Stella Natura: Planting by the Signs

Judging from the hostile reaction the last time I posted about Biodyamamics, we need some kind of woo-woo alert for this type of post. Perhaps an animated flash animation, like those mortgage ads, of Stevie Nicks dancing to Rhiannon. I’ll get the Homegrown Evolution IT department on it right away. On to the post:
Timing planting according to moon, sun and zodiacal cycles is a very old tradition. Farmers and gardeners have consulted mysterious almanacs for thousands of years to determine the best times to plant. There’s even some, mentioned in the Foxfire books, that are still around: the Farmer’s Almanac, Grier’s Almanac and T. E. Black’s annual booklet God’s Way are just a few.

But the one I’ve been enjoying for the past few months is the Stella Natura calendar, published by the Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, an intentional community for the disabled associated with Biodynamics and the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. The Stella Natura calendar lists moon phases, the sun and moon’s position in the zodiac, conjunctions, oppositions and other celestial events. It suggests certain days and times for planting root crops, flowering crops, fruit crops, and leaf crops. Much of it is based on the writings and research of Maria Thun.

Do I believe that planting by the signs effects the growth of my garden directly? I don’t know and don’t really care. What I like is the symbolic message, in the Jungian sense, that all is connected, all is one. Not such a bad thing to be reminded of in our fragmented times.
You can get the same planting information here online, but you’d miss one of the best things about the Stella Natura calendar, the monthly essays. This month’s, by Laura Riccardi, says exactly what I’ve been thinking of late,
“I do answer with practical, logical, agricultural language most of the time. There is plenty to talk about regarding soil building, diversity, insect and drought resistance, quality, microbial life, nutrient availability. I am beginning to feel justified and unembarrassed to speak about subtle life forces, to say that everything is connected, because I believe it is important to balance out the one-sided approach that has dominated our intellectual human landscape for so long. What we call materialism is not inherently wrong or negative. It is simply in extreme presence in our lives today. In other words, it’s already well represented in everything around us, including agriculture.”

I put the calendar up by the stove. When I’m cooking (often during the past few months with vegetables from our winter garden) I look at the calendar. It’s a nice prompt that it’s time to plan for the next planting of vegetables.

Would I use this system if I lived in a cold climate and had a very tight window for planting? Probably not. But here in Los Angeles, where we have a four month time span to plant most things, following the Stella Natura calendar is a good way of avoiding procrastination. The calendar also has a handy space for taking notes on plantings, another thing I’ve been bad about in the past.

I want to be clear that I’m not discounting empiricism. But since don’t have a lab at my disposal, gardening is an intuitive process whether I like it or not. And, as Riccardi suggests, we need to seek a balance. The cornerstone of alchemy is the expression “Solve et Coagula”, to dissolve and bind together. We’ve been good in the past century at the dissolving part, breaking everything up into individual components, but not so good at the binding together part.

Now, if I could just get Rhiannon out of my head . . .

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.