Biodynamics and Me
Written onDecember 01 , 2007
I have never thought of myself as a “spiritual” person. Although I have much admiration for the values and ethical traditions associated with the secular Judaism I was raised in, I have tended to eschew the organized aspect of religion. My secular upbringing did not prevent me, however, from noticing that the world around me was spectacularly complex and beautiful. The littlest things (a spider’s web!) inspired my utmost appreciation and respect. Later, I channeled this appreciation in the direction of science, trying to understand life processes through the study of biology and botany, microbiology and biochemistry.
As a gardener I’ve been guided largely by the understanding of nature that’s come to me through the science of ecology, since it has seemed sensible to me to try to recreate natural relationships in the ecosystem of the domesticated garden. But the scientific method has its limitations: it’s difficult for science to illuminate how different parts of life result from a myriad of intertwined causes, the effects of which are multi-faceted. In recent years, methods and techniques have been developed for examining multiple factors all at once and tracking “emergent properties” that could not have been predicted by looking at any of the factors separately. The most sophisticated scientific methods, however, are still limited by the design and accuracy of our tools of measurement.
So it has also seemed important to me to turn as well to the knowledge that has been passed down from gardener to gardener across generations and cultures. One of the most common beliefs held by gardeners in many parts of the world is that lunar phases have an effect on plant development. The simplest form of this belief comes in the advice that one should plant and tend certain crops when the moon is waxing and other crops when the moon is waning. For years, I have tried to plant my root crops when the moon was waning; leaf crops when the moon was on the rise.
More complex ideas about how various forces of nature might affect plant growth have spawned an array of gardening techniques. Louise Riotte’s bookPlanetary Planting, which came out in 1975, is a guide to organic gardening based on lunar and planetary phases, influenced by the wisdom of Riotte’s father who grew grapes in the Rhine country of Germany. Riotte primarily bases her faith in lunar planting on the notion that the moon and planets influence the tides and the winds, which in turn affect plant growth. According to anthropologist Roberto González, some Zapotec farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico, recommend felling trees for construction or tools during the full-moon phase to harden the wood and prevent its infestation with termites.
The biodynamic movement in agriculture, based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s and research by Maria Thun since the 1950s, focuses on the influences of the moon, sun, planets, and constellations on plant health, and is much richer than the concept of the waxing and waning of the moon. Biodynamics incorporates many additional beliefs about the influence of various life forces (referred to as “ethers”) which cannot necessarily be seen or measured but can be felt by those who are receptive. This is the aspect of biodynamics that is spiritually based, guided by the belief that the earth is a living being whose spirit can be understood if we pay the right kind of attention.
While I am naturally skeptical of many of the techniques used in biodynamic farming, I’m unwilling to discount them completely because I am convinced that science will never be able to fully explain the forces of nature; the best we can do is continually attempt to come closer to a good approximation of how things work. So, in the last two years, I’ve ramped up my efforts to garden according to the biodynamic calendar. Luckily for me, the vast array of ideas about how the cosmos affects plants has been distilled for novices into a calendar published by the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. The Stella Natura calendar organizes the days of the year according to phases of the moon, the ascending and descending arc of the moon, and the passage of the planets through the constellations of the zodiac. Articles accompanying the calendar pages explain the astronomy involved, as well as the values and beliefs guiding biodynamic practice and their relationship to other agricultural frames of reference such as organic agriculture and permaculture.
If one follows the calendar, one plants on the appropriate dates and times of day depending on whether the part of the plant you are most concerned with is the root, flower, leaf, or fruit. Planetary forces are thought to influence not only when you should plant or transplant your crop, but when you should harvest and cultivate, and the best time to pick vegetables for storage. Some times are “grayed out” on the calendar, indicating that you really shouldn’t do anything in the garden during such times because conditions are unfavorable. What this means, practically speaking, is that each day one must determine what activities are appropriate when, and act accordingly. So if it’s a “root day” I might plant or cultivate my carrots, but only until 4 p.m., when the gray period starts. If it’s a flower or a fruit day, I might transplant eggplants, since I want to favor production of the fruit. If a fruit day doesn’t work, a flower day is the next best thing, since good pollination of the flowers leads to better fruit production.
For me, following the biodynamic calendar has been something of a challenge. There are root days when it’s raining, muddy, and miserable: not ideal for planting carrots! There are grey areas that occur just when I finally have time in my day to get to my gardening activities amidst my other work and responsibilities. More challenging still is the conflict I’ve felt when the perfect flower day arrives at the right time for starting the winter squash, but it’s also the day a friend I haven’t seen in much too long calls to suggest we go for a hike. Or when I’m needed out of town to assist a family member who is ill. At these moments, I am torn between the importance of tending to my human relationships and those I’ve cultivated with the plants in the garden and the land as a whole.
The editors of the Stella Natura calendar counsel that the calendar is not meant to be a set of dogmatic rules. Gardeners must consider the weather, of course: it may be too wet one spring to get all the tomato transplanting done during the fruit days in early June. And I suspect that it’s better for my plants if I work with them while my mind is clear, not while I’m feeling conflicted about what I could be doing instead.
Still, following the calendar has provided a certain relief and relaxation to my gardening life. When I wake up on a leaf day, I know what tasks I should do and what I can let go of for the moment. This provides an orderliness to my life that sometimes seems elusive, especially in early spring when everything seems to need doing at once. The calendar guides me: Friday afternoon, sow the tomato seeds; Sunday, transplant the broccoli. During a gray time I can breathe, and take a moment to appreciate the vibrancy of life in the garden.
As far as results go, it’s really too soon to say. I know that my garlic didn’t do as well as I’d hoped this past summer: the bulbs were unaccountably small. When I checked, I found that I’d planted them the previous fall during a “flower” time. Not good. If the forces of nature favored flowering, that could inhibit bulb formation. This past fall I made sure to plant my garlic during a root or a leaf time. (Garlic bulbs are actually specialized leaves, but the calendar suggests they do best on root days. I decided to hedge my bets and try both leaf and root days.)
I can’t really explain why it feels better to me to follow the prescriptions of this calendar than to ignore them, but now that I’ve tried it, it’s hard to imagine going back to gardening without these guidelines. Of course I’ll continue to study science-based recommendations about what kinds of nutrients my plants need to grow well and what conditions favor or inhibit the spread of disease. But at the same time, I’ll seek to absorb whatever wisdom comes my way about the subtle forces that may nurture life in the garden, forces that resist being measured in the lab but that can be sensed when my gaze is seized by the beauty of a purple eggplant, its glossy skin gleaming in the dappled light of the late-summer garden.
For more information about the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association and the Stella Natura calendar, go to biodynamics.com