Stirred, Not Shaken


“Matter is never without spirit and spirit is never without matter.” – Rudolf Steiner

This past weekend I had the good fortune of attending an amazing workshop in biodynamic gardening taught by master gardener Dory Rindge. For those of you unfamiliar with biodynamics, it’s a system of agriculture based on the work of early 20th century philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner.

In the 1920s, at just the point when chemical fertilizers where catching on, Steiner proposed a radical return to organic farming. Biodynamic agriculture combines common sense practices such as composting with strange esoteric rituals. The oddest aspect of biodynamics involves the “preparations”, a specific set of substances made of manure, silica and herbs that are buried in cow horns, bladders and skulls. After a few months they are unearthed, ritually stirred and applied to soil and compost piles. Steiner has the biodynamic farmer spray these preparations on soil, plants and compost piles to act as a kind of homeopathy for the land.

While we did not make our own preparations in class (it’s complicated!) we did a ritual stirring with pre-made preparations in buckets of water. Using sticks we created vortexes in the buckets, alternating in clockwise and counterclockwise motions. We then divided the mixture and rushed home to spread it on our gardens.


I was excited and inspired by the class, a feeling which deepened when manure filed horns appeared to me in a dream. In my dream I interpreted the symbolism of the horns–that they represented a higher world unified with the earth by being buried and containing manure. It’s a symbol that recalls the ouroboros, the snake chasing it’s own tail, representing the cycles of nature, combined with the “as above, so below” gesture the magician in the tarot deck is making below. All this makes more sense if you compost!

Now I’m a big fan of the scientific method (yea soil tests!) but I’m increasingly dissatisfied with our modern culture’s overly materialistic world view. As the subtitle of this blog hints at, “cultural alchemy”, I’m interested in symbolism. But I agree with our our instrutor Rindge that it’s important not to get dogmatic about this stuff.

And I could care less about the science of the preparations. If you are, here’s a study that says its hokum and here’s another one that says they work (pdf). To focus on the biochemistry of the preparations seems to me to be asking the wrong questions. What I like most about biodynamics is its sense of intention. It’s an intention that ties us to the land, to the elemental spirits of plants and animals that were tangible to our ancestors. We could all use ritual that ties us to nature and I look forward to stirring preparations and perhaps making them with a few close friends. In fact, I’m much more excited about making preparations than it buying a package through the mail. Steiner’s set of herbs all grow well here and many of them I have already. But a cow is kinda hard to come by in Los Angeles. While it may be heresy to some, perhaps we’ll have to come up with some modifications to the rituals that make sense in this particular place and time.

More on biodynamics, specifically planting by the cycles of the moon and planets, when Mr. Homegrown gets back from San Antonio next week.

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27 Comments

  1. Hmmm, I was going to say when I read just the first two paragraphs that your open-mindedness has allowed your brain to fall out! But no, you seem more playful and more interested in symbolic/metaphorical filters when applied will result in some feel good personal states for yourself than pursuing meaningless dogma for its own sake. Curiosity and experimentation are good, especially when grounded in critical thinking.

    However, Steiner was a crank. Us humans have/had a good number of those in our ranks. It is important to be able to sniff them and their followers out.

  2. Hah! I love Michelle B’s comment above. Nice one. I agree on all counts. For those interested in combining rigorous science with an ‘open-minded’ approach, I highly recommend the Archdruid of North America (yes, really)’s blog (yes, really). His name is John Michael Greer, and it’s great stuff – stuff I’ve actually cited in peer-reviewed academic presses.

    http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/

  3. Hi Kelly,
    I, too, am intrigued by the idea of Biodynamics as a recognition of the “one-ness” of nature (and the ecology of the universe maaaaan) — the bugs, bees, birds and other critters, beneficial flowers, herbs and plantings, water systems, moon cycles and it goes on and on. My hubby and I toured the Benziger Biodynamic Vineyard in Northern Cal in the spring and I took photos of their educational exhibits. You can find my photos here: http://www.homegrown.org/photo/albums/benziger-biodynamic-vineyard
    Always a fan.

  4. I love the idea of getting more from gardening than the physical health benefits. As a person with pagan leanings (in ritual, not in theism or dogma) I’ve noticed that gardening in general often fulfils my yearning for ritual and sense of connection to my ancestors and nature. This sounds awesome!

  5. Did anyone notice J. P. Reganold is an author on both papers? Now I AM confused. For now, I think biodymanics might affect something that science does not have the tools to measure yet. Too much time around paramagnetic rock!

  6. I apologize. I didn’t mean to imply that biodynamics is equivalent to persecution of witches. It just worries me when people accept magical thinking because it can open them up to manipulation by others.

  7. I prefer to make compost, raise bees, and grow organically. If that isn’t enough to establish your intention, you might be in the wrong field.

  8. I wonder how people belief in the words of the bible on one hand, but wouldn’t allow to see mother nature as something like the holy spirit. Not that I’m into eighter, but I tend to communicate with my garden more than with obscure ghosts/god(s). Parts of those Demeter approaches make sure that plants get minerals and fertilizer just from the scientific view. So no harm done at all, why do people react like someone stole their lunch box?

  9. Mrs. Homegrown here.

    We have a saying around here: “What works, works.”

