Adam and I attended an introductory workshop on biodynamics at Digger’s Herronswood in Dromana on Saturday. Seeing as biodynamics had been mentioned a couple of times during our PDC course and being the curious sort we are, we decided to find out more about it.

The workshop was run by a group called Biodynamic2024, and the main presenter, Hamish, was an enthusiastic chap with a propensity to finish every sentence with “yeah?”. His co-presenter, John, was an elderly chap with a wealth of knowledge but repeated every sentence in a couple of different ways just to make sure you understood – this, naturally, took up precious time and eventually made the workshop run over-time, but that’s by the by.

Hamish began by giving a comparison between Newtonian and Goethean sciences, where he listed a bunch of negative words under Newton and a bunch of positive words under Goethe, and then went on to introduce Rudolf Steiner as kind of unifyer of the two scientific schools.

For those unfamiliar with the two scientific methods (we were), Newtonian is the science that we are most familiar with. It’s the science of reduction, of predictable and observable results, peer review etc. Where as Goethean is more holistic and experiential, where anecdote is a valid measure. As Goethe wrote: “the human being himself, to the extent that he makes sound use of his senses, is the most exact physical apparatus that can exist.”

Both Adam and I were on board with this approach with regard to gardening and growing food. If someone were to say “I did this and this happened”, we’d be willing to give it a go to see if we got the same results, however, we prefer the Newtonian approach when it comes to medicine and doctors etc. Call us old fashioned!

It wasn’t too long into the workshop when the first of our bullshit alarms went off. Hamish made the statement that “only 15% of our nutrition we get from eating, and this only nourished our nervous system. The other 85% we get through our senses.” We both had to scrape our eyebrows off the ceiling at this point. Did he really just say that? He went on; “There are thousands of tonnes of atmospheric iron that enters the earth’s biosphere via meteorites etc, this is where our bodies get our iron from”. Another eyebrow/ceiling scrapping.

He then went on to talk about soil structure and microbial activity etc, and even though he was giving us actual facts this time, our open minds were now a little less open. Still, ever the optimists, we were interested to hear more about the actual practices of biodynamics and were willing take everything in with a grain of salt…ok, more like a block of salt.

Next we moved onto another esoteric sounding subject; planting by the moon. We had heard of this before and have heard all sorts of anecdotes about the successes people have had with it. Something we’re willing to give a go, because hey, why the heck not?

We were handed a nice photocopy of a page out of the 2014 Antipodean Astro Calendar (the rest available for the very low price of $30) and there was a lot of information crammed into this A3 colour photocopy; which days are best for leafy plants, root veg, and fruits; which days are best to stay in bed etc.

One glaring mistake that we noticed was that there was a lot of attention given to the full moon as the time when the tides (not just in the oceans) are high and the new moon was the time when the tides were low. It was as if the reflected light was the important force behind plant growth. Actually, at one point (in the Q&A at the end) John suggested to a woman who had issues with grass overtaking her veggie garden, that if she were to mow the grass on a new moon, she’ll reduce the growth rate by about 50%. If she were to do that repeatedly, she should fix her problem.

If I remember my high school science class correctly (it was a while ago, so physics may have changed since then), there is a spring tide (extra high tide) on both the full moon and new moon. I can’t recall the exact mechanics of it, but it has something to do with the sun and moon’s ‘gravitational pull being combined because of their alignment. So, wouldn’t that mean that a new moon may not be the best time to mow since the plant’s “tides” will be high? I know, I know, I’m letting my inner Newtonian get the better of me!

Moving on, we begin to learn about the crux of biodynamics; the “preparations”. These are soil improvers that you add to compost piles or distribute directly on the field/garden. There are 9 key preparations:*

Horn Manure (500): made from fresh manure from a lactating cow,buried in a cow horn in rich soil from Autumn to Spring. It’s used to bring calcium activity to the soil, and helps seed germination,root development and general plant growth. Also improves soil structure and enhances the soil food web; especially the beneficial bacteria and fungi and the earthworms.

Horn Silica (501): made from ground up clear quartz crystal and buried in cow horns in rich soil from Spring to Autumn. It aids photosynthesis and the uptake of minerals and trace elements from the soil. This potent preparation increases the quality of the final product – its ripeness, sweetness, flavour, fragrance, shelf life and dry fibre content

Yarrow (502): this stimulates the potassium, silica and selenium activating bacteria and helps combine sulphur with other substances.

Chamomile (503): this stimulates potassium, manganese and boron, as well as azoto-bacteria activity.

