Or, “Planting with the Biodynamic Calendar.”
I have seeds on the brain right now. My last (and largest) seed order came in yesterday–along with our 2014 nursery certificate, which means I can finally submit our market application–so now I’m fully engaged in the process of sorting seed packets, planning successions, and figuring out which days will be best for sowing a variety of fruits and vegetables.
For that last activity, I use a special type of calendar: the Stella Natura Biodynamic Planting Calendar. My mom came across this calendar years ago, before I was paying any attention whatsoever to gardening. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first, but after working with it for four years myself I’m a convert–I don’t plant anything without checking the calendar first!
The biodynamic planting calendar has its roots in the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the progenitor of the biodynamic movement, and draws heavily on the subsequent work of Maria Thun, a German farmer who performed extensive long-term experiments based on Steiner’s lectures.
Thun documented some of her experiments in her book The Biodynamic Year–her writing style is sparse, so I wouldn’t recommend it for basic information about biodynamic practices, but the photos are impressive and informative!
I still consider myself a layperson when it comes to biodynamics, so I won’t try to describe the complex astronomical system behind the calendar. (The Stella Natura calendar has an excellent explanation within its pages, along with essays on biodynamic farming.) But suffice it to say that it’s a little like the traditional folk practice of planting by the moon, only on steroids.
If you look up a given calendar day, you’ll see one of four categories spanning part or all of the day: root, leaf, flower, or fruit. These categories can cover hours or days, depending on the transit of the sun and moon through the constellations, and they describe the type of plants that are best suited to sow, plant, or harvest that day. Root days are good for root crops (think carrots, turnips, beets, potatoes), leaf days for leafy crops (kale, chard, lettuce, mint, parsley), flower days for flowers (calendula, zinnias, pansies), and fruit days for fruits or seeded vegetables (berries, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, melons). There are also little blocks of gray interspersed throughout the days–I like to call these “gray hours”–and these represent times when you shouldn’t do any sowing, planting, or harvesting. They are, however, great for weeding and mulching!
In an ideal world, you would only sow root crops on a root day, and so on. But in reality, sometimes plants can’t keep any longer in their pots, things come up and you can’t get out in the garden, or the next ideal day is too far away for your purposes. Fortunately, root and leaf days are considered interchangeable and so are flower and fruit days. So if you can’t get your tomatoes in the ground on a fruit day but a flower day is coming up, that’s the next best thing.
When I started working on the farm in 2009, I was still working a full-time graphic design job and I struggled with the planning aspects of gardening. I was stealing hours in the garden and greenhouse on nights and weekends, and my to-do list was beyond overwhelming. It was hard to prioritize tasks–I found myself asking questions like, “With my few free hours on Sunday afternoon, would it be better to weed in the garden, set out plants, or try to work in some more seed-starting?” These were all crucial activities, but it was hard to figure out what would be the best and highest use of my limited time.
That’s where the biodynamic planting calendar came in. Before I was an enthusiastic follower, I was just looking for a way to better structure my time. If Sunday afternoon was grayed out, then I would spend the time weeding. If it was a leaf or root day, I’d sow more dill and cilantro. And if it was a flower or fruit day, I’d set out another succession planting of cucumbers.
Then one weekend it came time to set some kale plants out in the garden. Saturday was a root day, and Sunday was a flower day. (Remember, leafy greens like kale can be set out on either a root or a leaf day.) I had some local volunteers planning to come out to the farm on Sunday, and I was hoping to capitalize on their help to get all the kale in the ground. I did what I could on my own on Saturday and then we finished up the following day. So I had the exact same plants, from the same lots, set out on two different days: one “right,” and one “wrong.” I didn’t think anything of it at the time.
But over the next few weeks I noticed that some of the kale plants had a pretty serious aphid problem, while others were free and clear. It took me a while to make the connection, but I eventually realized that almost all the plants set out on the root day were hale and healthy while most of the plants set out on the flower day were beset by pests. And that was the moment I really started digging the biodynamic planting calendar.
Since then, I’ve seen the calendar make a huge difference in germination rates. Seeds sown on an optimal day come up faster and happier. We definitely still deal with insect pests in the garden and have the occasional crop failure due to weather, but plants set out an optimal day are more resilient and productive in general. There are certainly lots of factors in seed starting and gardening success, but I’m a big believer in the idea that every little bit helps. For me, following the biodynamic planting calendar not only makes my weekly planning easier, but also gives my seeds and transplants a crucial little boost.
I’m still not organized enough to schedule all of my harvesting according to the calendar, nor would that even be possible in many cases! Some plants, like calendula, absolutely must be harvested every two or three days for peak production and it would be impossible to always schedule that on a fruit or flower day. But in her book, Maria Thun writes about extended storage lengths for root vegetables harvested on root days and I’m hoping to give that a try with our garlic this year. I also don’t follow the calendar when I pot up seedlings from plug trays to nursery pots–I haven’t noticed any difference in them between optimal days and sub-optimal days, perhaps because they’re only going from container to container rather than the undergoing the massive effort of germination or acclimation to the soil.
The biodynamic planting calendar isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. If you need hard science before you’ll buy in to something, you’re going to be disappointed. But there is plenty of empirical evidence that the calendar works. I highly recommend it for those who want to give their plants a leg up or for those who want to connect more deeply with natural cycles in the garden.
If you’d like to read more about biodynamic basics, I love Deb Soule’s new book, How to Move Like a Gardener. Deb is the owner and head farmer of Avena Botanicals in Maine and is a fantastic herbalist and gardener. In her book she includes a succinct and easily understood explanation of biodynamic techniques and the use of biodynamic preparations in the garden. It’s inspired me to take the next step into the world of biodynamics and try out some of the preparations in the garden this year!