The Soil Revolution – part 1

The Soil Revolution – part 1

The soil revolution   The status quo –
where are we now? 

As far back as 2014, Reuters reported that a senior UN official said, “If we continue with our intense farming practices and destruction of wildlife at the current levels – we have realistically 60 years of sustainable farming left. “ (source Scientific American)

This is a sobering thought. But what has happened on the official front since 2014?

Where are the school campaigns that explain to children that to make 3cm of topsoil takes the earth roughly 1000 years, but we only have 60 left. Where are the billboards and media campaigns to the same effect? I am interested in this topic and apart from the occasional scientific paper, it does not seem to be ‘newsworthy.

But this ecological wave is coming nearer and nearer and nearer. And the evidence is all too clear. Since 2014 we had more floods, bushfires, and heatwaves and the destruction simply moves on. First the coral reefs, then the icebergs in Antarctica, the increase of desert and soil destruction, and the massive, massive loss of wildlife. The last one is properly the most talked about topic. And it is lovely to look after the bees, but only bees and no other wildlife would never ever work.

I know it is not the best place we currently find ourselves in, but this blog series is not meant to be just doom and gloom. The essence here is – what can we do about it?  And then act fast!

Luckily there are a few men and women around who really grasped this concept early on and started doing something about it. Some of these methods are really ingenious and we will hear more about their various projects over the next few articles.

But let’s start first at the beginning

When Rudolf Steiner first taught his first Biodynamic soil lectures – now almost 100 years ago – this topic did not seem relevant and he was called a deluded dreamer for most of the 20th century. But not anymore.  Ever since scientists discovered microbes in the soil and even inside us,  the concept of ‘the living soil’ has moved from random fiction to fact.

The first Biodynamic lectures were held just after the First World War and this is by no means a coincidence. Although this war was short (1914-1918), the world saw chemical warfare used for the first time in combat. The real war benefit was only established towards the end of this war, but with peace on the horizon all these chemical plants had no longer any use.  So a plan was hatched that these chemicals could in diluted form be brought out on the fields to get rid of ‘soil and leaf’ pests. This meant the farmer did not have to adhere to long-standing traditional methods of crop rotation, weeding and composting. The ‘miracle cure was of course much easier to administer.

And initially the farmers were enthusiastic. Who would not like more yield and less work? But after a few years, the quality of the soil and produce deteriorated and some farmers asked Steiner for advice.

Additionally, the first year a little bit of fertiliser did the trick, but with every subsequent year more and more fertilizer had to be used to achieve the same result. This is costly but after a while, there is not much of an alternative. left.  The farmers can’t just stop the farm for a couple of years in order to wait for the soil to revigorate. This is not a sustainable business model and the trap continues.

What had happened?

Let’s look first at how the soil works. Compost material (waste from the previous growing season) together with compost tonics and manure are put onto the fields and reinvigorate the soil. This usually happens in late autum (the end of the growing cycle)  and in early spring (the beginning of the cycle). This enables the billions of microbes in the soil to turn the compost into a fertile, nutrient-rich soil, ready for the next growing cycle. This humus is full of fungi, earthworms and insects. It is the ‘internet of the soil’, distributing moisture and letting plants almost ‘communicate’ with each other and certainly cross-fertilize each other (that is the principle of companion planting).

But artificial fertilizers destroy all these natural soil improvers, turning fertile, alive soil (there are billions of these creatures in just a handful of earth) into dirt= dead soil.

Lifeless dirt is then artificially fed to produce the next year’s crop, but there is no regeneration. Once this chemical is washed away by the rain, it is gone and more product has to be put on to replace it. But more importantly, the food you eat is ‘also dead’ as no or very few microbes survive. Dead food lacks nutrients and most importantly microbes. We need the soil and its creature for our survival, too.  IPS, bloating and more severe health crises can often be traced back to food that gives us fuel (and puts on calories) but does not actually ‘feed us’. And that is not even taking obesity and diabetes into account.

I have often talked about the macro-organism and the micro-organism and how they work together. If you are new to this concept it is as follows:

The Macro-organism is the universe, the planets, stars and micro-organisms are all living creatures. Beetles, birds, whales, lions, trees, flowers, and of course us humans. It is like a huge clockwork, every clog and wheel turns individually, but when in harmony they feed and enrich each other. 

Going back to the clock example. Taking a small wheel out of the clock may be ok, but destroying half of the clockwork – what do you think would happen? Most children could answer this.

But this is exactly what we are doing with the planet. Currently, we are losing about 30 soccer fields EVERY MINUTE!

We read above that the earth is capable of making 3cm of good quality topsoil in about 1000 years – please make the Maths.

Additionally, the soil is responsible for catching carbon and hanging on to water. Dirt can’t do that and the results are floods and climate change.

