Friday, April 22, 2011

beyond organic: permaculture and biodynamics

rudbeckia and echinacea in front of the old concrete block retaining wall
When I first heard about organic produce, it was the early 90's and I was a student at the University of Minnesota.  I had just moved into a student housing co-op and was still fairly new to the big city.

A friend took me to North Country Co-op,  a radical worker-run food co-op (that unfortunately went under a few years ago) and I was both fascinated and horrified by that beautiful and weird place.  Shopping at a place that didn't provide bags for your fruits in convenient little rolls, just above the refrigerator, a place that had big bins of grain, where you wrote down the price of your food on a little piece of reused paper, and were asked by the cashier if you were a member when you went to check out.  (Why would I be a member of a grocery store?)

Since then I've been the member of several co-ops, and even had a part in starting one- Eastside Food Co-op in Northeast Minneapolis.  I've come to enjoy and appreciate the weirdness of food co-ops, and mourn when they disappear.  There are few conventional grocery stores that smell as good as the Seward Co-op or Mississippi market.  Walking into the Seward Co-op on a grey winter day is like walking into a greenhouse, maybe the Como conservatory- especially when compared to the fluorescent-lit chemical smell that meets you when you walk into a big corporate grocery store.

Organic food has moved from the co-ops into Target and even Wal-Mart now.  the USDA regulates organic produce, rather than Oregon Tilth and million other little regulatory agencies as idiosyncratic as the co-ops that sold the produce.  It's easy to wonder if the 'organic' label really means that much any more.

In my garden, I don't use any chemicals, so I say that I garden organically.  Organic gardening, or organic farming on a larger scale, can mean using an arsenal of 'approved' chemicals which make me feel a bit iffy.  Rotenone, for instance, is a potent poison, albeit the product of a tropical plant, therefore a natural product, therefore organic.  In the same way, Bordeaux mix, a mix of copper and sulfur, two elements from the periodic table, is considered an organic fungicide for grapes and other fruiting plants.

I don't think I'd want to eat Rotenone or a copper-sulfur mix.  But they are accepted as an organic treatment, and wouldn't cause a regulator to blink an eyelash.

some of our produce from 2010

I'd like to cover two other methods of production, that take the organic credo and push it further, both in how they produce a harvest and in how they treat the soil.  Biodynamic farming and Permaculture are two approaches that are still on the fringes, and far from the sort of mainstream acceptance that the 'organic' label has found.  Both approaches have an almost cultlike following and methods for gaining certification as an official practioner of the art.  Each approach pushes beyond merely gardening without synthetic chemicals and attempts to create a holistic method of gardening with nature, or, in the case of Biodynamics, with the cosmos.

I have to admit that I'm deeply skeptical of any approach that claims to work magic, or that includes practices that require planting by the phases of the moon.  But that's what Biodynamics does.  It's an approach first developed by Rudof Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and originator of Theosophy, and the Waldorf School movement.

I had the opportunity, years ago to visit the biodynamic garden at Rudolf Steiner College, outside of Sacramento.  A good friend from the U of M was studying there in order to get a Waldorf school teaching degree.  The garden was gorgeous- neat raised beds, bursting with produce- I remember the onions particularly, big, fat, and falling out of the beds.  It may have just been the California sunshine, but I don't recall seeing any other gardens that looked quite that lush in the short time that I was there.

Biodynamics was apparently first devised in the 1920's as a response to the chemical farming methods that were just beginning to take hold in Europe.  Apparently raised beds and compost tea were innovated by the early biodynamic farmers, and ideas such as planting by the phases of the moon were adopted from ancient folk traditions.

Other practices seem just plain weird.  One that I've read about now several times includes filling a cow's horn with manure, then burying it for a period of time, then exhuming it, grinding it up, and diluting it with a very large amount of water and spreading it over many acres.  I'm not sure that any scientific basis for doing something like this can be found.   The only rational explanation I can think of, is that the burying of manure may encourage the growth of mycorrhizal fungi, which would 'seed' a large area with it's spores when ground and dispersed.  But that's a long shot.  Given that I live in the city, and have a hard time getting fresh cow manure, say nothing of cows' horns' it's not something I've been able to test myself.

Other practices, such as the hanging of deer bladders stuffed with herbs, just seem too weird to try to justify.

Planting by the phases of the moon is something that I've meant to try, but never have.  While it may be superstition, it could be possible that the force the moon exerts on the tides, and on womens' menstrual cycles could have some effect on the growth and behavior of plants.  Weirder things (like talking to plants) have been shown to help their growth.  But I've been too impatient to actually wait for the right moon phase to plant my garden.  I plant as soon as the temperature is warm enough, and I have very few crop failures.

Overall, the magical thinking of biodynamic farming tends to turn me off.  In addition to my friend who attended R.S. College, I had another who actually taught at a Waldorf school for two years.  While he was initially enthusiastic about the teaching method, he left disappointed, feeling that the kids weren't really being prepared for much, and not being given much hope of any higher learning beyond their Waldorf high school.  Astrology was taken seriously as a way to explain everyday happenings.  It was a wake-up call for me- having previously accepted Waldorf as being a legitimate form of alternative education. 

