Biodynamic Gardening Takes Holistic Approach to the Soil

Lush garden near an historical home
“Biodynamic gardening allows gardeners to develop a relationship with the garden that takes their enjoyment of gardening to the next level.".

Thea Maria Carlson / Biodynamic Association

Want to enhance the health and vitality of your garden? Try gardening biodynamically. It will deepen your understanding of the life processes that happen in the garden and enhance the quality and flavor of the food you grow.

Many people are familiar with how organic gardening avoids using chemicals and focuses instead on more natural and ecological approaches to growing food. Biodynamic gardening takes that approach to the next level not just by changing what organic gardeners do in the garden but also by altering how they view the garden.

That view is one in which all of the many aspects that make up a garden — soil, plants and animals (both domestic and wild) — are seen and managed not as individual parts but as a single, integrated, self-sustaining whole. If that sounds like a holistic approach to digging in the dirt, it is. Welcome to biodynamic gardening.

Biodynamic gardening starts with building truly healthy soil through thoughtfully integrating both plants and animals in the garden and creating fertility by rotating crops, growing green manures such as vetch or clover, and carefully composting plant waste, kitchen scraps and farm animal manures (such as chicken or rabbit) with the help of medicinal herbal preparations.

“It’s not just about what chemicals you can’t use but what you can actively do to create a healthy garden whole that sustains itself,” said Thea Maria Carlson, director of programs for the Biodynamic Association in Milwaukee. “And it works on any scale, even in a small space.”

Bumblebee on rudbeckia
Thea Maria Carlson / Biodynamic Association

The ideal biodynamic garden includes both plants and animals. A growing number of cities and suburbs now allow homeowners to keep small numbers of chickens, rabbits, beehives, or even goats. But even without these domestic animals, creating a garden that attracts such common creatures as earthworms, bees, ladybugs, praying mantises, birds, and other beneficial insects, including microbial ones in the soil, is something any small-scale gardener can do.

“There are different ways to balance plant and animal life with the garden,” Carlson said.

In a biodynamic garden, compost is treated with preparations made from fermented medicinal herbs, which enhance the nutrient availability and microbial activity in the compost, and in turn the garden soil. Six herbs are used to make the Biodynamic compost preparations: yarrow flowers, chamomile blossoms, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion blossoms, and valerian flowers.

There are also three Biodynamic spray preparations, made with manure, ground quartz crystals, and the herb equisetum (also known as horsetail). These are each applied to the soil or plants at specific times in the year to enhance the health and fertility of the garden. The preparations are available to purchase from regional Biodynamic groups or the Josephine Porter Institute. Adventurous gardeners can, of course, learn to make their own.

Another important aspect of Biodynamic gardening is developing an awareness of the influence of the sun, moon, and planets on the garden. Several Biodynamic planting calendars are published each year to help gardeners build that awareness. Through careful observation, gardeners can develop their own sense of how changes in the cosmos around us affect the life of the soil and the plants growing in it.

“As they develop their own sensibilities of what is going on, they begin to realize what they need to do in the garden and when they need to do it,” Carlson said.

“Biodynamic gardening allows gardeners to develop a relationship with the garden that takes their enjoyment of gardening to the next level,” she added. It encourages each person to develop a personal relationship with the land which, for some people, can even take on a sacred or spiritual nature.

The principles and practices of Biodynamic gardening are older than the modern-day organic gardening movement, Carlson said. Biodynamic gardening traces its roots to a series of lectures that Austrian philosopher and social reformer Rudolf Steiner gave to a group of farmers in 1924. These lectures, published under the title “Agriculture,” and many other books about biodynamic principles and philosophy are available through the Biodynamic Association.

Biodynamic garden
Thea Maria Carlson / Biodynamic Association

Even though the Biodynamic system is 90 years old and is practiced in gardens, farms, orchards, and vineyards throughout the world, Carlson said she believes that the majority of American home gardeners have not yet heard of Biodynamic gardening. But she said she thinks that Biodynamic awareness is growing rapidly.

“It's hard to say why there isn't a broader awareness yet,” she said. “I would think it has something to do with people first needing to become aware of environmental and health issues related to chemical agriculture and then looking for alternatives and discovering organic and Biodynamic approaches.”

The growing interest in Biodynamic is evidenced by the Biodynamic Association’s 1,400 members, about half of whom are home gardeners, as well as more than 40,000 followers on Facebook. The association was founded in 1938 and is considered to be the oldest sustainable agriculture organization in North America.

Attending the North American Biodynamic Conference is a great place to start learning. It includes more than 60 workshops led by the nation’s top Biodynamic and organic practitioners and educators (including Biodynamic basics and gardening tracks), farm field trips, local food and Biodynamic wine tasting, and activities for children.

An independent Biodynamic certification system is available to small farmers and operators of groups such as Community Supported Agriculture and farmers markets. Demeter® USA, which is in Philomath, Oregon, and is the representative of Demeter International, the world's only certifier of biodynamic farms and products, manages Biodynamic certification in the United States.

That certification uses the USDA organic standards as a foundation but goes beyond them in several important ways. For example, the Demeter farm standard requires the healthy integration of crops and livestock on the farm as well as a certain amount of wild or uncultivated land as part of its biodiversity requirement. It also requires the use of the biodynamic preparations described above. In addition, whereas organic certification can be applied to just one part of a farm, Demeter certification must encompass the whole farm.