I had a look round a biodynamic farm in Essex on Saturday. Biodynamic farming is based on the principles of Rudolf Steiner, a 19th century Austrian philosopher. Farmers seek to create a balance between plants, animals, humans, and the needs of the soil they work.
The farm is seen as a closed unit, where the waste products generated can be used to provide for needs elsewhere. All the animal feed is grown on the farm. Manure is used to add fertility back into the soil. Rainwater is harvested and used to water the crops. If there are so many animals that it is necessary to buy feed in, then a more realistic ratio of plants to animals must be achieved. This particular farm had seaweed growing on it as it borders the Thames estuary, so the farmer chose to farm seaweed eating sheep from the island of North Ronaldsay, rather than traditional breeds.
There are certainly some bizarre aspects to biodynamic farming. ‘Preparations’ are produced using similar techniques to those used in homeopathy. Cow horns full of dung are buried underground, before being dug up and made into sprays for the plants. Planting, sowing and harvesting is done in accordance with the position of various heavenly bodies. I wouldn’t subscribe to these ideas, but the principles of ‘closing the loop’, putting the waste materials of the farm into other areas to provide the essential nutrients needed makes sense.
The farmer, Spencer Christie, will often walk vast areas of the 250 acre farm on foot. If there is a spray to be applied to a crop, he won’t use a tractor. He will walk the rows, spraying by hand. This can take several times as long as doing the job with a machine. But Spencer feels that by walking the farm on a regular basis, he can learn more about the land he cares for. “The best fertiliser a farm can have is the farmer’s footprint” he says, borrowing from an old adage. He finds that he notices problems more quickly, and identifies opportunities on the farm by observing it closely like this.
Observation is also the first principle of permaculture. Permaculturists would advocate observing a piece of land for a year before doing any design or planting on it. By looking carefully at the land at all times of day and in all seasons, we gain a greater understanding of how we might optimise the use of the space.
I think it was Penelope Bennett’s book The Windowbox Allotment that first alerted me to the enjoyment that can be had from slowing down and observing things. She describes a packet of tomato seeds from planting to fruiting in minute detail, noting every stage of their development. At one stage she describes rushing home from a party because she has left her precious seedlings outside on a window ledge.
In order to slow down and observe, it is necessary to take the time to do it. Life is insanely busy and the idea of taking half an hour out to just go and look at things in the garden seems like a huge and unaffordable luxury. The good news is that it is probably good for your soul as well as your garden. It may even create enough head space to throw new light on a problem, or generate a new creative idea.