My (very brief) attempt to read about Anthroposophy confirmed that.  I was only able to make it a few pages into one of Steiner's books before giving up.  It was more reminiscent of Lord of the Rings or something by L. Ron Hubbard than a text on philosophy, say nothing about education or agriculture.

While my little bit of experience with biodynamics has been disappointing, I continue to be hopeful about permaculture.  Permaculture originated in Australia in the 1970's and is now practiced worldwide.  Permaculture attempts to recreate natural systems, but in a way that produces a food and other products for humans, permanently, rather than depleting the natural systems over time.  The name permaculture was a fusion of the words permanent and agriculture- an indication of what the founders of the movement were striving for.

The excellent book Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway introduced me to permaculture and also did a lot to help me get past the notion that native plants were the only materials to use in the landscape.   He argues that urban spaces are best used to grow food, since that's where the people are, and wild and rural areas are more appropriate for restoration of native species.  Since most food crops are non-native to wherever they are planted, that argues against planting natives only.  He posits that the notion that we ought to restore native plant communities in the cities and suburbs, while trucking in food from far-off farms is backward, and that everyday landscapes should be made to produce something tangible, rather than a few decorative flowers or a grassy space for croquet.

The local food and edible landscaping movements are logical extensions of this line of thought.  But permaculture takes it further.  It attempts to recreate each level of a natural system- in a forest, the canopy, understory, shrub layer and groundcover, and find ways to make each of these layers either produce food or a secondary product to enhance the productivity of the food-producing plants.  Further, one of permaculture's values is keeping and using all the inputs that occur on a site and finding ways to store and make use of them.

That may be the most valuable practice for the average gardener to learn.  Using rainwater, dead leaves, last years garden waste, and small animal poop (but not dogs' or cats' poop) in the landscape is something that every gardener needs to learn to do.  The sky gives us free purified water, the trees give us leaves rich in nitrogen and carbon, and the rabbits and birds give us a wonderful, balanced fertilizer for free.  That most Americans choose to bag their leaves and grass clippings, and pay to have them disposed of is insanity.  That's paying to throw away organic fertilizer!  Organic fertilizer that's provided for free, with no effort on the gardener's part right in the yard!

Permaculture focuses on that sort of conservation and storage- and makes the gardener aware of all the small ways in which we can work with nature, rather than treating the act of gardening as a struggle against it.

The finer points of permaculture become a bit pickier and more dogmatic.  Keyhole garden planting plans are
impractical in rectangular urban lots, or at least in all of the urban lots I have lived on.   The concept of guilds; the notion that there are given sets of companion plants of varying heights to occupy the various levels of an ecosystem, seems a bit too rigid to fit every garden configuration and climate type. 

But I still like the broader theories of permaculture and try to apply them to my own eighth-acre farm.  I am not a licensed permaculture practitioner, nor do I have any sort of approval to practice (or write about for that matter) biodynamics.  This is what little I know from my reading and backyard experimentation.  I welcome your comments and factual corrections.



  1. As someone who attended a Waldorf school, I can do nothing other than agree with you and your friends experience. I suppose my inclination would be to be suspicious of anything that comes from that philosophy as a result of my experience with the system. However, I can only say that the gardens behind the school were the only good thing about going there, and they were as lush as you describe. Of course, as you mentioned, moon phase planting is an old, old tradition. Perhaps there really is something to it.

    1. I agree: "Moon phase planting is an old, old tradition. Perhaps there really is something to it.: To read in favour of that view, click . Against "Until we find sensible ways to define and measure such misty concepts as “the influences of Venus, Mercury and Moon,” there can be no way to make a rational, scientific evaluation."

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I'd be interested in talking with you more about it if you are interested. My email is


  3. Jeff,

    I've been reading Steiner too, and I'm finding him virtually incomprehensible. As for Biodynamic farming, the examples you cite are striking. I've been using a method of loosening the soil 24 inches down, adding organic matter in the process, which I have heard described as biodynamic, but it may also be "biointensive" as well.

    The point of course being, no "system" is absolute. A great garden becomes so because the gardener is awake to what is happening in the garden, not because he or she has her head in books. Books are a great way to generate ideas. Some ideas resonate better than others. Some ideas resonate, but don't work well in practice. Some ideas resonate and work well. In this way, we improve the garden while we improve ourselves. You get it, it seems. A great yard no doubt.

  4. Hello Jeff!
    Nice helpful Blog.
    I joined it.
    I am trying to combine the common sense bits of "Organic Biodynamic Permaculture".
    I searched your blog for Chromatography but found nothing.
    You may have a look at
    I stress that E. Pfeiffer 'cooperated' with steiner.
    I wonder if you agree with Matt Adams that although "... the chroma is a subjective test it may be useful to complement other more conventional testing methods such as soil and plant chemistry and soil biology. And that together this helps build the bigger picture because the chroma relates directly to these tests."
    Sydney Australia