Stinging Nettle (504): This helps proper decomposition of organic matter, aids chlorophyll formation and stimulates iron, potassium,calcium, magnesium and sulphur activity in the soil.

Oak Bark (505): helps calcium and phosphorus work into the earth.

Dandelion (506): Stimulates the potassium /silica bacteria in the soil to enable it to work more effectively with the growth forces. Also increases flowering and filling of fruit out to tips.

Valerian (507): Stimulates the phosphorus process and mobilises the phosphorus – activating bacteria in the soil, as well as selenium and magnesium

Casuarina (508): a decoction made from Casuarina cunninghamiana which encourages the growth of beneficial fungi in the soil in the fermented form and minimising the occurrence of detrimental fungal diseases on plants when sprayed on them as afresh concoction. (In the Northern Hemisphere they make 508 out of Equisetum arvense which is considered an invasive species here and in NZ.

*descriptions taken from biodynamics.net.au because I wasn’t taking notes on the day.

We then broke for lunch, however, before we did Hamish told us that we now knew pretty much all there is to know about biodynamics. The rest is personal experimentation and sharing results.

Personally, I was expecting a little more…how you say “detail”.

After a scrumptious lunch (ham and salad sanga and a delicious brownie slathered in thickened cream – biodynamically produced, I’m sure) we began the practical side to the workshop. Putting these “preparations” into action. We all congregated outside where Hamish demonstrated how to “activate” the preparations.

This involves taking a handful Horn Manure 500 (or their patented Soil Activator which has all the preparations mixed in, available for sale on their website, of course, at the very low price of $20/100g) and deposit it into a 5L bucket. You must then stir it for an hour…yes, you simply MUST else it’s not going to be as effective! Stirring vigorously clockwise until you have a nice vortex, then reverse directions. The vortex mimics the spirals that life enters the earth…apparently. Thankfully, since we were constrained for time, Hamish spared us the full hours’ worth of spiralling vortices.

Once the preparation is suitably mixed, you then take a brush of some type (he used a banister brush, but recommended a toilet brush – I had to stifle a giggle at the irony) and proceed to fling droplets of the preparation mix around the garden as if you were Pope Francis anointing a crowd from the pope mobile in front of St Paul’s. Hamish invited us each to have a go…as if flinging dirty water from brush was a new skill to be acquired.

Someone in the crowd asked how soon after mixing should the preparation be used. Hamish replied that the sooner the better and then gave us a story about a woman who spent an hour making cosmic vortices in a bucket and then went off for a quick cuppa – the poor dear was obviously worn out – only to come back an hour later to find the mixture had vanished….Her horse drank it. But that’s not all, a week later, a skin condition that was bothering the horse had completely vanished! On hearing this story, Hamish tried it on a sickly sheep he had. He squirted some down it’s throat and 24 hours later, the sheep was up and running with the flock like nothing had happened (or more likely too scared to lie down in case it got another dose…damn that inner Newtonian again!)

It reminded Adam of a scene from the Beverly Hillbillies where Granny Clampett was mixing up a batch of her special cold remedy. There was a doctor there who argued that you couldn’t cure the common cold except with 7 days rest and plenty of fluids. Granny makes up a batch and gives it to the patient (Mr Drysdale) saying, drink this, then take 7 days rest and drink plenty of fluids, still utterly convince her concoction works.

Next we moved over to the compost heap. Here we were taught to mix a pinch of preparation (not 500 or 501 though) with clay to form a little ball. One ball per preparation. He then demonstrated how to insert said clay balls into the compost pile at various points (which, surprisingly, involved digging a hole, dropping in the clay ball and covering it over. Genius!). A process which he completed FOUR times, just in case we missed the first. He recommended burying the balls in the 5 pattern you see on playing cards. Not sure if that has any significance, or if he just liked playing cards. He didn’t elaborate.

One person in the crowd asked “what’s the disadvantage of mixing the preparations into a single batch?” (an interesting way to word the question, we thought). Hamish explained that each element has its own place, just like our internal organs have their own place. “What would happen if you had heart activity in your head? You’d have a migraine!”

The very next question someone asked was “what if you only have a small compost bin, like one of those tumblers?”. Hamish’s response? “For that I’d recommend using the Soil Activator. That has all the preparations in it.”.

Wait. What? What happened to everything having its place? Did he just advise this person to give their compost bin a migraine?

At this stage, Adam and I were contemplating leaving. We’d heard enough, but, being good sports that we are, we decided to stay to the end. Who knows what little treats we’d miss out on.

