If you love wine, gardening or Weleda products, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the word Biodynamic®. It’s a holistic, sustainable method of agriculture that goes beyond organic to treat the farm or garden as one complete ecosystem, and it’s just one way Weleda has been working in an environmentally sustainable way for the past 90 years. Weleda founder Dr. Rudolf Steiner developed the concept and created the first Biodynamic® gardens in Switzerland to grow the ingredients needed to make Weleda’s anthroposophic remedies. Some aspects of Biodynamics® may seem new-agey—like using the natural cycles of the sun, moon and stars to guide planting and harvesting—but they actually encompass methods that our ancestors utilized thousands of years ago.
Surprisingly, after nine decades, the key principles of Biodynamics® have not changed much. One difference is that farmers from countries with disparate growing conditions have adapted the techniques to their own environments, depending on what they find works best for their soil and climate. Also, the focus on details may differ depending on the farmer’s own personality and his connection with the land, as well as the location of the farm and the items cultivated. Today, Weleda grows the largest Biodynamic® gardens in all of Europe, on more than 135 acres, with 250 species of plants. Biodynamics® has become a buzz word—it’s especially popular among forward-thinking wine producers who believe it produces the best-tasting, highest-quality grapes.
At first glance, the method may seem too complicated to undertake in your own backyard, rooftop or container garden. (What do you mean I need to plant according to cosmic cycles? How will I ever find time to compost?) But many of the central principles of Biodynamics®—crop diversity, beneficial insects, even compost!—are, in fact, easy to do at home. With a little Biodynamic® know-how, you can create plentiful, self-sustaining and environmentally friendly gardens that will offer up wholesome vegetables and bright, beautiful flowers for years to come.
To celebrate Weleda’s 90 years of sustainability, we tapped Eva-Maria Walle, manager of Weleda’s Biodynamic® Medicinal Plant Gardens in Germany, to provide you with a few tips for adapting this age-old but forward-thinking method in your own backyard. Read on for her expert answers to our gardening questions.
Q. What are some essentials for creating a self-sustaining garden?
A Biodynamic® garden or farm should function as a self-sustaining organism, where all parts contribute to the whole. For example, the farm should have just the right number of animals to provide manure for fertilizer, and these animals should, in turn, be fed from the farm. Most of us don’t have cows or horses at home to provide natural fertilizer for our gardens, but we can start a compost pile in a worm bin or with food scraps. Compost will help naturally vitalize the soil, and good soil is important for growing a healthy garden. Ideally the soil should be a mixture of sand and clay—but not too much of either—and the garden should get plenty of sunlight.
One of the most important elements of a self-sustaining garden is biodiversity like plant and insect diversity. The opposite of a diverse farm or garden is a monoculture, and from our experience, we know that monocultures create an unhealthy environment for plants—it can work, but only with the help of many additives like pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. If you cultivate a variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers, and make an inviting home for ladybugs and lacewings, beneficial insects that help control the pest population, your garden will thrive. At Weleda’s Biodynamic® gardens in Germany, we made a home for beneficial bugs from stacked wood, cinder blocks, sticks, pine cones and dried leaves, and you can do the same at home.
Q. About that compost: Just how important is it for a backyard garden? Can I have a healthy garden without it?
You may have heard the gardeners’ old adage, “Feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants.” In Biodynamics®, compost is integral to the self-sufficiency of the farm, and it will certainly contribute to the health of your garden. Compost, which can be made from fallen leaves and food scraps, has many different functions: It improves the structure of the soil and gives it vitality and fertility by feeding it with minerals and nutrients; it helps suppress plant diseases; and it supports micro-organisms and earthworms, which naturally add nitrogen and healthy microbes to the soil. Compost will also cause the soil to warm faster in the spring, and that’s good for the healthy development of your seedlings.
Q. I’ve heard that organic gardening takes more time and doesn’t produce as much yield as conventional gardening. Is this true?
