to graze on? How much room does each animal need to enjoy optimum health? What nutrient does each plant species require? Is there enough of that nutrient in your soil? Are there companion plants that can strengthen the health of your main crops? These are a few questions biodynamic farmers will ask before jumping into a project.
Composting is essential to the biodynamic farm. The compost pile, when filled with manures and organic waste, creates humus. When humus is spread on the field, it stabilizes nitrogen in the soil, which is crucial to crop health. Composting also means nothing on the farm is wasted. A healthy compost pile will have food scraps, animal manure, and paper products. Vermicomposting, or vermiculture, is another method of composting that gives you more bang for your buck. Not only are you composting scraps, but you are growing your own worms. Not only can these worms increase the yield of your garden, selling them to other gardeners or fishermen can also add to your farm income.
Another technique biodynamics employs for soil health is plant diversity. Unlike monoculture gardening in which only one type of crop is planted, depleting the soil, crop mixing allows plants to support each other. If one plant depletes the soil of a certain nutrient, its neighboring plant releases that same nutrient back into the soil.
Crop rotation and pastured livestock are also an important part of the biodynamic farm. Rotating crops from field to field, raising pastured livestock as well as making use of cover crops and green manures encourages healthy soil, controls weeds, and reduces parasites.
There are several other ways to fight weeds organically. Remember, the most important focus of a biodynamic garden is the soil. Raised beds are effective at reducing weeds, but raised bed gardening is not always an option. One interesting homeopathic method that is successful against weeds is to pile up the weeds you have removed from your planting area and burn them. Collect the ash and sprinkle back over the soil.
A successful biodynamic farm will be a self-supporting, or closed loop, system. A closed-loop system is on in which nothing needs to be brought in, or taken out, of the farm. The waste from one part of the farm becomes energy for another part. When you feed your livestock food you have grown and then their manure naturally fertilizes your garden, you are participating in a closed-loop system. Another way you can work towards a self-supporting system is to collect and save the seeds from your garden. It is a very simple skill to learn that results in stronger and healthier plants that are acclimated to your specific growing conditions.
Biodynamic gardening utilizes biological controls, which occur naturally in chemical-free gardens. Biological control is the use of living organisms, from bats to beneficial insects, to combat unwanted pests. The best way to protect beneficial insects is to stay away from toxic sprays or dusts. You can encourage beneficial animals and insects by providing appropriate habitat and food sources. Hang some bat houses and birdhouses. Leave some weeds in your garden as an alternate food source and shelter. Fill a large bowl with stones and water so small beneficials can drink without drowning. Add plants to your landscape, such as yarrow, dill, and catnip, that are good food sources for adult beneficials.
Biodynamic gardeners also use planetary influences, such as moon phases and zodiac signs, to determine the best time for specific gardening tasks. While this may seem unscientific today, gardening by the moon has been practiced for thousands of years by our ancestors, and science has recently validated the practice, noting that plants respond to the same gravitational pull that affects tides.
Lunar planting is influenced by two factors: the lunar phase and the astrological signs of the zodiac. The lunar phase is what controls the amount of moisture in the soil. Moisture in the soil is at its peak at the time of the new and full moon. The moon causes the moisture to rise in the earth. This encourages seed germination and growth. Each astrological sign corresponds with the elements of water, earth, fire, and air. Each plant has a preference for which sign it is planted in. The path of the moon is divided into twelve sections of 30 degrees. Each section takes its name from the constellation. When you hear “the moon is in Virgo,” this simply means the moon is in the same part of the sky as the constellation Virgo.
The moon has four phases. Each phase of the moon lasts about seven days. The first two phases are during the waxing, or increasing light, between the new and full moon. The third and fourth phases are after the full moon, when the light is waning, or decreasing.
During the new moon, the lunar gravity pulls water up, causing the seeds to swell and burst. The rising moisture and increasing moonlight during this phase creates balanced root and leaf growth. This is the ideal time to plant above-ground annual crops that produce their seeds outside the fruit, such as spinach, lettuce, celery, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and grain crops. Cucumbers are an exception as they produce their seeds inside their fruit but do well when planted in the new moon phase.
During the second phase, the gravitational pull is less but the moonlight is still strong. This is good for creating strong leaf growth. It is generally considered a good time for planting, especially two days before the full moon. Plant above-ground annuals that form their seeds inside the fruit, such as beans, melons, peas, peppers, squash, and tomatoes. It is also recommended that you mow your lawn in the first and second phase of the moon to increase growth.
After the full moon, the moon begins to wane. The energy of the moon is drawing down. The gravitational pull is very strong, creating more moisture in the soil, but the moonlight is decreasing. This puts more energy into the roots. This is the phase for planting root crops, including beets, carrots, turnips, onions, and potatoes. It is also when you should plant your perennials, biennials, and bulbs. Transplanting is done at this time because of the active root growth. Pruning is also something to do in this phase, in the sign of Scorpio.
The fourth phase is considered a resting period due to the decreased gravitational pull and moonlight. This is the best time to cultivate and to harvest. If you did not transplant or prune during the third phase, it is fine to do that now. Mow your lawn in the third or fourth phase of the moon in order to retard growth.
Just as each phase of the moon is preferred for specific jobs, each astrological sign provides optimal conditions for certain tasks. Match the correct astrological sign with the correct phase of the moon to come up with the ideal time to complete each job.
Gardening by Astrological Signs
Taurus is an earth sign. It is a productive and moist sign. This is a good time for planting root crops and potatoes, especially if hardiness is important. It is also a good time to plant leafy vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, and spinach. It is the second best sign for transplanting.
Gemini is an air sign. It is barren and dry. Harvest fruit and root crops for storage during this sign. You can also cultivate and destroy weeds and pests at this time. Melon seeds planted at this time do well.
Leo is a fire sign. It is very barren and dry. Cultivate your soil during this sign. The fourth phase of the moon in Leo is an excellent time to destroy weeds and pests. As with other barren and dry signs, this is a good time to harvest fruit and root crops for storage.
Virgo is an earth sign. It is barren and moist. Cultivate your soil and continue eradicating weeds and pests. Some flowers and vines do well when planted now. This is the time to start any medicinal plants in your garden.
Libra is an air sign. It is semi-fruitful and moist. Libra is the best sign for planting fragrant flowers, herbs, and vines. It is also a good sign for planting vegetables with pulpy stems like kohlrabi and root crops.
Scorpio is a water sign. It is very fruitful and moist. Scorpio is the best planting sign for sturdy plants and vines. Tomatoes that are transplanted during this sign do very well. It is also a good sign for planting corn and squash. It is a good time for transplanting and irrigation. Graft or prune in the third or fourth phase of the moon in Scorpio to retard growth and promote better fruit.
Sagittarius is a barren and dry fire sign. This is when you can harvest root crops and onions for storage. This is also the time to plant onion sets and fruit trees. You can also cultivate the soil at this time.
Capricorn is an earth sign. It is productive and dry. You can plant potatoes and other root crops. Planting during this sign encourages strong hardy growth. It is a good time for any grafting or pruning to promote healing. This is when you should apply any organic fertilizer.
There are many resources available if you are interested in learning more about biodynamic farming. Biodynamics can enhance all aspects of your farming life. Even if there are parts of it you don’t subscribe to, it is one of the best methods for learning about the interconnectedness of nature. It is also an excellent way to incorporate astronomy into any homeschool curriculum. I encourage you to run a few biodynamic experiments this year. You might be amazed at what our ancestors knew!
**Cover image credit: Irene Kightley