We made our way back to the classroom for a Q&A session. This was interesting. It was a mix of science, pseudoscience, and mysticism. There was a discussion on weeds and what they can tell you about the condition of the soil (they mentioned Patterson’s curse means there’s a copper deficiency and that dandelions suggest your soil is on the acidic side).

There was an interesting discussion on “peppering”, which is a practice taken straight out of the pages of homeopathy. If you have a particular weed problem, burn that weed and sprinkle the ash around the area. It’ll give the soil the message that this weed is not welcome and that weed will no longer grow in that area. The same can be applied to a possum problem. Burn a possum skin (preferably from a dead possum) and sprinkle it in the area. At one point John even used the term homeopathy when describing some of these “solutions”. I glanced at Adam just in time to see the look of incredulousness cross his face. I had to stifle another giggle. We’ve since started calling biodynamics “homeopathy for gardens”.

So all in all, it was a very interesting day. We started off with completely open minds; we’re now highly sceptical of most claims proponents of biodynamics make (curing a horse’s skin condition? Pffft!), but we’re still open minded enough to test out some of the ideas; such as planting by the moon and seeing if there’s anything to these preparations. We’re still open minded enough to think that there may be some basis (in Newtonian science) for this to work.

There’s enough anecdotal “evidence” suggesting that produce from biodynamic farms and vineyards are top quality for us to not ignore it out of hand, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be spending and hour mixing a handful of cow shit in a bucket of water.

— Update 24 June 2014–

I decided to take it one step further and, being a Nerd, investigate whether there were any (Newtonian) scientific studies into biodynamics that answer the question “does it make a difference?” There doesn’t appear to be a definite answer (how can there be?), but I think “maybe” is as good as we’re going to get and that’s good enough for me to give it a go….but without the associated rituals and pseudoscience – aka bullshit.

Here’s a list of studies with their abstracts (underline is my emphasis) that I found, if anyone’s interested:

  1. John P. Reganold, Alan S. Palmer, James C. Lockhart, A. Neil Macgregor (1993). “Soil Quality and Financial Performance of Biodynamic and Conventional Farms in New Zealand“. Science Mag. Vol. 260, p. 344-349.

    Biodynamic farming practices and systems show promise in mitigating some of the detrimental effects of chemical-dependent, conventional agriculture on the environment. The physical, biological, and chemical soil properties and economic profitability of adjacent, commercial biodynamic and conventional farms (16 total) in New Zealand were compared. The biodynamic farms in the study had better soil quality than the neighboring conventional farms and were just as financially viable on a per hectare basis.

  2. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, Ann C. Kennedy, and John. P. Reganold (2000). “Organic and Biodynamic Management Effects on Soil Biology“. Soil Science Society of America Journal Vol. 64 No. 5, p. 1651-1659

    Biodynamic agriculture is a unique organic farming system that utilizes, in addition to the common tools of organic agriculture, specific fermented herbal preparations as compost additives and field sprays. The objective of this work was to determine whether biodynamic compost or field spray preparations affect the soil biological community in the short term, beyond the effects of organic management. Four fertilizer options: (i) composted dairy manure and bedding (organic fertilization), (ii) the same material composted with biodynamic compost preparations, (iii) mineral fertilizers, and (iv) no fertilizer were investigated with and without the biodynamic field spray preparations. Both biodynamic and nonbiodynamic composts increased soil microbial biomass, respiration, dehydrogenase activity, soil C mineralized in 10 d (MinC), earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris) population and biomass, and metabolic quotient of respiration per unit biomass (qCO2) by the second year of study. No significant differences were found between soils fertilized with biodynamic vs. nonbiodynamic compost. Use of biodynamic field sprays was associated with more MinC and minor differences in soil microbial fatty acid profiles in the first year of study. There were no other observed effects of the biodynamic preparations. Organically and biodynamically managed soils had similar microbial status and were more biotically active than soils that did not receive organic fertilization. Organic management enhanced soil biological activity, but additional use of the biodynamic preparations did not significantly affect the soil biotic parameters tested

  3. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, John P. Reganold and Ann C. Kennedy (2000). “Biodynamic preparations: Short-term effects on crops, soils, and weed populations“. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 15, pp 110-118.