    A corollary to that is, “What works for me may not work for you.”

    Mr. Homegrown loves systems, and over the years has cycled through many of gardening techniques, looking for a fit that pleases him. Bio-Dynamics is just another experiment.

    Personally, my system is to stick in the ground and see if it grows. Did my eyebrow arch up when he came home with a bucket of magical innoculant and a lavender wand? Yes. But I honor his right to find his own path, just as I honor all of your individual methodologies and beliefs.

    We’re all about experimentation here at Homegrown Evolution. Our winter crops are being put in according to Bio-Dynamic principles. We’ll see if it works and report back.

  10. IMPORTANT NOTE:

    The paper surveying many studies was looking at biodynamics versus CONVENTIONAL ag!

    No kidding there’d be an improvement.

    In the conclusions, he raises the question – But is biodynamics any better than organic? Or are the benefits realized with biodynamics just a result of the “organicness” of the biodynamics practices?

    That question is what he addresses in that second paper – and the conclusion seems to be there’s no difference. That is, the benefits of biodynamics isn’t about “vortices” and “cosmic energy” – the benefits are simply about the organic methods biodynamics piggy-backs onto. Soil carbon, compost tea innoculants, the value of micronutrients, healthy soil, etc.

    So, everybody, seems biodynamics is quackery, but organics works.

  11. Hey Greg,
    What paper are you speaking about??? References would be good and if you looked it up you would see that BD Ag was the first organized sustainable movement out there……it is organic, sustainable, and will be around for the long haul. The energy spoken about is about as understandable and “WHOO” as gravity and electromagnetism….both unseen forces last time I checked….So, Greg, yes organics works…

  12. Hello,
    ever heard of Maria Thun? She was growing grub based on the connections of planets and moon. In her books you can see pictures of plants sown and planted on different times and it’s obvious that they repeat a pattern. She had a lab where everything is analysed, so it’s a more scientific aproach to biodynamics and permaculture.
    when you search for maria thun calendar on google, you can see the dates to plant different types of grub.

  13. So the research says it doesn’t work? Readers assume that means it’s quackery. Look closer -the research in question ran for 2 years and was intended to be a short-term evaluation of BD effects. The big thing about BD as far as I can make out is that it helps to build humus levels in the longer term – 20-30 years. Then long term trials show that there is a difference between BD and organic.
    The world desperately needs its humus layer and topsoils cared for – our food production depends on them. Isn’t it amazing that BD can actually do something about that when not much else can? We’re very good at destroying substance but what other tools do we have that can create it like BD can? Lis

  14. What a delightful blog! To all those who immediately throw out the works of Rudolph Steiner without having tested them in the field, how scientific is that? The gap between the esoteric and the scientific is largely a matter of measuring and viewing devices. In the Middle Ages bacteria were esoteric. Who knows what new ways of perceiving, including testing scientifically, the future holds? I haven’t gotten around to doing biodynamics myself but would love to play with it. Where does one get hold of cow horns? And does it make sense to use oak bark if one lives in a different landscape? Anyway, great blog, will be back.

  15. “What paper are you speaking about??? References would be good “

    The paper linked in the original story! Not my omission there, Slick.

    And to the person that says “Organics works”. Yes, no kidding. That’s what the paper says. But BD works not because Saturn is rising in Aries when someone plants corn, but because of the ORGANIC methods followed as part of BD.

    BD makes people pay close attention to their land, another plus. But again, organic methods can do that too.

    Everybody, please have a read:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodynamic_agriculture#Studies_of_efficacy

    Including the “criticisms” section.

    “Weeds are combated (besides the usual mechanical methods) by collecting seeds from the weeds and burning them above a wooden flame that was kindled by the weeds. The ashes from the seeds are then spread on the fields, then lightly sprayed with the clear urine of a sterile cow (the urine should be exposed to the full moon for six hours), this is intended to block the influence from the full moon on the particular weed and make it infertile.”

    C’mon everybody! Its 2009, we have a better understanding about the universe, as well as better appreciation for the mysterious. This stuff is rubbish. Our movement needs SENSIBLE and CRITICAL thinking that is founded on proof. Any other approach scares away the smart people.

    I’ll have a read of Maria Thun, but I can say one persons’ results does not equate to a well run, peer reviewed study with double-blind controls.

  16. If you’re going to follow this stuff, are you prepared to also figure out when the moon is ‘nodal’, or in apogee or perigee? How about when the Moon is ‘opposite Saturn’?

    If you just want to follow a pre-printed calendar and not worry about it, do you follow one that is based on the ‘sidereal’ zodiac or the ‘tropical’ zodiac?

    Are you prepared to put up with confusing instructions, bad logic, bad science, and even bad grammar in the biodynamic publications?

    Are you prepared to spend a lot of time and money on hocus pocus, which is unproven?

    Or should you simply cultivate nutrients, biodiversity and healthy ecology in your soil, and plant when rain is expected?

  17. Hi Anonymous,

    I’ve updated that link in the post. Let me know if you’re still having trouble downloading it (I assume you mean the one that finds no benefit to biodynamics).

    The problem with this study is that you can’t use the scientific method to explore the metaphysical. As John Michael Greer would say it’s the wrong map.

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