Yesterday Patrick’s SLU Course all piled into cars and headed off to Grange Village, a Camphill Community on the edge of the Forest of Dean. Grange Village is a community of around 80 people, around half of whom have special needs. But our interest was the biodynamic garden, which provides the majority of the community’s veggie needs.
Biodynamics was inspired by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s. Fundamental to the system is the recognition that all life is interconnected. That bit I can agree with.
Next there’s the Planting Calendar. Basically, as the moon passes through each constellation of the zodiac so the emphasis of each is felt more strongly. These specific times are detailed in the Biodynamic Planting Calendar, which details specific times for planting, cultivating, or harvesting. If you’re interested, here’s a slightly better explanation.
Although this all sounds a little hocus pocus, there’s actually scientific evidence to show that the position of the moon affects the quantity of water in the plant (think of the tides). So if you want to harvest nice juicy leaves you’d want to harvest when the water content was high, but if you wanted to prune you’d presumably want to wait until the water content was low. So I can believe in this bit too.
But where it all gets very shaky for me is in the preparations. There are seven of these, known as preparations 500 through to 507. I won’t detail them all for you here, though the gardener at Grange Farm went into exactly how they were made in great depth. Various animal and plant materials are combined to make them, and tiny tiny quantities are incorporated into the soil via spraying or via the compost. I suppose I’d describe them as a combination of alchemy and homoeopathy (I’ve never got my head round homoeopathy either!). It gets even shakier for me when they talk about stirring to create a vortex. It’s claimed that this ‘charges’ the water and it’s where I think you really need some belief in the system to not just turn around and scoff loudly.
I just can’t get the science of this part, and that’s where it all falls apart for me. We hosted a couple of Australian biodynamic farmers a few years ago who couldn’t explain it to me either.
Whether it’s down to the biodynamic or not, the gardens at Grange Village were amazing. They had the tidiest greenhouses I’ve ever seen, and the place was astonishingly productive.
The gardener explained that routine plays a part, as there’s a designated time on the calender for everything. There’s none of this leaving seedlings lying about until they’re past their best, for instance, then struggling to make them work. Either you do it when you should do, or you don’t do it at all. I’ll be the first to admit that if I did everything as soon as it needed doing or, at the very least, regularly, then my garden would probably be a hell of a lot better.
He also has a team who don’t get bored when presented with another day of routine tasks! They certainly don’t subscribe to the no-dig method, everything was dug and dug well. He had a chap who’d been digging for something like 40 years. Mind you, we saw him walking away and he looked like he had been too!
Grange Village had spectacular compost heaps, whether you believe in adding the preparations to them or not. Everything from the community that can be composted gets composted, and they bring organic material in from elsewhere as well. Significantly, they turn and mix it regularly. I’m torn on this one. Some experts say it adds oxygen and is essential, but others claim the oxygen addition is negligible and soon gone. I don’t know which to believe! I’m certainly not a rigorous compost turner, but it’s something that, rather oddly, I do enjoy.
So combine a rigorous routine, a dedicated bunch of diggers and superb compost and I reckon you’ve got to the root of their success. Scrap the preparations, there’s too much there that doesn’t make sense.
One particular item of complete lunacy I feel compelled to pass on. The gardener was telling us that they’ve had dreadful problems with deer damage. They waited until a specific date in the calendar, whilst these deer carried on feasting on their crops nightly, before they could make the right mixture up and spray it around the perimeter. OK, spread the deterrent around the perimeter. But how about a fence in the meantime, or even just as a fallback? Looking at the rest of the place, it didn’t look like it was operating on a shoestring budget. I’m sure it makes sense to someone, but not to me.
Incidentally, I sought out and chatted with a couple of the guys who were working on the garden whilst they drank their tea and the rest of the SLU group had a pretty in depth demonstration of the heavens. When they came to Grange Village they didn’t believe in the system. They still aren’t convinced, but they dig when it’s a digging day and weed when it’s a weeding day and it seems to work!
I’ll be interested to see what the other SLU people think when I’m back on Monday, but there don’t seem to be many people who are entirely convinced. I don’t suppose it would hurt to try it, but if your heart’s not entirely in it you might as well just stick with good practice and crackingly good compost.