Howdy family. Jeffrey Helton here, delivering yet another blog from the Grow Appalachia mothership!
I’ve always thought science was pretty neato, although my interest often lies with the applied side (A.K.A. technology) more than the theoretical side. I still remember when my dad bought me my first gaming console, a Super Nintendo. I spent the entire afternoon wandering through the kaleidoscopic lands of Super Mario World, participating firsthand in stories in a way that I simply couldn’t before. (Even now, some of those stories and universes mean a lot to me. I remember some of them just as fondly as I remember the wobbly swing set in my grandparents’ backyard.) These days, technology means that I can see and hear friends who are hundred of miles away. Even in the garden, technology can mean the difference between spending a few hours and spending a few afternoons digging up potatoes. (Our new Vine illustrates this point quite well.)
And while I don’t want to say that science is imperfect, I will say that it is incomplete, in the sense that our understanding of the natural world is always approximate and being refined with time. When it comes to gardening, there’s still much to figure out. In the gaps left by science, we often rely on the traditions and rituals of our forefathers and foremothers. We resort to other approaches, guided by intuition and feeling. This is the craft side of Grow Appalachia’s emphasis on science-assisted craft agriculture.
Here at the Grow headquarters, we’ve been wondering a bit about these other approaches, particularly biodynamic gardening, so I decided to dive in and learn more about it. (I always make it to the point eventually!) Keep in mind that my agenda here isn’t to persuade anyone that this is the right or the wrong way to garden. It is simply to expose you to new ideas and make sure you’re thinking hard about your own approach to gardening.
So… What is biodynamic gardening?
Biodynamic gardening traces its roots to the 1920s and the work Rudolf Steiner, an ambitious philosopher who dabbled in everything from architecture to playwriting. Steiner, who was concerned with the interactions of the world with cosmic “forces,” believed that civilization and the earth itself were doomed if people didn’t shift their understanding of their relationship with the physical world. He thought that the ultimate goal for a grower was to transform your growing space into one unified system. Like a human being, each place has its own personality, and it is up to the grower to cultivate that personality by eliminating external inputs, which ruin individuality. If this is accomplished your plants will allegedly have a unique taste—in the same way that some believe that quality wine retains the character of the land where its grapes were grown.
Of course, the biodynamic movement didn’t end in the 20s. Steiner’s approach ended up influencing folks like Rachel Carson, and biodynamic agriculture is still thriving today. One might be tempted to argue that this approach overlaps with organic gardening. Indeed, biodynamics emphasizes the use of cover crops and compost. Furthermore, techniques like monocropping are discouraged. Of course, biodynamic gardening takes it one step further than organic gardening, incorporating an element of sacredness and idealism. This might involve grinding up geodes to energize your water with higher forces. It also involves the rejection of any plastics and pesticides, organic or not.
One of the most fascinating (yet controversial) elements to the biodynamic approach is the focus on cosmic rhythms—including the movements of the sun, the moon, and even constellations. The idea is that these rhythms, like the Earth’s yearly lap around the sun, are vital to life, and so their influence can be harnessed for the benefit of your plants. One example of an application of this line of thinking is that the moon has great power over the element of water—much like with the tide. So some biodynamic gardeners believe that when the moon is full, there’s a noticeable increase of moisture in the soil.
Even astrology has a place in biodynamics, which relates to the common idea of “gardening by the signs.” For me, this was a particularly difficult concept to wrap my head around, but the gist is that although the sun and moon consistently rise in the east and set in the west, the path across the sky changes slightly, the arc getting higher in the sky each day. This means that the moon travels across different constellations every few days. (So if the moon is cutting across Capricorn, perhaps it’s a good time to get some potatoes in the ground.)
Of course, some folks are skeptical of astrology, but that’s not the point. The point is that science hasn’t figured it all yet. And neither have biodynamic gardeners. Go test different principles in the laboratory of your gardens and keep notes on what works and what doesn’t. At the end of the day, that’s the best that we’ve got! And of course, I’m sure many of you know more about this topic than I do, so feel free to share in the comments!