So, we are where we are, and no more gloom! From now on this series will turn to seek real, positive solutions.  We need to make this positive turning point for the sake of our children and grandchildren. The Soil Revolution has started and we are all hell-bent to reverse this damage done over the last 100 years. Come and join in and do your bit!

 

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Renewal pruning of deciduous trees and shrubs

Renewal pruning of deciduous trees and shrubs

The Waning Moon and New Moon in November/December is a good time for renewal pruning of any deciduous trees and shrubs. If the weather is too wet or cold, you can move this task to January or even February. But make sure you have pruned back your deciduous specimen by the beginning of March.

There are two ways to prune:

Method 1 – the slow pruning option:

Before you start to ‘butcher’ your plants, stand back and have a good look. Some may need a radical prune (see section below), but most plants just need to get ‘back into shape’ and a ‘soft prune’ will just do that.

Deciduous shrubs and trees respond particularly well to this method, but it can also be used for evergreens.

First cut out old branches and stems that are too crowded. You can prune them back right to the main stem. Following that prune the rest of the bush/tree into a reasonable shape. Depending how fast the plant grows, take off a quarter to a third of its length. This ‘modest’ pruning method will make sure that the bush rejuvenates over a few years. But whilst this rejuvenation happens, you will still look out on a decent plant in your garden. This way of pruning is also a sensible option for very slow growing specimens.

The other alternative is more radial.

Method 2 – radical pruning option

If you have inherited a totally overgrown or neglected garden, you may wish to prune all plants back to the ground and start from afresh. This method is advisable if a plant is fast growing (although be careful, the more you prune, the quicker the plant will grow back) and if a plant looks very old, tired or even ill. Sometimes a radical pruning session at New Moon is the best option to let a plant spring back into life again. I once had an old holly bush that, due to a burst pipe at a neighbour’s property it had been waterlogged for a while. As a consequence it had lost all its leaves and quite frankly looked dead. So I decided to give it a final go. At the next New Moon I pruned back all side shoots and also chopped a third off the top.

At first nothing happened. But as soon I decided to chop it down completely, a few light-green shoots appeared. Now it is back again to its full old glory and a real focal point in our garden.

Biodynamic gardening made easy

Biodynamic gardening made easy

What is the big difference between biodynamic gardening and traditional gardening? This is a question I have been asked a lot over the years.

What is the big difference between biodynamic gardening and traditional gardening? This is a question I have been asked a lot over the years.

This is a question I have been asked a lot over the years. The gardening techniques may seem similar, but what is radically different is the overriding principle. A non-biodynamic gardener wants, on the whole, to make her/his plants look the best with whatever is a quick and convenient way. ‘Weeds’ are controlled with pesticides and the soil is a means to grow flowers/plants, but no particular thought is given to it.
Snails, earthworms and most insects (with the exception of bees) are not welcomed and exterminated. This will give you a nice garden but often to the detriment of wildlife erosion and longer down the line the extinction of species.

The biodynamic approach is more wholesome. It all starts with the soil and great effort is made to keep the soil in good condition. The addition of soil tonics, organic sprays and earthworms play a big part. If a plant grows in the ‘wrong place’, it is not just called a weed and discarded. Instead, it is carefully hoed out and used to make compost (although they need to be rotted down) or used in other ways. Take for example the plant nettle. In the ‘biodynamic world’ a nettle is never seen as a weed, but as a useful byproduct of nature. You may not want to have it grown in your favourite flower bed and will probably hoe it out from there. But what you do is different. Normally you would just throw it away as weeds. But the biodynamic gardener finds a lot of uses for it. For example dried – it makes a great detox tea, used as nettle brew it is the best lawn fertiliser there is and the fresh leaves can even be added to salads as they are full of nutrients. Anything not useful does not go to waste, but gets put back on the compost heap to make wonderful soil to help the next generation of crops grow.

Where does the word ‘Biodynamics’ come from?
The phrase ‘Biodynamics’ was created by Rudolf Steiner and is made out of the Ancient Greek words ‘bio’ (life) and dunamis (power). A biodynamic garden is managed as if it was a single complex organism.

In essence, Steiner described Biodynamics as an ‘ecological and sustainable approach to agriculture/gardening that increased soil fertility without the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides’.

So it follows that bees, earthworms and other insects are not harmed but welcomed and put to good use. However, that does not mean that there is no pest control at all. Of course there is. But it is done in a sustainable/organic way and not as a blanket-extermination-program.

To make it all more effective, people use biodynamic calendars to harness the ‘best natural times’. We made it easy here and have created symbols for the most important gardening tasks. Here are some of the symbols to look out for.

We have grouped them together in the category Happy House in the LWTM lifestyle calendar. Here is a link to the calendar.

