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The Permacultivator - Journal of Cool Climate Permaculture
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Permaculture and Biodynamics Towards Common Ground

Jo Dodd examines the two concepts to explore their significant overlap.

Seed Saving and the education of children brought together Biodynamic (BD) and Permaculture networks at the National Seed Savers Conference last year. Their common goal of sustainable food production will no doubt ensure they meet again. The two movements share many principles and practices but it’s the differences between the systems which can lead to a greater symbiosis.

Both Permaculture and Biodynamics stem from wholistic science, the understanding of patterns and energy cycles inherent in natural systems. They both work to create sustainable environments with minimal off site inputs and a focus on nutrient recycling. Paramount to working with natural systems is perception, using all of our senses. Touch, taste, smell, hearing and rhythm play just as much a role in perception as vision. Furthermore, Biodynamics and Permaculture actively share these observations through establishing local networks, conducting workshops and courses and perhaps most importantly educating children about food production.

Having established the similarities where do Permaculture and Biodynamics differ and therefore how can they learn from each other?

Permaculture is a design system integrating the built environment with natural systems. Alternative technologies such as solar, wind and hydro power are incorporated into designs as are energy efficient processes such as passive solar design of dwellings and keyline water catchments. Permaculture systems delve deeply into multicropping, seed saving and conservation of heirloom varieties. Given the aims of Permaculture to provide primarily for the inhabitants, with excess distributed locally, it is understandable that the production of a variety of foods is emphasised. BD practitioners could further enhance the sustainability of their lifestyles by embracing this knowledge.

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The Biodynamic method of agriculture developed from the research of Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner. As early as 1924 chemical use was showing effects on seed viability, livestock and crop health, sustainability and food quality. This prompted German farmers, soil scientists and veterinarians to approach Dr. Steiner for his thoughts on food production. A series of lectures which form the basis of Biodynamics were given and after further studies by participants of the course the methodology has evolved.

Rudolf Steiner gave to the world a spiritual science he called Anthroposophy. Biodynamic means literally “life - force” therefore requiring an understanding of the rhythms of nature but also the influence of cosmic formative forces. In this regard Biodynamics branches off from Permaculture in the use of Astronomy and particularly lunar rhythms to determine the timing of farming activities. A well known example is the use of the Antipodean Astro Calendar for planting seeds. The transition of the moon through the constellations, or sidereal zodiac, influences plant growth according to the element associated with that constellation. These elements affect different plant structures, earth the roots, water the leaves, air the flowers and fire the fruit. During germination, seed undergoes a period of chaos in which the influences of the stars can be imprinted on the seed and in turn affect the plants growth. The moon acts as a lens, focusing these forces and as such is often referred to as ‘the gateway between heaven and earth’. It is important to note that the influence is based on Astronomy as opposed to Astrology which uses a point in time 2000 years old, hence astrological planting calendars differ from those used by BD practitioners.

Formative forces in nature are recognised by Permaculture with a whole chapter in the designers manual dedicated to pattern understanding and many designs incorporate these patterns. These forces are utilised in the preparation and application of specific BD Preparations, the most well known of which is BD500. The universal formative force of the vortex is found in the shape of the cows horns which are stuffed with manure and buried over winter to make BD500. This vortex shape acts as an antennae to channel the cosmic forces thus enlivening the manure within. Experiments with other types of horns have not produced the same effect. The BD Stirring method used prior to applying 500 also employs the enlivening forces of the vortex, where the mixture is stirred in both directions with periods of chaos between the vortices.

The art and science of compost is also where Biodynamics can offer knowledge to Permaculture. BD practitioners ensure that all materials go through a living process before being added to the soil, as such all minerals and manures are put through a composting process A series of six compost preparations, each of which acts in specific ways to transform organic matter into a colloidal state of humus are used. In a similar regard to the principle of adding comfrey to compost, the BD Compost Preps all have a plant component, however, five of the preps also utilise animal parts and all are exposed to cosmic influences. BD compost is made all at once as opposed to regularly adding to the pile. BD compost is also allowed to enter a second stage of composting, sometimes taking up to 6 months before being applied. This allows a stable humus to form thereby providing nutrients in an enlivened and plant available state.

There are many books available on Biodynamics as there are Permaculture. It is advisable to start with books such as Grasp The Nettle by Peter Proctor, rather than jumping straight into Steiners Agriculture Lectures, which can be overwhelming and confusing to even the most learned of BD practitioners!

J 46 Summer 2004 - Autumn 2005