Biodynamic gardening can be like a club full of secret handshakes, mysterious rituals and bewildering logic, making it easy to put into the too-hard basket.
At its core, though, biodynamics is about improving soil over the long-term rather than seasonally like in conventional farming methods. It considers the earth as a single organism and focuses on care and maintenance.
And while that makes perfect sense, some of the methods quite frankly seem bizarre.
So it was with a romantic heart and a practical head that I joined a small but enthusiastic group for an Introductory Biodynamic Composting Workshop at Freshwater Creek Steiner School. Led by Keith McCallum of the Demeter Biodynamic Research Institute, the workshop taught participants about composting and how to store, prepare and apply biodynamic preparations.
These include 500; a preparation created by stuffing cow horns with manure and burying them en-masse over winter, resulting in a concoction that contains 500mg of beneficial bacteria per gram. Apparently scientists have tried to recreate it in a lab without success.
So why the buried horn, I wanted to know.
Keith calmly explained that he didn’t know and that it didn’t matter.
“To me it’s a bit more than science. The proof is in the taste of bio-dynamic food,” Keith said.
“There will be elements in the 500 that come from the earth because there is some sort of transformation that takes place.”
I am completely on board with the notion that science can’t always explain ancient wisdom. But it was the logistics that really threw me.
If you purchase 500 you must apply it within a day or store it in a specially made wooden box to block out electromagnetic radiation, heat, fumes and any other potential contaminants.
Preparing and applying 500 also demands precise equipment, methods and timing. Firstly, the bucket must have sloping sides, a rounded bottom and be made of stainless steel, copper, brass or ceramic. The water to mix the preparation must be heated to 30-40 degrees Celsius, preferably over gas or wood-fire. The mixture has to be stirred by hand in a system of alternating vortexes to maximise the energy and oxygen content. It needs to be done in the open air and by only one person.
Stirring for one hour is a long time, a great opportunity to take in a podcast, I suggested.
I was advised podcasts were out of the question. As was chatting to a friend to help pass the time Stirring must be quiet and mindful.
And that’s before sourcing a horsetail brush to flick the preparation over the garden within an hour of stirring, after 3pm and on a day that was neither hot, wet, nor windy. Sheesh!
So do I give up on biodynamic principles? Hell no.
As Keith assured us, getting soil back into working order draws on a combination of “airy-fairy” and practical strategies. Starting with compost.
He said that while compost ingredients should ideally be from biodynamic sources, flexibility in the quality of materials was better than nothing. In fact, the manure for our workshop came from the Geelong Saleyards.
“Don’t make it so complicated that you stop making practical decisions,” Keith said. So, with that in mind, here are my baby-steps to the biodynamic vibe.
Careful what they drink
Keith told us plants have two root systems; one for water and one for nutrients. Soluble nutrients such as seaweed solutions, liquid fertilisers and even worm juice can overwhelm the plant making it grow too fast and large, and leaving it susceptible to insect and fungal damage. He advised gardeners to add worm juice and a little seaweed to compost heaps instead.
Grow green manure
This includes grains and legumes such as oats, beans, peas, barley, vetch and chickory, which deliver nitrogen as they rot into the soil.
“Green manures help with soil structure and moisture retention, so plants won’t be as stressed and won’t need to be fed,” Keith explained.
When the plants begin to flower, chop green manures into 10cm pieces and turn it over into the soil.
Know your sh#t!
Keith said cow manure was best for compost because of the animal’s digestive system. He said cattle process their food twice and are more chilled out than sheep and horses.
Try to source cowpats within two days of deposit, opting for firm, not sloppy, specimens.
For our workshop heap we first turned the ground where the heap was to stand, then wet it.
Using biscuits of straw, we created a ventilation tunnel through the centre then mixed together the ingredients. Our heap comprised 60-70 per cent cow poo, with the remainder a balance of pea straw, chopped green manure and kitchen scraps.
Once combined and moistened, this was piled onto the heap, shaped into a large rectangle and sealed with biscuits of pea straw.
Keith said a heap should be at least 1 cubic metre, but I’m going to try it in a compost bin to start with. A proper biodynamic heap should run north-south and required six specially created preparations inserted into specific sections. But I plan to skip that bit for now.
When the compost is dark, crumbly and sweet, dig it into the garden as deeply as possible.
“The idea is you are making humus; the most important single instrument for developing soil structure and nutrient dense food,” Keith said.
Plant for local conditions
Proper biodynamic gardeners follow a strict calendar of planting according to lunar and planetary movements and avoid planting altogether on “node days” when the moon or planets cross the Sun’s path.
In the interests of simplicity, Keith advised not planting in the two days before a full moon, adding that planting for local seasonal conditions was more important than knowing the moon and zodiac signs.
Learn to love weeds
Now here was welcome advice.
“There’s nothing wrong with weeds. Understanding the weeds growing in your garden tells you something about the soil and what is going on with it,” Keith said.
Just so long as they are not consuming what you actually want to grow, I guess.
“It’s the vibe of it. It’s the Constitution. It’s Mabo. It’s justice. It’s law. It’s the vibe and ah, no that’s it. It’s the vibe. I rest my case.”
-Dennis Denuto, The Castle.