Biodynamics – the homeopathy of the gardening world

A mutinous threat from Zephyr and Spike

A mutinous threat from Zephyr and Spike

Being a SNAW (that is a Sensitive New Age Woman, but of course you knew that), I am all for religious tolerance. That is, as long as nobody comes knocking on my door thinking I may need to be converted of a Saturday morning. I could perhaps do with being renovated, but not converted.

Similarly, when the personal faiths of others start to intrude on me, especially by claiming to occupy the higher moral ground, I get a little twitchy and few are worse at this than homeopaths, lunar planters and biodynamics converts.

Adding to my twitchiness, Spike and Zephyr, our surviving pets, are seeking legal advice. They are threatening to take out an injunction to prevent us exhuming their former colleagues for preparation 505. That is the one where a skull of a domesticated animal is stuffed with oak chips and immersed in fresh water for three months. Spike and Zephs are appalled at the thought that we may be wanting to stuff skulls with oak chips. Not only do they want to protect their former colleagues, but they are not offering to make the ultimate sacrifice, proffering up their own skulls to test the efficacy of this soil conditioner. They have been known to harumph and suggest that in this country, we should surely be stuffing bird skulls with totara chips seeing as we lack both native mammals and oak trees. And don’t be thinking any old oak tree will do. It has to be Quercus robur which is of course native to Rudolf Steiner’s homeland of Austria.

Preparation 502 is giving me much anxiety. That is the one where you stuff the bladder of a red deer with achillea flowers and bury it for months on end. There is a definite shortage of fresh deer bladders (or even frozen ones) here and local supermarkets don’t seem to stock them. I notice there is a stag where I buy my free range eggs and I pondered asking the owner how she would feel about donating its internal organ to improve our soils. But I am not sure that it is a red deer (it appears to make a difference to compound 502) and as she was hand feeding the stag when I called in one day, I feared she may not react well to my request. I think we may do better with preparation 503 (that is chamomile blossoms stuffed into the small intestines of cattle and overwintered in the ground – must remember to mark where I bury it). And preparation 506 looks manageable – dandelions stuffed in the peritoneum (sounds nasty) of cattle and similarly overwintered.

Prep 501 has powdered quartz stored in the horn of a cow (minus the cow) and buried over summer (note: summer burial, not winter, for this one). In autumn you dig it up and mix it with water at a dilution rate of one tablespoon of quartz powder to 250 litres of water (starting to sound dangerously homeopathic…). But before you spray it, you have to stir the solution for an hour and the method and direction of stirring is prescribed. You can not stint on the stirring because some see the vortex created by methodical stirring as acting like a funnel to imbue the solution with cosmic energy, making it more efficacious. Quartz is largely insoluble in water and spraying a chemically inert substance in microscopic traces over a wide area is of no discernible value whatever but let not these facts get in the way of passionate belief.

The best known prep 500 (a cow horn stuffed with the excrement of a lactating cow and buried over winter in the ground) receives similar treatment to 501 and is diluted to the same extent. Preps 502 to 508 are added to the compost heap at a rate, give or take, of around a teaspoon per cubic metre. Faith goes a long way. Apparently.

Rudolf Steiner was a philosopher and it is most unlikely that he ever got his hands in the soil. Put succinctly, Steiner came from a strong background of esoteric theosophy and when he split from the European theosophical mainstream at the turn of last century, he evolved his own world view which he styled anthroposophy. And that might be described simplistically as an attempt to synthesize mysticism and science. Lost? Don’t worry. I don’t think it matters. I would guess that Steiner, a man who spent his life thinking and in philosophical discourse, likely saw his theories on agriculture and care for the soils as merely part of a much larger universal whole. He might be slightly stunned were he around today to see how this particular side shoot to his core philosophies has taken on a life of its own as biodynamics.

Biodynamics seems to have taken a greatly simplified interpretation of Steiner’s elaborate world view and repackaged it as pseudo science to give it a credibility which it lacks. You really are back in the realms of mysticism without the science once you are into focusing cosmic rays to harness the spiritual energy of the universe. Cows’ horns and deer antlers are apparently particularly good receptors acting as a cross between a satellite dish and a storage battery for cosmic energy and cosmic wisdom. Yet, if you set aside the biodynamic preparations, the other underpinning principles of modern biodynamics are sound organics. You can not fault practices such as:
* Stocking with several different animal species to vary grazing patterns and reduce pasture borne parasites.
* Widening the range of pasture species.
* Planting trees for multiple purposes.
* Crop rotation designs to enhance soil fertility and control weeds and plant pests which include the use of green manures.
* Recycling of organic wastes, where possible, by large scale composting.
* Changing from chemical pest control to prevention strategies based on good plant and animal nutrition and careful cultivar selection.

There is nothing flaky in any of that. There is nothing spiritual either. It is just good, sustainable practice applicable to all aspects of gardening and agriculture.

I respect the right of bioydynamic converts to believe in cosmic energies and a holistic interpretation of their position in the universe. But I do wish they wouldn’t try and package it as science and, like lunar planting and homeopathy, such practices have gained a level of mainstream acceptance which is not founded on any scientific credibility at all. It can make it hard to disentangle what is sound environmental practice from what is religion.

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6 thoughts on “Biodynamics – the homeopathy of the gardening world

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Well, thank you. There seemed to have been a resounding silence and I feared I may have lost a number of followers who are devotees of lunar planting, homeopathy, biodynamics and probably vegans too!

  1. Doug Birnie

    Your comments are right on the mark Abbie. In fact this topic is one which has long been niggling away at me as a valid reason for starting a garden/botany blog myself. Homeopathy and biodynamics share a commonality in that neither can be justified by any substantive scientific research. As you say, the organic practices are sound but the spiritual gobbledy gook that Steiner used to justify a return to the farming methodology employed prior to the advent of chemical fertilisers is nonsense. Steiner may not have known much about agriculture however his knowledge of the desire some people have for religious experience (or warm fuzzies) produced a belief system that quickly developed into another flat earth dogma.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I do love it when people agree with me! As far as we are concerned gardening by the moon sits fair and square alongside too. And none of this would matter if it wasn’t for mainstream media giving these beliefs acceptance and therefore defacto credibility. As with chemists selling homeopathic remedies, so too with lunar planting calendars being published in otherwise credible publications. Biodynamics is just so shonky scientifically it beggars belief.

  2. James

    Fantastic post, Abbie.

    I’ve said it before on this wonderful blog of yours – that Rudolph Steiner is to gardening what Elrond Hubbard is to Scientology.

    It’s clear that biodynamics’ success is built on organic gardening principals, with a whole raft of time-consuming (but supposedly cosmically augmenting) ‘preparations’ applied in between that are, essentially, useless.

    I wouldn’t be so aghast at the fact that biodynamics has such a following these days – live and let live, and all that – but when I see the extent of the premium heaped on a biodynamic product in my local organic grocer I can’t help but baulk.

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