Looking into the summer meadow
Over the last couple of years I have thought a lot about gardening and rules. And specifically how much I hate the prescriptive nature in which a lot of gardening is taught. For as I travel down this dirt road, the more I realize that there are no such things as absolutes only loose boundaries where you can start to suggest how to go about growing.
Five years ago I would have been very skeptical about biodynamics and its place in horticulture. But yesterday I found myself nodding with agreement with Claire Hattersley, the garden team leader of the Weleda farm garden as she took us through the principles behind biodynamic gardening.
Biodynamic gardening is rooted in organic principles but seeks to enliven plants by drawing on the cosmos (planting by the moon is one part of it, but then there are other planets and their influences). So yes, let’s just get it over with, there’s some funny business that's not easily explained by traditional science.
The Weleda farm-garden in Derbyshire serves to provide the company with a wide range of herbs, fruit and flowers for use in medicines. It’s good to know that as much as possible is grown in this country. It is truly quite something to wander around, it lies somewhere between a botanic garden and a nature reserve. There are small orderly beds of herbs, wild looking ponds, hedgerows, meadows and woodlands.
Claire explained that for the plants to be a potent as possible they needed to be grown as close to how they might grow in the wild. Woodland plants such as digitalis are grown in small stands along the edge of oak woodland; sloes are grown in hedgerows and the cowslips in long grass. She readily admits that this makes harvesting more laborious, but also more rewarding.
‘These’ she says are ‘independent plants, and need to be treated that way’. There are problems with growing certain herbs on too rich soils, as it can make them too potent for the tinctures’.
It's all very much on a human scale. The farm-garden is 15 acres and houses roughly 300 different species used for medicines. As many of these are used for homeopathic remedies they are not needed in great quantities, except for Calendula where there’s whole fields of the stuff.
They try to use a little machinery as possible, weeding, harvesting and processing by hand. And yet this is a very commercial premise. This gentle marriage of the environment and profit on a level that recognises nature as much as humans is central to the beliefs of biodynamics. Simply put it is about promoting the very best that nature can offer us.
Much is made of the vitality of a plant and place. Biodynamic is about increasing the potential of a plant through enhanced compost and special preparations. There is an element of alchemy and lots of talk of the cosmos. Plants are harvested or sown at optimum times within the calendar, soil is enriched and enlivened with various preparations to enhance the life force within them. If you don’t get homeopathy then there are certain elements of biodynamics that might baffle you.
There is something rather quaintly old fashioned about this aspect. It reminded me of renaissance philosophies where the boundary between alchemy and science were distinctly blurred.
Modern science has brought much to gardening and our understanding. There is an element of biodynamics, which is almost impossible to make sense of under our current linear, objective gaze.
Bamboo in compost
I picked up a number of brilliant tricks too. To measure the heat of their compost they drive a bamboo cane into the centre of the pile. You can quickly tell if the pile is too hot or too cold by pulling out the cane and feeling it.
They make a wonderfully nutritious feed used in their preparations by rotting down nettles in the ground. A couple of wheelbarrows full of nettles are chopped and then buried in a hole in the ground. After a year these are dug up. I have never felt such a soft gentle soil like butter. You could feel the life in this stuff. I imagine it would make the best ingredient to potting on young seedlings. I shall make some this autumn and give it ago.
I came enlightened. I have spent the last few years challenging my deep root, dare I say skeptic, beliefs about horticulture. I have looked into permaculture, bio-intensive gardening, forest gardening and no-dig amongst others and this much I can say. Every system has its rules or boundaries, it’s quirks, the bits that are difficult to explain, a leap that you have to make, but they all have a practitioner behind them that is literally rooted in the space, who shares an intimate relationship with nature. And for that reasons this methods works wonderfully because good careful, husbandry means that everyone gets their share.
Alys Fowler is a writer and broadcaster. Read more of Alys's Gardening blog posts.