Posted 24 August 2011, by Lindsey Mann (Sustenance Design, LLC and Sugar Creek Garden), Georgia Organics, georgiaorganics.org
Urban farming is likely here to stay. It makes sense for those of us living in cities, who want to live as connected to our food as possible, to grow where we live. Plus, if land-vitalizing practices such as Biodynamic Agriculture are practiced in our cities, we are improving our quality of life by enlivening the soil and atmosphere of our homes and communities, literally raising the vibration of our surroundings.
Photo at right: Lindsey Mann uses a low-tech approach to spray horn manure (prep 500) for soil health.
A relevant question is how to make Biodynamics work in the city. At its core, Biodynamics is a true-farm, rural practice. For example, its overarching notion of a ‘whole farm organism’ where, ideally, no inputs are imported can be difficult if not impractical in a city. It just makes sense to compost from the waste stream of neighboring residences or restaurants instead of relying solely on that which comes from an urban garden with limited space.
But if we can’t keep to a fundamental tenant of Biodynamics in the city does it render it ineffective for us? I think to the contrary. I think we need to actively pursue and develop a new science (or art) of practicing Biodynamics in an urban environment. It is a richly life-supporting practice which I actually believe to be the future of organics, and it is time to bring its treasure and wisdom to the city. How, becomes the question. This article explains how we are translating Biodynamics into our urban farm, Sugar Creek Garden, in Decatur.
It’s too much to approach an overview here except to say that Biodynamic Agriculture was brought to light by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s when asked by Austrian farmers for advice as they noticed soil degradation over time using modern growing methods. If you are not familiar with Biodynamics, I encourage you to research it, though I will say it’s taken me 10 years to begin to understand it via conferences, books, and finally a study group lead by Atlanta local Jim Jensen to read the all-important Bd bible, Lectures on Agriculture.
Hard to grasp in theory perhaps, but the practice comes naturally. I’d recommend anyone interested in Biodynamics to stir. ‘Stirring’ in the Biodynamic sense is a particular way of vigorously mixing special compost preparations (preps) in water to enliven the water and then use it as a spray for the farm.
When stirring, we activate the solar and lunar forces (or heating and cooling forces) by stirring to the right and then to the left, repeatedly. The sprays build immunity in the garden, improve soil quality and much more. There are preps used for sprays and preps used for building compost.
Photo at right: A volunteer vigorously stirs the Valerian preparation for biodynamic compost pile.
All are made to different specifications using various herbs, such as dandelion, yarrow or nettle, which have different energetic actions with practical results. The oak bark prep, for example, helps prevent plant disease, among other things. But the focus is on the forces, not the materials. They are made during specific seasons and moon influences, using various animal parts like a skull or manure.
Animals are important to traditional biodynamic farming because they contain astral forces which can be related to the way organic farming understands nitrogen. Our ethical treatment of animals, and all of nature, is of high import and greatly affects forces and results. Practicing Biodynamics could begin with following moon planting phases (made easier by a Bd calendar, like Stella Natura), and a lot of stirring. I find stirring one of the most therapeutic practices of gardening, which I imagine is not an uncommon experience. Try it if you have not!
Working with energy as opposed to form is, put very simply, more efficient. I begin to wonder why schlepping heavy, smelly bags of composted, organic chicken fertilizer makes any sense at all when I can hold in one palm enough prep 500 (horn manure) to affect 3 acres; it is homeopathic.
No, the horn manure prep is not a precise trade for chicken fertilizer- at all, but when one uses all of the Biodynamic preparations, including the sprays and especially making compost with preps 502-507, it is a complete practice in itself. Like organic agriculture, making compost is fundamental, which can negate the need for additional ‘fertilizer’ inputs. In truth, the practices of organic and Biodynamic growing are fundamentally different.
While organics is founded in physical reality as evidenced by reductionist science, biodynamics is considered a ‘spiritual science’ and is based primarily by observations of the non-physical realms. It manifests, though, in the superior nutritional quality of the food grown, the humus content of the soil and the soil’s continual renewal. The biodynamic compost heap is made in a particular manner, creating an “etheric body of forces that interweave, support and enhance the material realm” (adapted from Nancy Kay Anderson, Midnight Sun Designs, New Jersey).
One can have a greater impact in the physical when working with subtle realms, which also speaks to efficiency. The preps are relatively inexpensive and can be made instead of purchased. It might be advantageous for neighboring urban gardens to come together to share the work of making the preparations and the finished product. At Sugar Creek Garden, we currently use preparations made by Bio-Ag Resources from Foxhollow Farm in Kentucky.