    Biodynamic agriculture is an organic farming system that utilizes fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays. This study was conducted to determine whether biodynamic preparations affect lentil and wheat growth and yield, soil fertility, or weed populations in the short run. Each of four nutrient treatments, biodynamically prepared compost, non-biodynamic compost, mineral NPK fertilizer, and no fertilizer, were tested with and without biodynamic field sprays. Crop yield, crop quality, and soil fertility were similar in plots treated with mineral NPK fertilizers, biodynamic compost, or non-biodynamic compost. Use of compost raised soil pH from 6.0 without compost to 6.5 with compost. Compost application reduced the broadleaf weed population by 29% and reduced the grass weed population by 78%. Biodynamic sprays altered soil and grain N chemistry, but the effects are of unknown biological significance. Use of the biodynamic field sprays correlated with higher yield of lentil per unit plant biomass, lower grain C and crude protein contents, greater content in soft white spring wheat, and greater content in soil. In general, soils and crops treated with biodynamic preparations showed few differences from those not treated. Application of composts with or without the preparations produced similar crop yields with lower weed pressure, compared with equal nutrients supplied by mineral fertilizer, but any additional short-term benefits from biodynamic preparations remain questionable. 

  4. Lynne Carpenter-Boggsa, John P. Reganold & Ann C. Kennedy (2000). “Effects of Biodynamic Preparations on Compost Development“. Biological Agriculture & Horticulture: An International Journal for Sustainable Production Systems Vol. 17, Issue 4 p. 313-328.

    Biodynamic (BD) treated composts maintained an average 3.4°C higher temperature throughout the eight-week active composting period, suggesting more thermophilic microbial activity and/or faster development of compost with BD treatment. Final samples were taken when active composting slowed and the piles entered a ripening stage. At the final sampling, BD-treated piles respired C02 at a 10% lower rate and had a larger ratio of dehydrogenase enzyme activity to C02 production. Microbial communities in the finished BD and control piles were differentiated by principal component analysis of microbial phospholipid fatty acids. Final samples of BD-treated composts also had 65% more nitrate than control piles. Biodynamic preparations thus effected discernible changes in compost chemical and microbial parameters.

  5. Jennifer R. Reeve1, L. Carpenter-Boggs, John P. Reganold, Alan L. York, Glenn McGourty, and Leo P. McCloskey (2005 ). “Soil and Winegrape Quality in Biodynamically and Organically Managed Vineyards“. American Journal of  Enology and Viticulture Vol. 56 No. 4 p. 367-376.
    Biodynamic (BD) agriculture is an organic farming system that relies heavily on compost as a fertilizer. Six herbal preparations are added to composting materials in order to make BD compost. Proponents claim these additions produce higher quality compost under farm conditions. In this study, BD compost preparations were applied to 3.5 t compost piles made of dairy manure and woodshaving bedding. Application of the BD preparations also requires 6 1 soil and 8 1 water; therefore control piles received the same additions of soil and water as BD compost piles, but no BD preparations. Biodynamic-treated composts maintained an average 3.4°C higher temperature throughout the eight-week active composting period, suggesting more thermophilic microbial activity and/or faster development of compost with BD treatment. Final samples were taken when active composting slowed and the piles entered a ripening stage. At the final sampling, BD-treated piles respired C02 at a 10% lower rate and had a larger ratio of dehydrogenase enzyme activity to C02 production. Microbial communities in the finished BD and control piles were differentiated by principal component analysis of microbial phospholipid fatty acids. Final samples of BD-treated composts also had 65% more nitrate than control piles. Biodynamic preparations thus effected discernible changes in compost chemical and microbial parameters.
  6. Burkitt LL, Small DR, McDonald JW, Wales WJ, Jenkin ML (2007) “Comparing irrigated biodynamic and conventionally managed dairy farms. 1. Soil and pasture properties“. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 47, 479–488.

    Ten paired irrigated dairy farms under biodynamic (BD) and conventional (CV) management were compared over a 4-year period (1991–94). The paired farms were located in the irrigation districts of northern Victoria and southern New South Wales and were matched for soil type, climate, cattle breed and farm area. Farms had been practising BD principles for an average of 16 years before the commencement of the study and had not received phosphorus (P) fertiliser for an average of 17 years. The effects of farm management on soil chemical and biological properties and the nutritive properties and botanical composition of pasture were examined at varying sampling times during the study.
    Soil Olsen extractable P concentrations were consistently 2–3 times higher under CV management at various sampling depths (mean = 22 mg/kg, 0–10 cm), and were generally marginal under BD management in the surface 10 cm (mean = 8.5 mg/kg). Low soil extractable P concentrations were also reflected in consistently lower mean pasture P concentrations under BD management (0.25 compared with 0.35% on CV farms). Lower soil and pasture P concentrations under BD management were the result of a large negative P balance across BD farms (–17 kg P/ha.year). A mean negative P balance under BD management was a result of low P imports (2 kg P/ha.year) in comparison with large quantities of P (19 kg P/ha.year) effectively lost from the farming system through animal products, estimated losses in water runoff and slowly reversible soil P reactions. These results suggest that greater P imports are required to ensure the future sustainability of BD dairy pasture farming systems. There were few differences in soil biological properties, with earthworm weights significantly higher under CV management, but no difference in soil organic carbon, humus concentration, the weight of the organic mat or microbial biomass, between the two management systems. 

