sustainability

What Is Biodynamic Gardening? Understanding the Basics + Advice from Our Team for Your Garden

With insight from our team of biodynamics enthusiasts: Thomas Leonard, Farm Operations Manager; Kate Renner, Farm Operations Assistant Manager; and Will Bratton, Procurement Manager

Here at Gaia Herbs, we love to talk about our farm, a magical 350-acre plot of land, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, with rich alluvial soil and amazing biodiversity. After all, it’s part of what sets us apart from other supplement companies—we’re different not only in that we grow many of the herbs we use in our products, but also because of how we grow them.

You’ll often hear us share that our farm is Certified Organic through Oregon Tilth and that we practice regenerative agriculture, which focuses on reversing climate change by rebuilding and restoring soil. But you may not know that we also embrace the principles of biodynamic farming.

What exactly is biodynamic farming or biodynamic gardening? And how can you take a biodynamic approach in your home garden? Keep reading for the answers, with wisdom from our resident biodynamics experts: our farm team leaders, Thomas Leonard and Kate Renner, and our Procurement Manager, Will Bratton.

What Is Biodynamic Gardening?

Nettle in clay pot

The Biodynamic Association broadly defines biodynamics as “a holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition.” It is rooted in the work of Rudolf Steiner, who was a philosopher and architect, amongst other claims to fame.

In 1924, he planted the seed of the biodynamics movement at a series of agriculture lectures in what is now Poland, during which he spelled out this sustainable approach to farming. Over the last nearly century, biodynamics has grown and evolved, spreading around the globe with a number of people adding to Steiner’s tradition.

But the principles remain the same. There are many, which can be found at biodynamics.com. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the big three:

  1. The biodynamic farm or garden is one living organism. It’s made up of interdependent elements—plants, soil, people, its spirit… and the list goes on—that must be supported in a holistic way to manage its overall health. These elements should work together in harmony, and it’s the farmer’s/gardener’s job to make that happen. In other words, biodynamic farming and gardening are built on the idea that what you do in one area, to one element of your space, affects the whole system. As the famous saying goes, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
  2. Biodynamic preparations strengthen compost and enhance soil and plant health. What are “preparations”? That’s biodynamics lingo for natural inputs that increase soil fertility and improve soil health—the approach doesn’t allow for the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Biodynamics relies heavily on compost, and Steiner developed six preparations to enliven it; compost is used to help attune the soil to the whole organism and to restore climate balance. Steiner also developed three liquid spray preparations to use around the farm and garden. His original recipes are labeled biodynamic preparations #500-508 and are made with both herbs and manure through very detailed, often complex, processes, with the ultimate goal being that biodynamic farms don't rely on external amendments rather generate them from the land. That said, today you can buy already prepared preparations; keep reading for more details.
  3. Biodynamics works in rhythm with the Earth and the cosmos. This is one principle that really differentiates biodynamics from other approaches. Biodynamics considers the rhythms and cycles of the Earth, sun, moon, stars, and planets, which it holds can influence the growth and development of both plants and animals. Biodynamic farmers and gardeners use a special biodynamic calendar, a detailed astronomical guide about when to complete tasks from planting to using preparations to harvesting. Lunar gardening also considers the phases of the moon, but not necessarily the moon’s perigee and apogee (its distance from us) and the influence of the sun and the greater cosmos.

If some of these principles sound familiar, they should. Biodynamic farming is the origin of organic agriculture. Indeed, both organic and regenerative farming came out of biodynamics, but these movements exclude their predecessor’s astrological practices.

Biodynamic Agriculture in Action on the Gaia Farm

The biodynamic approach is right in line with the Gaia Herbs ethos, from its holistic perspective to its directive to grow organically and sustainably—and beyond: Biodynamics also encourages social and economic welfare, which we promote through our Gaia Roots program and efforts to increase herbal accessibility.

On the Gaia Farm, we embrace biodynamics in a couple of ways. First, we incorporate the biodynamic calendar into our growing calendar. This year, Thomas and Kate developed their most comprehensive celestial schedule yet. “Using the biodynamic calendar encourages a very strategic and mindful approach to what we’re doing on the farm,” Kate shares.

For 2021, she has been paying special attention to, and been especially fascinated by, days that are favorable for a plant’s leaf and flower formation versus its root formation, so we can achieve the results we want from our herbs. And Thomas has been acutely aware this season of the calendar’s blackout days—when the cosmos say it’s not a good time for activities such as seeding and harvesting. In fact, he noticed that two late frosts on the farm this spring serendipitously aligned with blackout dates.

Though planting by the cosmos may not be seen as scientific, it makes good sense to Thomas. “Farming is cyclical,” he says, “and not just in seasons. There are smaller cycles like night and day that we observe on the farm. I think the moon in particular has a huge influence on life and on our planet. If it's strong enough to move oceans, surely it has some effect on plants and people.”

Our farm team firmly believes in composting and using compost on the farm, and we have also been embracing biodynamics through biodynamic preparations. We’ve even been making some of our own compost that incorporates the herbs we grow, allowing Kate and Thomas to develop a deeper understanding of and connection to these plants.

Nettle buried in clay pot

For example, we recently started the process for preparation #504, for which you bury Nettle leaf in a clay pot in the ground for one year (pictured here). Over time, it breaks down into a nutrient-rich compost additive. And we have plans to make preparation #507, a Valerian compost tea, and preparation #508, a Horsetail compost tea, in the coming months.

Biodynamics in Your Garden: Where to Start

As has already been mentioned, biodynamics is as much for the home garden as the farm. Want to take a biodynamic approach in your space but aren’t sure where to start? Will Bratton, our Procurement Manager and founder of the International Biodynamic Guild, has some great advice.

Do your research. It’s always a good idea to do some research and reading about a gardening approach before you dig in. As a biodynamics enthusiast, Will is a big fan of Steiner’s written works, but he doesn’t advise starting with these difficult texts. Instead, he encourages browsing literature on the websites of the Biodynamic Association, Demeter USA (the only American certifier for biodynamic farms and products), Josephine Porter Institute, and others, as well as recommends The Biodynamic Year by Maria Thun.

Get your hands on a biodynamic calendar. Gardening to the biodynamic calendar is perhaps the simplest way to begin. There are many different calendars available for purchase. Will recommends finding one from the author mentioned above, and notes that Maria Thun’s calendars include informative written material that’s a perfect overview of biodynamics and is helpful for getting started.

Commence composting. Compost is critical in the biodynamic garden. Though biodynamics uses specific compost preparations, the steps for creating compost are universal. Begin in whatever capacity you can—whether a small countertop composter or a big pile in your yard. By composting your kitchen scraps, you’ll be taking steps to keep waste out of the landfill and rebuild your soil and be well on your way to gardening biodynamically.

Purchase preparations. If you’re ready to take your biodynamic garden to the next level, you can purchase finished preparations from the Josephine Porter Institute. When you’re working preparations into your home compost and are gardening with the cycles of the cosmos, you’ve got the fundamentals of biodynamics down.

Will notes that, especially in the wine and dairy industries, products grown biodynamically tend to outperform their organic and regenerative peers in tests of flavor and quality. Once your biodynamic garden is established, you’re likely to have the tastiest, healthiest herbs, veggies, and fruits on your block!

Share Your Success!

We hope you’ll share stories and pictures from your gardens with us this spring, summer, and fall on Instagram and Facebook. We’d love to know what you’re growing and if a biodynamic approach is working for you!