What Is Biodynamic Gardening and Farming?

Philosopher, metaphysician, mystic, and scientist Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian, developed the biodynamic method of gardening and farming in the early 20th Century. It is fundamentally and practically organic gardening and farming, with its tenets put down by Steiner before what we think of today as organic gardening and farming was even developed. Modern organics came later via Englishman Sir Albert Howard in the 1930s and American J.I. Rodale in the 1940s. Steiner’s insistence that toxic chemicals have no place in the garden or on the farm predated even the development of many of the agricultural chemicals in use by conventional growers today.

But Steiner went far beyond just organic gardening and farming. His vision was much more inclusive. Here’s a capsulization of his thinking:

There is a spiritual world that exists beyond our everyday world, and human beings can make contact with, learn from, and be improved by contact with this spiritual world. We are endowed with the ability to reach this higher plane, but we must develop that ability through study and techniques for awakening ourselves. He claimed to be in contact with that transcendental world, and from it received the ideas that became biodynamic gardening and farming.

Foremost is the idea that a garden or farm is formed in part through the spiritual world’s influences. Also that the cosmos above us and the earth energies below us form a continuum of which the surface-based garden or farm is just a part. So seeds and rooted plants are planted in the ground during the proper phases of the moon. Celestial influences are taken into account.

The garden or farm is thought of as a unified whole that can be organized so that all its life forms are connected and balanced. The garden or farm thus becomes harmoniously balanced among its parts and as a whole, and the whole is balanced within the cosmic framework. A corollary of this axiom is that as few outside inputs to the farm or garden should be made as possible. Everything turns into compost and is recycled. Perhaps the practitioner will import iron and gasoline, but not too much more. The constant recycling of the garden or farm’s organic matter means that a mix of microorganisms and larger plants and animals can develop that are specific to that site, creating food with a taste of the place it’s grown. And as the garden or farm becomes more and more uniquely of the place where it’s sited, unforeseen benefits and unpredictable quirks will accrue. The garden or farm is meant to be one of a kind, just as each human being is one of a kind, and biodynamics is the way to get there.

To aid nature’s processes in the garden or on the farm, the biodynamic practitioner creates homeopathic doses of preparations that encourage the development of humus—a very beneficial substance—in the soil. Other preparations help plants resist fungus, mold, and insect attack. Many people who are new to biodynamics start to lose their grip on the method when it comes to these preparations, because they do seem to be some form of Germanic “magic.” A cow horn is filled with fresh manure and buried overwinter and a preparation made from the horn’s contents when it’s dug up in the spring. Certain herbs are stuffed into a stag’s bladder and buried for a year. Quartz is pounded to dust and stirred into a liquid, then sprayed on crops.

While these preparations seem to verge on mysticism and magic, it’s important to try to see them the way Steiner did: as ways to work with earth and cosmic energies, as he was shown by insights gained from a higher level of consciousness. A lot of research has been done that shows that biodynamics has a very beneficial effect on crops and the great wheel of life in the garden or farm. It’s organic gardening and farming with a transcendental twist. Emerson and Thoreau would have loved it.

Published on: October 01, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Jeff Cox

Jeff Cox is the author of 19 books on food, wine, and gardening from the organic perspective, including the James Beard Foundation-nominated "The Organic Cook's Bible.". He's the former managing editor of Organic Gardening magazine and has hosted two TV series on gardening, Your Organic Garden on PBS and Grow It! on HGTV.

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