  7. Johann G. Zaller, Ulrich Köpke (2004). “Effects of traditional and biodynamic farmyard manure amendment on yields, soil chemical, biochemical and biological properties in a long-term field experiment“. Biology and Fertility of Soils. Vol 40, Issue 4, p 222-229.

    We studied the effects of applications of traditionally composted farmyard manure (FYM) and two types of biodynamically composted FYM over 9 years on soil chemical properties, microbial biomass and respiration, dehydrogenase and saccharase activities, decomposition rates and root production under grass-clover, activity and biomass of earthworms under wheat, and yields in a grass-clover, potatoes, winter wheat, field beans, spring wheat, winter rye crop rotation. The experiment was conducted near Bonn, on a Fluvisol using a randomised complete block design (n=6). Our results showed that plots which received either prepared or non-prepared FYM (30 Mg ha−1 year−1) had significantly increased soil pH, P and K concentrations, microbial biomass, dehydrogenase activity, decomposition (cotton strips), earthworm cast production and altered earthworm community composition than plots without FYM application. Application of FYM did not affect the soil C/N ratio, root length density, saccharase activity, microbial basal respiration, metabolic quotient and crop yields. The biodynamic preparation of FYM with fermented residues of six plant species (6 g Mg−1 FYM) significantly decreased soil microbial basal respiration and metabolic quotient compared to non-prepared FYM or FYM prepared with only Achillea. The biodynamic preparation did not affect soil microbial biomass, dehydrogenase activity and decomposition during 62 days. However, after 100 days, decomposition was significantly faster in plots which received completely prepared FYM than in plots which received no FYM, FYM without preparations or FYM with the Achillea preparation. Furthermore, the application of completely prepared FYM led to significantly higher biomass and abundance of endogeic or anecic earthworms than in plots where non-prepared FYM was applied. “

  8. Holger Hansen (1980). “Comparison of chemical composition and taste of biodynamically and conventionally grown vegetables“. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition. Vol 30, Issue 3-4, p 203-211.

    From comparisons of the chemical contents of biodynamically and conventionally grown potatoes, carrots, beetroots and curly kale, the origin of the sample could not be established. A biodynamic quality determination of potatoes did not show any clear difference between crops cultivated by the two methods. The storage qualities of white cabbage did not show any difference connected with the two methods of cultivation, but conventionally grown cabbage had the heaviest heads. Organoleptic evaluation, under carefully defined laboratory conditions, resulted in the detection by a taste panel of statistically significant differences due to origin for a few samples, but the differences were so small that it must be considered improbable that they could be detected under normal practical conditions.

  9. P. Jayasree, Annamma George (2006). “Do biodynamic practices influence yield, quality, and economics of cultivation of chilli (Capsicum annuum L.)?” Journal of Tropical Agriculture, Vol 44. p. 68-70.

    ” Effects of adopting a biodynamic calendar for timing the cultural operations and a manurial schedule involving two biodynamic preparations (separately or together) and panchagavyam (a mixture of 5:1 cow dung and ghee in a 5:3:3:5 cow’s urine, curd, milk, and water formulation) in conjunction with organic manures as well as ‘organic manures alone’, and the recommended practices of nutrient management (RP) on yield, quality, and economics of chilli cultivation were evaluated in a field experiment. Results show that RP (i.e., application of 20 Mg ha-1 farmyard manure+75:40:25 N:P2O5:K2O kg ha-1) significantly improved fruit yield, net returns, and B: C ratio. Although biodynamic calendar and biodynamic preparations had no spectacular effects on the characters studied, application of organic manures generally promoted fruit quality in chilli. Indeed, panchagavyam + organic manure demonstrated the maximum shelf life and the ‘organic manures alone’ (on nutrient equivalent basis) showed the highest ascorbic acid content of chilli fruits.