The garden is just over a year old. With a plethora of volunteer hours, we use the double-dig method to prepare the soil with shovels. We mix granite sand and imported compost of varying grades into the existing clay-silt mix. After initial digging, we use the Pfieffer field and garden spray to encourage humus formation. It is not a ‘traditional’ prep but I feel it has been very effective for us in keeping the amount of weed regrowth/sprouting to a minimum.
We stir and spray 500 and Barrel Compost a few times in the spring and fall during soil preparation, 501 (horn silica) a few times in the summer for optimal ripening, and this spring/summer we have been working with a fermented tea of equisetum arvense (horsetail) and stinging nettle. This tea is applied in dilution as a spray (per Maria Thun’s advice in Gardening the Biodynamic Way) and I have noticed plants respond well to it. As with all the preps, it tangibly improves the quality and stability of energy in the garden and seems to have kept potential pest problems, such as squash bugs and aphids that arrived in an unusually arid June, at bay.
Our volunteers who trade for produce live nearby the garden and as Sugar Creek is still under an acre we have leftover spray after we stir some of the preps that we can bring home and ‘bless’ our own lots with the vital substance. I feel this extends the reach and positive impact of the garden.
At Sugar Creek Garden, we keep bees in a Biodynamic top bar hive created by Jim Jensen. He believes it to be a more colony-friendly method than the common Langstroth hive. His aim is supporting long-term health of the bees. We will wait until their second year to harvest honey; we do ‘manage’ them intermittently with hive inspections. We are also beginning to make our own compost on a scale that can eliminate the need to import any compost (or fertilizer!) to the garden- a critical step for us.
A trial compost heap is really kickin’ in the summer heat in a mostly shaded spot. It was created with the biodynamic compost preps, locally-sourced goat manure, kitchen veggie scraps, fall leaves, granite sand and more. See This Link for a detailed description of the biodynamic compost making.
Bringing Biodyamics to the urban environment is being attempted in different regions of the country. In the most recent publication of Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association’s quarterly journal, young farmers in Tuscon describe their efforts. They have the fortune of sourcing manure from nearby cows that are fed organically and are hoping to eventually have their own cows to create a closed-loop compost system.
Their location on Waldorf school grounds will support the loop, allowing them to feed students and capture food waste from the cafeteria. Their decisions to divert from traditional biodynamics are based mainly on climate, such as choosing to use municipal reclaimed water for irrigation. They feel this to be the most sustainable choice in an arid climate.
Perhaps the bridge is to see the ‘whole farm organism’ as our city or neighborhood. We recycle waste in the garden that, via the biodynamic process, becomes enlivened, sensitive or even ‘intelligent’ as Steiner says, to inform the soil which grows our vitally-rich food.
We provide this food to residents of our city and a high-vibrancy place to work and visit. Residents return their compostable scraps to the garden, and the cycle continues. Though I admit it’s a stretch to see Atlanta as a biodynamic farm (!) it might help us to be more careful with our precious environment. Perhaps a more refined version would be a neighborhood ‘village’ organism. If my village of Oakhurst is the organism and the cycle is even more local, well, there develops (we hope) more of an awareness to be responsible for the care of our land among neighbors.
Biodynamics might be part of the solution towards revitalizing our urban land. In my work as an edible landscaper I see one common theme in a cross-section of the hundreds of urban residences I have visited over the years: life force in our environment is depleted and retracted as a rule.
Jim Jensen says this eloquently. Something to the effect of, “We don’t respect the spiritual life around us nor recognize our environment to be spiritual; we just see the physical. And the spiritual quality of our environment reflects this negation of life.” YES! Somewhere in our collective memory we can intuit this. If we tap the well of our ancestral memory, are we not flooded with knowing that there is another, more respectful, deeply life and earth-connected way to live?
Lindsey Mann has been studying earth’s living ecology as applied to food growing systems for over 10 years. In 2006, she founded Sustenance Design, LLC, the first edible landscaping business in the Atlanta area, dedicated to creating beautiful, sustainable landscapes and empowering people to grow their own food. Partnering with the Oakhurst Community Garden Project in Decatur, she began Sugar Creek Garden which, with the help of a team of incredible volunteers, pilots urban Biodynamics in the city and grows food for a local market. Visit her on the web at www.sustenancedesign.net.