Alternative, organic, and more sustainable gardening methods have not only risen in popularity as increasing numbers of people have become more environmentally-conscious, but thanks to the internet, it is also easier than ever before to get started.
Biodynamic gardening, more commonly called biodynamic agriculture because it covers not just gardening, but also larger-scale farming (including livestock), is yet another approach to caring for the land and raising food that may catch your eye if you are on the hunt for a better way to garden.
Biodynamic gardening is closely connected to the alternative education philosophy practiced in Waldorf schools — which many people have come to known as a wholesome and natural approach to child rearing, or at least for its beautiful felted dolls. That is to say, biodynamic gardening emerged from the mind of the same person, Rudolf Steiner.
Like everything else Rudolf Steiner pioneered, biodynamic agriculture is difficult to understand. That is not because you are too ignorant or too shallow to figure his deep messages out; it is simply because Steiner’s ideas do not make a whole lot of sense and will never be able to withstand critical scientific analysis.
This doesn’t mean that good ideas cannot be found within biodynamic gardening, however — it’s true that many of the ideas that have almost universally come to be accepted as the path to more sustainable gardening are also present in the biodynamic approach to gardening.
What Is Biodynamic Gardening?
The biodynamic approach to gardening sees all aspects of nature as being closely interconnected — which, indeed, they are. Soil health, plant growth, and raising animals for human consumption are all viewed as being linked in a continuous cycle of life.
Biodynamic gardening is an agricultural philosophy developed by an Austrian philosopher called Rudolf Steiner, who made his mark on the world between the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. His adherents would call Steiner a researcher and a scientist, but he is more widely known as an occultist, esotericist, and architect.
Steiner developed his core philosophy, anthroposophy, a deeply spiritual and mystic way of seeing the world, early on during the twentieth century. This philosophy governs the famous Waldorf schools that continue to operate until this day, as well as his approach to gardening — called biodynamic farming, agriculture, or gardening.
Biodynamic agriculture is exciting in that it was the first-ever coherent movement to popularize organic farming methods — that is, agriculture that honors the earth by foregoing the use of artificial fertilizers and other chemicals, and using exclusively natural and environmentally-friendly methods to raise crops and animals. In that sense, the philosophy deserves a lot of credit.
Biodynamic gardeners tend to place a heavy emphasis on the spiritual concepts that lie at the core of this philosophy, which can be challenging to familiarize yourself with if you are simply looking for practical gardening tips that will help you grow plants in a greener and healthier way. This is why it can be so hard to get started with this approach; to practice biodynamic agriculture the way its creator intended it, it is necessary to study the spirituality at the root of the concept in great depth.
However, there are a lot of practical takeaways that can be beneficial in the garden, too. These are not unique to biodynamic agriculture, and can be implemented fairly easily.
The core set of principles that form the essence of biodynamic gardening are:
- Biodynamic gardens form a “living organism”, adherents emphasize. Each part interacts with each other part, and in some way depends on it. The soil nurtures the plants within it, and the plants in turn nurture the soil. The animals that feed on the plants have a relationship with both. The gardener’s job is to seek greater harmony and to help it come about. The spiritual dimension of this lies in paying close attention to the land they are gardening on to be able to understand what may “wish to emerge from it”.
- The biodynamic approach to gardening embraces ecological diversity rather than monoculture, and this creates resilient and therefore more stable gardens. If you raise animals on your land, the biodynamic gardening philosophy encourages diversity there, too, in part because each animal’s manure has unique nutrients to offer.
- The biodynamic approach to gardening also seeks to bring all elements of nature together, and as such encourages gardeners or farmers to raise animals as well as crops — there is no need to choose between the two, an artificial separation. Growing plants while simultaneously raising animals is said to balance the whole, as animals and plants have complementary roles to play in nature and in the garden.
- “Generating on-farm fertility” is another key aspect of biodynamic gardening. In practical terms, this in part means relying on natural sources of compost from within the garden to amend the soil quality. Compost includes plant materials as well as manure, so each other part of your garden feeds the soil to enrich it. In addition to composting, biodynamic gardening emphasizes crop rotation and companion planting as important tools to maintain rich and fertile soil.
- Organic “preparations” are put to use to supplement the quality of the compost in biodynamic agriculture. The ingredients that go into these preparations include yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, and valerian. (According to biodynamic gardening adherents, this process adds carbon, which is perceived to be important in creating a balanced climate — and whether or not these preparations can generate carbon, climate activists and policy makers are currently working hard to avoid the release of more carbon, as it does not create a balanced climate at all.)
- Cultivating awareness by having conversations with nature is another aspect of biodynamic gardening.
- Obtaining plant seeds and animal stock from “within the farm”, as well as staying away from genetically-modified and otherwise altered plants and favoring heirloom crops, is strongly encouraged (and required for farms who wish to get a biodynamic certification).