Growing plants organically does not necessarily require more time and effort than conventional gardening, but it will help to be knowledgeable about how plants, soil, insects and weather interact and influence each other. After the conversion of a conventional farm to organic cultivation, which usually takes about three years, the yields may sometimes decrease a bit as the soil rebuilds its natural vitality. But in time, the yields will rise to their initial levels, if not greater than before. It’s also important to remember that organically grown fruits and vegetables taste superior, are more nutritious and are better for the planet than those that have been grown with pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers.
Q. Do you have any suggestions for naturally keeping pests away?
Although you can never eradicate pests completely in a Biodynamic® garden, robust and strong plants will naturally have a high tolerance against them, much like the way a person with a healthy immune system will sometimes get a cold but can easily fight it off. Plants that are native to the area and well-adapted to their surroundings are better able to withstand pests and diseases, especially if they are nourished with rich compost, brimming with microbial life. You’ll know your garden is resilient and productive when you see the ladybugs crawling, the earthworms burrowing and the bees buzzing about. This is a sign of a healthy, sustainable ecosystem.
Q. Do you have any simple tips for first-time gardeners?
It may be surprising, but remember that there is such a thing as too much water. It’s easy to under- or over-water, so learn to read the garden to get a sense of how much H20 it needs. Also consider what kind of sunlight your garden gets. Hardy plants like basil can take full sun and little water, but others—mint, for example—are tender and delicate. If you’re growing fruiting plants like tomatoes that need pollinating, attract bees with marigolds and sunflowers, and protect your garden’s ecosystem by avoiding chemical insecticides that harm the good bugs along with the bad. Think of your work in your garden as a journey with the land and a chance to connect with nature and the earth. Farming can be humbling; embrace setbacks as learning experiences and keep on cultivating. There’s a whole world to discover right in your own backyard. Cr
9 Reasons to Grow an Organic Garden
Here are a few simple reasons—one for each decade Weleda has been in business—for growing an organic garden in your backyard, on your fire escape or just tucked into a windowsill.
- Rejuvenate your spirit. With the sun on your back and the dirt running through your fingers, gardening can help you connect with nature—its rhythms, sounds and signs—like few things can. And nothing is quite as rewarding as feeding yourself and your family the wholesome, nutritious fruits and vegetables you cultivated yourself, right in your own backyard.
- Tantalize your taste buds. According to The Organic Center, among the many well-designed studies that have compared the tastes of organic and conventional produce, organic consistently wins out. In fact, in a recent study by Washington State University, organic strawberries were consistently judged as sweeter. It makes sense—well-balanced soils produce robust, strong, superior-tasting plants.
- Nourish your body. The same study showed that organic strawberries have more antioxidants, health-promoting phenolic compounds and vitamin C than their non-organic counterparts. Seconds, anyone?
- Build a healthy community. Sharing your bounty of freshly grown vegetables with your neighbors and friends is a special way to give back to your community and strengthen your connections.
- Protect our waterways. Since organic gardens use no chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, none of these chemicals can run off and find their way into the water supply and estuaries.
- Get a workout. Like any other physical activity, gardening can help reduce your risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. From harvesting the seeds to digging up weeds, you’ll burn calories—and it won’t even feel like work!
- Save money. By growing your own organic produce, you save money at the store. And you won’t have to make as many trips in the car to buy perishable items, which means more gas money in your pocket and a smaller carbon footprint.
- Avoid chemicals. Many EPA- approved pesticides were registered long before research showed a possible link between these chemicals and diseases like cancer. Organically grown fruits and vegetables are free of potentially toxic chemicals, because they are not treated with any pesticides, growth hormones, fertilizers or artificial additives such as flavorings, colorings or preservatives.
- Create diversity. The lack of chemical run-off means that small animals, birds and beneficial insects will not be harmed by chemical use, and the ecosystem in your backyard can thrive.