My gardening horizons have once again been expanded. On Saturday, I got up early and went to a class on Biodynamic Composting I heard about through Sustainable Works. As I’d just bought my worm composter from the City Of Santa Monica, I thought this was great timing. In my horticultural naievete, I assumed “biodynamic” simply referred to the chemical process that happens as organic material breaks down.
Little did I know that I would be introduced to a holistic agricultural philosophy, almost a century old, that was developed by thinker, theologian, educator and agricultural expert Rudolf Steiner himself. Yet again, my small inquiries have lead me into a much bigger world of belief systems and life philosophies. I guess I should stop being surprised by that.
The class was taught in the backyard of a house in Venice. As I walked up the driveway, I had to stop and admire the 3 or 4 raised beds overflowing with gorgeous fresh veggies in the front. In the back I found a bunch of folks already working at breaking up a huge pile of straw and alfalfa. It smelled wonderful, a bit of the country right here in the city.
Edelia, the owner of the house and the woman who organized the workshop, joked, “My husband won’t buy a farm so I’m bringing the farm to him.”
Soon, a pickup truck filled with soil backed into the driveway. The driver, John McAndrew (firstname.lastname@example.org) was going to be our teacher for today. He looked to be in his 70s, wore a plaid flannel and jeans, and had the stoic and wise air of someone who’d chosen to live his life outdoors and close to the land.
As we set to work shoveling the black dirt into wheelbarrows, we discovered that it wasn’t dirt at all. It was, in fact, 100 % pure cow manure. This surprised all of us because it didn’t smell disagreeable. In fact, it smelled kind of good – like the forest floor. John explained that the pleasant aroma was because it came from cows that were grass fed and free of antibiotics.
After we finished shoveling the poop, we gathered around the picnic table set up with yummy pastries and bread baked fresh by Edelia’s husband (yum!), and set to learning.
John started his studies in 1970 when, while browsing the shelves at the Bodhi Tree bookstore, Rudolph Steiner’s Agriculture literally fell into his hands. Taking it as a spiritual calling, he set out to put the principals to work in the real world. Unable to find anyone in the L.A. area to mentor him, John wrote a letter to a Steiner acolyte in the U.K. (I’d like to take a moment of gratitude here for the invention of the world wide web which allowed me to connect with like-minded folks faster than I could press send on my iphone). John finally found a man in the SF Valley who was practicing Steiner’s method on his farm, and tracked him down.
Forty years later John has read Steiner’s Agriculture over forty times and is still spreading the seeds of his knowledge. McAndrew is something of an iconoclast and a loner, choosing a simple life devoted to learning as much as he can about Steiner’s philosophy.
“I live in a trailer on the beach. Poor me.” He chuckled sarcastically.
I came to understand that I was actually at a very unique event. Even today there are few people who know about Biodynamic Farming, and even fewer teachers. John is certainly one of the few people in the US who has worked with these methods for as long as he has.
So what’s biodynamic farming? I found this nice definition here
A basic ecological principle of biodynamics is to conceive of the farm as an organism, a self-contained entity. A farm is said to have its own individuality. Emphasis is placed on the integration of crops and livestock, recycling of nutrients, maintenance of soil, and the health and well being of crops and animals; the farmer too is part of the whole. Thinking about the interactions within the farm ecosystem naturally leads to a series of holistic management practices that address the environmental, social, and financial aspects of the farm.
This reminds me of Polyface Farms which was beautifully described in Micheal Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and highlighted in Food Inc. Farmer Joel Salatin said that he was less like a farmer and more like an “orchestra conductor”, an analogy that really gets at the essence of this type of farming. A biodynamic farmer sets up a system in which all the processes of nature, both visible and invisible, can work in together in the most harmonious and efficient way possible.
At this point, I felt a little like I’d gone from kindergarten straight to graduate school. Just that morning, my first lettuce sprouts had emerged from the seeds I’d planted a few days before. I was delighted and amazed by the miracle of this biological process. Now I found myself surrounded by gardeners who had gone “beyond organic”, embracing a biodynamic system that mapped every last detail of the chemical interactions involved within a functioning ecosystem. It was fun to play with the big kids.
This project may be beyond the scope of most apartment farmers. However, it’s perfect for your garden share or community garden plot.
If you’re interested in reading more, there were two books recommended. The first is “the bible” of biodynamic farming, Agriculture by Rudolph Steiner. However, I have tried to read Steiner’s books on his educational philosophy and found his writing to be so esoteric and complex that it was almost impenetrable.
Grasp the Nettle was offered as a much easier to understand, hands on guide.
You can download my class notes here and read them below.
To begin a bio-dynamic compost pile, here’s what you’ll need:
- Compost starter – 10$ a packet. Email John McAndrew at email@example.com or call 310-729-7205
- A bucket
- An old broom
- Cow manure (from grass fed, organically raised cows) *
- Straw and alfalfa
* The closest grass fed cow manure is in Corona, a 150 mile round trip. You can coordinate with John on how to get it delivered to you. Other manures can be used, however, cow manure is by far superior and John emphasized that it should be used whenever possible.
Ideally, you’d start with 1 ton of manure and 1 ton of straw. At this class we had a half ton of each.
Begin the day before by making the compost starter. The starter bacteria take about 10 hours to, well, get started. Also, can only be mixed with rainwater, as the chlorine in tap water will kill the beneficial bacteria. John passed it around for us to smell, and once again we experienced a pleasant, earthy scent which immediately took me back to the redwood forest in Santa Cruz.
Map out a 12 by 5 foot rectangle on the lawn.
- Mix 1 teaspoon of starter with a 1/2 inch of rain water in a 5 gallon bucket.
- Now you’re ready to make a “compost lasagna” with the following layers. Each layer is about 1-inch thick – a thin layer basically.
- Dip the broom in the bucket with the compost liquid
- Sprinkle it on the ground within your rectangular compost area. Sprinkle is the operative word. These bacteria are powerful and you don’t need much.
- Spread the straw/alfalfa
- Get a regular garden hose and spray the layers with water so that it has the consistency of a wrung out sponge. Not soggy, but not too dry either. Wait for about a minute so the water can aerate. (Exposing the tap water to air kills the chlorine so it can’t kill the bacteria in the starter.)
- Sprinkle more starter with the broom
- Sprinkle a layer of the cow manure on top of that .
- Spray water from the hose, using method above
- Sprinkle starter
So, in short, the layers go like this:
1) Bacteria (the starter)
2) Carbon (the straw)
4) Bacteria (the starter)
5) Nitrogen (the manure)
Then you just let it sit for about 3-4 months. Soon you’ll have “black gold” – compost that will make your plants jump up and yell “Biodynamite!”
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