- One of the more esoteric concepts in biodynamic gardening relies on so-called “preparations” to facilitate a better relationship between the soil and the plants that grow within it. An example of this is cow manure that is buried inside a cow’s horn during the winter. Needless to say, there is no scientific basis for this concept, and it is here where biodynamic agriculture leaves the realm of organic gardening and enters the realm of the mystic and pseudoscientific.
- Animals are raised in a way that respects and supports their natural lifecycle and habitat in biodynamic agriculture. Baby animals are kept with parent animals to feed, and biodynamic animals are free-range animals that roam the earth.
- Biodynamic gardening works in harmony with the natural ways of the cosmos, which means that moon cycles and astrology are often used to decide when to plant and harvest. This concept, too, is of questionable scientific value.
- Natural pest control is the way of life for biodynamic gardeners, as pesticides are avoided. This particular biodynamic gardening principle is found in every approach to organic gardening.
- Biodynamic agriculture seeks to meet the needs of the living things that grow in and on the land as well as the people who farm and eat the proceeds, in accordance with Steiner’s philosophy.
While this short list very much offers the “cliffnotes” versions of all the ideas biodynamic gardening encompasses, it should offer readers some insights into the principles that govern this approach.
How Popular Is Biodynamic Agriculture?
Biodynamic agriculture, as a philosophy for tending to the land, heavily emphasizes the benefits of raising animals and plants together, on the same farm. It should come as no surprise, then, that this approach is more suitable for people who have large areas of lands available — small hobbyist gardeners may not have the space to raise animals, and for urban gardeners, raising animals such as sheep, goat, chickens, and ducks may not even be an option.
Biodynamic agriculture is quite popular on a global level, including in a commercial context — according to the Biodynamic Association, the Demeter certification that was created to certify farms that adhere to this philosophy currently applies to more than 5,000 individual farms in over 60 different countries. Biodynamic gardening is practiced on over 400,000 hectares of land, and a large minority of them are in Germany.
How useful is biodynamic gardening for amateur gardens who would simply love to grow beautiful flowering plants, you wonder? It is very possible to take some inspiration from the method, especially by incorporating more sustainable gardening techniques that are embraced across the spectrum of organic gardening philosophies. Unless you buy into the preparations, astrology, and spiritual dimensions, however, such steps cannot create a “true biodynamic garden”.
Is Biodynamic Agriculture a Pseudoscience?
Is biodynamic agriculture a pseudoscience — a methodology that masquerades as a science, and is steeped in scientific language, but the merits of which cannot be confirmed, and may have been dispelled countless times? In short, yes — when the core principles that govern the practice of biodynamic farming are taken as a whole, there is no question that the practice transcends science, or rather exists outside of it.
There is no scientific reason to believe that the mystical preparations which form such as important part of the philosophy offer any particular practical benefits that differ from those of the ingredients themselves.
Let’s take a look at some of the preparations used in biodynamic gardening to illustrate just how bizarre this approach to gardening gets:
- Yarrow blossoms encased in the bladders of red deer, exposed to the sun during the summer period but buried during the winter.
- Finely-chopped oak bark percolated in the skull of a domestic animal, as well as encircled by peat and allowed to receive plenty of water.
- Dandelion flowers placed in cattle’s entrails and buried in the winter.
Because it is all to easy to take this as satire, let us be clear — all of these potions, and more, are in fact being used by biodynamic gardeners in the twenty-first century, with the belief that they help crops to grow or that they crate greater natural harmony.
Although astronomy and moon cycles used to be a very helpful way for farmers to gain insights into natural cycles, to allow them to decide when to plant and harvest, there is no evidence to suggest that these methods could be useful in modern gardens, or increase yields, either.
Further, spiritual conversations with nature fall outside of the realm of gardening — and while spirituality can certainly help you create a beautiful garden, there is no scientific evidence that mythological practices can help you grow your garden, either.
These elements of biodynamic gardening, which serve not as an optional add-on but as an integral part of the philosophy, without which biodynamic gardening would simply be organic gardening, can most certainly be described as a pseudoscience.
Having said that, not everything advocated for in biodynamic gardening is spiritual or pseudoscientific in nature. Gardeners who are looking for a more eco-friendly way to nurture everything that grows on the patch of land in their care can, in fact, learn quite a lot from this approach.
Biodynamic Agriculture vs Permaculture: What Is the Difference?
Anyone who is seriously looking into ways to garden in a more sustainable manner is bound to investigate both permaculture and biodynamic farming. As you do so, you may come across the term “biodynamic permaculture”, and come to understand biodynamic gardening as a philosophy that is closely connected with permaculture. This is not the case.
Permaculture has an entirely different origin; it was developed by two Australian environmental engineers, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, in the 1970s. This approach to gardening relies in principles that may sound similar to biodynamic gardening at first glance:
- Observing the land you are working with.
- Catching and storing energy (such as catching rainwater or installing solar panels).
- Farming to increase your yields.
- Using renewable resources.
- Producing no waste.
- Starting with the big picture and working your way down to the smaller details.
