You've probably heard wine connoisseurs toss around the term "biodynamics," but what the heck does it mean? Despite more and more vineyards embracing the system, an air of mystery surrounds its more esoteric practices (such as planting and harvesting by the phases of the moon). Yet at its heart, biodynamics is simply a sustainable way of working the land. Instead of buying fertilizers and pesticides, biodynamic growers foster native plants and animals to nourish and protect soil.
Winemakers aren't the only ones going biodynamic. The claim that biodynamic ways yield richer-tasting grapes could be made about veggies grown on biodynamic farms too. "The more you get into biodynamics, the better your product becomes," says Mac Mead, program director of the Pfeiffer Center, an educational facility in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., that offers biodynamic training courses and workshops. In fact, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner developed the system in the 1920s in response to farmers' complaints that chemical fertilizers yielded scrawny produce.
Think biodynamics is beyond the scope of your tomato patch? Here, we shed light on a few basics you can easily get down and dirty with in your garden, no matter how big or small.
Get Into the Soil
Go outside and observe your garden, even if that means slugs and dandelions at the moment. Consider each element—every passing critter and wayward plant—as a piece of a puzzle; the key to healthy, crop-nurturing soil is to make all these puzzle pieces fit. "It's not a Band-Aid approach that just looks at one problem," says Jim Barausky, manager of Frog Belly Farm in Longmont, Colo., and regional coordinator of the North American Biodynamic Apprenticeship Program. "It's a method that tries to heal the whole garden and the earth."
Try This Getting a soil test is a safe bet to determine if, and how, your soil may be ailing, but you can also learn a lot by observing what's currently growing—or, in the case of weeds, overgrowing. "Weeds can be really informative," says Barausky. "They're just plants that are in the wrong place. Some indicate a story of what's happened there. Maybe the soil's too wet, or somebody's abused it." The broad leaves of curly dock, for example, may warn of compacted soil, which stifles root growth.
Compost with a Difference
Not only does composting cut down on waste, within about six months you'll have rich, crumbly organic matter (aka humus) to feed your garden's soil. Think of it as a cheap, premium fertilizer that adds nutrients and stimulates plant growth. If you already own a compost bin for recycling kitchen waste and yard trimmings, you're halfway there. Supplementing everyday compost ingredients, biodynamic farmers add a mixture of fermented plant extracts (dandelion, chamomile, yarrow, oak bark, valerian, and stinging nettle) called preparations. A Washington State University study published in Biological Agriculture & Horticulture suggests that "preps" may break down compost faster, speeding its ability to benefit soil.
Try This Order Pfeiffer BD Compost Starter—which contains all the biodynamic preps in a ready-to-use powder—from the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Bio-Dynamics (jpibiodynamics.org). Every time you add scraps to your compost bin, sprinkle a tiny bit of starter on top, advises Daron Joffe, who runs Farmer D Organics, an Atlanta-based garden center that makes biodynamic compost from Whole Foods Markets' green waste. "Even if you decide not to use the preps, having the herbs in your garden is healing unto itself," he says. "Stinging nettle actually leaves the soil richer after growing in it." Composting chamomile after steeping it in your teacup doesn't hurt either, he adds.
Put It On Heavy Rotation
When selecting seeds, reflect on what you've planted in the past. In spots where you've grown "heavy feeders—such as lettuce, corn, cabbage, squash, tomatoes, and eggplants—notorious for gobbling up nutrients from the soil, sub in less needy plants from different botanical families. Not only does this aid in replenishing the soil, it prevents lingering disease and confuses pests too. "You want to move crops around so that bugs are always on the hunt," Joffe explains. "Don't make it easy for them."
Try This In contrast to heavy feeders, cover crops such as legumes help revive a weary plot of earth, so you'll want to plant them in depleted areas. "Just like a human, the soil needs to rest," says Mead. "Having cover crops is a way to rest the soil and enhance the life element in it." At the end of the season, cover crops can be tilled into the ground for "green manure," tossed into your compost, or harvested for your kitchen table—fava bean flowers, for instance, double as an edible garnish. In the same spot next year, grow light feeders (such as potatoes), followed by heavy feeders the following year, and so on.
Use the Buddy System
Before plunking seeds into the ground, keep in mind that some crops get along better than others. "Certain plants benefit from growing near certain other plants," explains Joffe. That can mean anything from improving a neighbor's growth to enhancing its flavor. Companion planting dates back to at least ancient Greece and Rome, so it's of special use to biodynamic gardeners looking to return to more traditional practices.
Try This Decide which plants, when paired up, make caring and supportive soil mates. Leeks, for instance, repel carrot flies. Okra shields peppers from wind. Tall crops provide a canopy for short ones, such as lettuce and spinach, which prefer partial shade in the heat. Try grouping beans, corn, and squash ala the Native American three-sisters method: beans fix nitrogen into the soil, and they also climb up corn stalks, saving you from buying a trellis, while squash leaves cover the ground and stifle weeds. (Check out a list of compatible duos and trios at companionplanting.net.)
Invite the Birds and the Bees
Not all creepy crawlies are out to destroy your garden. To the contrary, ladybugs and hoverflies snack on the very aphids that terrorize tomatoes. Think of these and other beneficial bugs—along with birds, who bring the added bonus of music to your garden—as natural pesticides. Additionally, you'll want bees for pollinating, and worms for adding still more nutrients to the soil. If you provide decaying organic matter such as compost and cover crops, "worms will just be happening," says Mead.
Try This To attract beneficial wildlife, offer them nectar, pollen, and water. Scatter flowering herbs and perennials throughout your garden and around the edges, and allow some veggies to go to flower. "You want to develop a tableau where there are lots of characters, and lots of life," says Barausky. "If you don't harvest all your carrots, some will flower four or five feet tall. You'll have these beautiful, delicate flowers, and all these little (pest-controlling) predator wasps will come." To make feathered friends, install a small pond or set up a birdbath near a dense tree or shrub. "The more life you invite, the more it engenders life," notes Barausky. "You're trying to garden, but you're also trying to create a niche for all sorts of creatures." The happier these critters are, the happier—and healthier—your garden will be.
Dig Deeper With These Tools
Demeter USA U.S. chapter of the international certifier of biodynamic farms, vineyards, and products (demeter-usa.org)
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association Hub for all things biodynamic, including training programs (biodynamics.com)
Biodynamics Quarterly journal offering recipes, book reviews, farm profiles, and scientific reports (biodynamics.com/journal)
Grow a Garden and Be Self-Sufficient Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and Erika Riese's beginner-friendly book on how to cultivate a small biodynamic garden (available at biodynamics.com)
One Man, One Cow, One Planet Thomas Burstyn's 2007 documentary following soil scientist Peter Proctor as he teaches biodynamics to farmers in India (onemanonecow.com)
No Backyard Required
You don't need to grow veggies yourself to go biodynamic
Join a Community Supported Agriculture Program Become a shareholder of a biodynamic farm, and you'll get weekly or biweekly boxes of sustainably grown veggies (plus other perks such as newsletters and members-only potlucks on the farm). Type "biodynamic" in the search field at localharvest.org for a list of CSAs in your area.
Sign Up For a Work Share Some biodynamic farms, including Jubilee Farm in Carnation, Wash., will knock a few dollars off your CSA share if you put in a few hours of farmwork at harvest time. You will need to be in decent physical shape and willing to get dirty. Spots tend to fill up quickly, so ask early about getting involved.
Volunteer What better way to support local agriculture and learn about biodynamics? Farms often need help with tasks such as transplanting, weeding, and harvesting. (Summer and fall are usually busiest.) If you're lucky, you'll get treated to a farm lunch.