Click here to read more about how Biodynamic Gardening works

Traditional versus Biodynamic Farming

In contrast to conventional farming which is largely linear – you put a plant in the earth, grow it, take it out and sell it. Any unwanted plants/insects or other animals that interfere with producing just ‘the one crop’ are destroyed. Then the fields are stripped and made ready for the next crop.

The biodynamic approach, in contrast, is circular. You prepare the earth with soil tonics/compost, mostly made from the unwanted plants from the previous year – now turned into compost. Planting is done with calendars harnessing the life-force and plants that cross-fertilise (grow well next to each other, also known as companion planting) are seeded/planted.

Yield is also important, but so is the state of the soil and the balance of wildlife. Not just one crops is grown, but multiple at the same time. At harvest or even during growing, any unwanted parts, like leaves, roots, etc are used for composting instead of extinguished by pest control. This compost is then added to the soil together with earth tonics at the beginning of the next growing cycle.

Traditional Farming:
-Uses the soil as a commodity
-Is interested in high yields
-Pests are kept away by spraying chemicals
-Rows of the same crop are grown and all other plants are killed with pesticides
-It is all about making as much money from the land as possible
– no connection to natural patterns and life forces
– relies heavily on intervention from chemicals from outside.

versus

Biodynamic Farming:
-Is interested in the land as a whole (preservation of animals, soil condition, recycling) as well as the yield.
-Pests are controlled in natural ways and the emphasis is concentrated on how/when planting is done.
– Much time is spent on producing healthy soil conditions that are able to sustain many future crops to come. Compost is seen a vital part of soil preparation.
– Many crops are grown together, in fact that is encouraged so plants can naturally ‘cross-fertilise’ each other.
-Organic soil tonics, preparation and planting calendars are used to improve yield and keep the plants and soil healthy.

– Biodynamic farms aim to become self-sufficient interlinking animals into the agricultural process (manure as fertiliser, composting, etc) and try to limit most outside interactions.

Start a biodynamic compost heap

Start a biodynamic compost heap

 The LWTM compost symbol

Compost is a great gardening tool and best of all it is free. Chemical fertilizers are expensive and damaging to wildlife. If you have not yet got a compost heap or bin, here are a few tips on how to get started:

Home-made compost is cheap and easy to make, but the downside is that it takes around 6 months to gestate. The speed depends on the position of your heap (sun or shade) and the climate.

The most productive location in your garden is in a hidden corner, away from direct sunlight in dabbled shade.  If you keep your bin/heap in full sun then the compost soil will dry out too quickly.   But positioning it completely in the shade will decrease the time good quality compost is produced.

Biodynamic Composting
The best time to start a compost heap is during  Waning Moon, the nearer to the New Moon the better, or whenever you see the compost heap symbol on the LWTM lifestyle calendar. Compost needs heat to develop, so the best time to start one is in early spring to early autumn. During the cold winter months, the compost soil will lay dormant and the process will restart when the weather gets warmer in spring.

 

What type of container shall I use?
There are many different varieties on the market. You can buy either a custom made container (usually made of wood) or you can buy one off the shelve (usually made of plastic).
I have also seen biodynamic compost heaps that are made out of four wooden posts and chicken wire. I would not recommend them as heat escapes too quickly and the process is not as efficient as it could be.

If you don’t want to opt for a container, then the best natural alternative is to dig a hole in the ground (roughly one square meter wide and one meter deep). That means the earth will act as insulation and all you need to do is cover it with a piece of wood or old carpet to protect the compost from the element

Once in place, sprinkle some earth on the ground, then add organic kitchen waste, grass clippings, leaves, eggshells, coffee and tea bags, hair, straw and wood ash. Avoid all kinds of weeds, metal, glass, plastic, cleaning agents, plants with diseases, dairy products and meat.

 

Make sure the waste is balanced

To achieve a good balance apply the four-element rule:

Fire         Make sure that compost is not too dry

Air           Make sure the compost gets enough air

Water     Make sure the compost is not too wet and slimy

Earth      Make sure the ingredients are balanced.

 Once the waste has reached about 30 cm (one foot), add a thin layer of earth and some compost tonic, then carry on with another layer and spread some earth on top until the compost heap is full. Finally, cover the full heap with some soil and leave to develop.

 How many compost heaps shall I have?

biodynamic compost heap

This depends on the size of your garden, but the minimum is two – one side to fill up and one to use. For a medium-size family garden, I would recommend three bins – one to fill up, one to develop and one to use. This system will ensure that you have good quality compost available all year round.

 

When shall I bring compost out? 


This is the symbol to look out for when turning the soil and to bring compost out. Earth Days are great for this.  

Biodynamic Bee-keeping

Biodynamic beekeeping

Here is some vital information I found on the Biodynamic Association website that explains a lot about biodynamic bee-keeping

Like humans, bees are creatures of warmth and maintain a constant temperature in their hive. This warmth helps bees to create wax for their comb, maintain their colony, and keep it healthy. It is also through this warmth that the colony finds its identity, each bee and bee activity integral to the whole. No single part, not even the queen, can be seen as isolated from the whole.