- Integrating, rather than segregating.
- Using small and slow solutions.
- Valuing diversity.
- Using edges.
- Responding to change.
The principles permaculture practitioners embrace are similar to those practiced in biodynamic farming, but without the spiritual aspects, without the unique preparations, and without the call to raise animals alongside plants.
Practical Ways to Incorporate Biodynamic Agriculture Principles Into Your Home Garden
Most people who come to learn about the concept of biodynamic gardening are simply looking for a greener, more wholesome, way to care for their gardens. As an early player in the organic farming scene, an approach of farming free from pesticides and an approach that honors the earth and all living beings that grow in and on it, biodynamic gardening has a lot going for it.
Are you not quite ready to dive into potions that involve animal skulls and bladders, but do you very much hope to create a beautiful and sustainable garden? Try these practical ways to garden in a more sustainable way! They’re not just used in biodynamic gardening, but also have a solid scientific basis.
1. Practicing Crop Rotation in Your Garden
Crop rotation — a practice in which a new crop is grown in a plot of land after a harvest, and the land is also left fallow or bare for a period of time — is an important part of biodynamic gardening. Crop rotation has been used to nurture the land and enrich the soil since Roman times, and it has definite benefits.
By rotating crops, choosing to grow new plants with different characteristics after a harvest, gardeners ensure that the soil does not become nutrient poor. The overall soil quality improves with crop rotation, and this makes plants more resistant to pests and plant diseases. It can also increase yields, as crop rotation allows gardeners to make optimal use of the fact that different crops mature at different times.
People who are growing a vegetable garden benefit if they rotate their crops, growing new vegetables in place of the ones they just harvested, to ensure the soil and the plants remain healthy. Even people in charge of ornamental gardens can make use of this principle, especially if they are growing annuals.
2. Using Natural Compost in Your Garden
Biodynamic gardening makes use of natural compost, acquired from plant sources as well as from manure produced by diverse animals, to create fertile soil for the plants being grown in a garden. This aspect of biodynamic gardening offers many benefits, too:
- Using natural materials as a fertilizer eliminates the risk of soil or water pollution altogether.
- By using natural compost, gardeners can use waste materials that they would otherwise have no use for in an efficient manner.
- Artificial fertilizer is expensive, and rising in price. Using natural compost is easy on the wallet.
- Preparing natural compost is easy and requires no math skills. Novice gardeners can work with natural compost without any problems.
- Natural compost helps to ensure a rich soil quality that help your plants grow more quickly, as well as to maintain their health and strength.
3. Welcoming Natural Pest Control in Your Garden
You are working hard to create a beautiful or fruitful garden — and you definitely don’t want pests like slugs, scale, mealybugs, and aphids to threaten the plants you are growing. Are pesticides the only solution? Absolutely not! Biodynamic agriculture embraces natural pest control methods, and you can, too.
Natural pest control methods range from eliminating potential food sources for pests, to using natural insect repellents such as neem oil and citrus peel, to introducing natural predators such as frogs or birds to your garden, often by creating an environment they would feel welcome in.
Natural pest control methods are not only more environmentally friendly, as they allow gardeners to avoid the use of harsh chemicals in the garden, but they can also save money. In addition, creating a garden in which songbirds, frogs, and pollinators feel welcome can add much enjoyment.
Natural pest control is another thing biodynamic gardening got right, and anyone can begin implementing it.
4. Generating ‘On-Farm Fertility’ Is a Great Idea
If you would like to be completely self-sustaining, a wonderful goal especially if you live in a rural area, the biodynamic farming principle of generating ways to fertilize your soil on your own farm is a rather practical one. The idea of raising animals and plants together, on the same farm, is at the center of most small homesteads, where everything is reused, reduced, and recycled.
Are you raising animals such as chickens and goats? As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure — and the manure these animals leave behind can be of vital importance to the health of your garden. Have you got fallen leaves or grass clippings? It would be a waste not to put them to use as a source of compost or mulch.
Becoming truly self-sustaining requires ample resources, including often a lot of space, but taking steps in the direction of an independently sufficient garden is always a worthy goal.
5. Your Garden Is a Living Organism
The biodynamic farming principle that every part of your garden is closely connected to every other part also holds true, and every gardener can learn something from this idea. Plants become compost, which become plants. Chickens eat off the land and produce manure, which promotes new growth. The rain that falls on your land can be collected to become a source of water long after the clouds have lifted.
Biodynamic gardeners seek to live in harmony with nature, and this is something we can all learn from. It all starts with seeing your garden, and indeed the planet as a whole, as a whole rather than a sum of small parts.
Biodynamic gardening is, at its core, a spiritual approach to gardening — one that is packed with esoteric and pseudoscientific elements that will not appeal to most gardeners. It’s also the earliest-ever organic agriculture movement, and it sparked many of the practices that have now become commonplace. As such, we can all draw inspiration from biodynamic gardening — taking what’s useful, and only trying the unique preparations out if we feel like it.