Modern beekeeping – what’s wrong?

As the Natural Beekeeping Trust explains, bees were held sacred in all ancient cultures. Their survival was assured over thousands of years. In the last 150 years this has changed dramatically.

Much of modern beekeeping, like intensive farming, is geared to maximum production, and, like modern agriculture, its husbandry relies on chemical solutions to man-made problems. This invariably results in exploitation, as the essential needs of bees are disregarded.

As the Natural Beekeeping Trust also explains, the systematic exploitation of bees has seen a huge increase in disease. Bees in captivity can suffer from parasitic infections and more than 20 viruses; many of these can infect honeybees and hoverflies. International trading in queen bees has resulted in the importation of exotic diseases. Added to this, the routine suppression of bees’ natural reproduction (by swarming) in favour of artificial breeding, practised for more than a hundred years, has resulted in impoverished bee genetics.

Here is how you can help ! The best way is to start planting relevant plants that attract and keep bees. These are explained in this excellent booklet called  Bees in crisis . 

It is time for us all to do our bit to save these wonderful animals and pollinators for generations to come.

Ileen Macpherson – a pinoneer of the biodynamic movement

Ileen Macpherson – a pinoneer of the biodynamic movement

Ileen Macpherson (1898-1984) was born in August 1898 in Australia. She attended Clyde School in St. Kilda (Melbourne) and as a young adult became increasingly interested in natural ways of producing food.
This interest brought her to regular Anthroposophy meetings, based on the early biodynamic philosophy by Rudolf Steiner .  Anthroposophy is a philosophy that combines natural science (such as biology) and the intellectually comprehensible spiritual world. It is rooted in German idealism and mysticism, but its essential message is respect for nature, development of the human being in an individual manner rather than a mass-educational approach und the connection of our
 micro universe to the universe as a whole. So according to Rudolf Steiner it makes sense to watch what the universe is doing (for example Full Moon and other celestial aspects in the sky) and connect them to tasks such as planting, weeding, turning the soil and else. Seeds of this philosophy are now found in ethnical banking, the Waldorf education and alternative medicine.
One of the speakers at these early Anthroposophy meetings in Melbourne was Ernesto Genoni, an Italian citizan who arrived in Australia in May 1926. A few years later Ernesto and Mrs Anne Macky started the Anthoroposophical Society and it is through these meetings at the Anthroposophical Society that Ileen meets Ernesto.
A year later the pair have plans to start the first biodynamic farm in Australia and they call this farm Demeter Farm (named after the the Demeter society, a brand that is still around today and that upholds the quality of biodynamic farming. Its name was taken from Demeter, the Greek goddess of grain and fertility). There Ileen and Ernesto perfected crop rotation, soil enrichment and the study of healthy plants and all organisms that are connected to the farm. The Biodynamic agriculture is a cycle where every part reinforces the entity as a whole. For example grass clipping and rotten food are turned into compost and this compost again fertilises the land where cows feed on its grass. In turn the cow’s horns and manure are then used to enrich the soil which then produces healthy plants and fruit trees.
In March 1935 the Demeter Farm in Dandenong, Victoria, finally opens and produced good quality biodynamic food on 40acres of land for over two decades.  The main crop was fruit, vegetables and milk. Soon after the opening Ileen and Ernesto found a group called the Experimental Circle of Anthroposophical Farmers and Gardeners’. 
 
This group soon becomes known for all ways of alternative farming in Australia and even Alfred Meebold comes to stay over for a fortnight. But just as things are going so well, tragedy strikes. Ileen, a very active person  in her early years and busy with long days farming and milking cows, became weaker and weaker. She still carried on as usual, but her conditions deteriorates and soon her legs gave way. In 1943 she was admitted to Epworth hospital where she spent on and off the next three years.
This was a bitter blow for Ernesto. Not only did he now have to carry out all the hard work on the farm, but he also had planned to go with Illen to Europe to join the Biodynamic movement, but all these plans were now nil and void.
In the end Ernesto stayed at the farm at at Ileen’s bedside.  When she was finally released in 1946  she would be confided to a wheel chair for the rest of her life. The cause was later revealed as pernicious anaemia (a lack of vitamin B12). Nowadays this condition is easy to cure, but in the 1940ies it often led to the patient’s death or life in a wheelchair.
Although Ileen tried her best with Ernesto to keep the farm alive, in the end her failing health was getting too much for Ernesto and the farm was sold in 1955. Ernesto started painting (the picture of Ileen above was painted by him) and Ileen, although now unable to practise it, never let go of the  biodynamic ideology. After her death in 1984 the Ileen Macpherson Trust still supports Anthroposophic causes in Australia.