Tag Archives: Sussex apple varieties

Is biodynamics coming closer to mainstream acceptance?

I’ve said it before but I think it bears repeating: if biodynamic agriculture and horticulture are ever to become mainstream, then the first signs of this are going to be in the world of fine wines.  We are already seeing evidence of this: Monty Waldin, a wine writer and biodynamic specialist, estimates that in 2017 about 5 per cent of the world’s vineyards were certified organic or biodynamic. In 1999 it was less than 1 per cent.

Something is clearly going on, because biodynamic viticulture has just been the subject of an entire column by the eminent wine writer and Master of Wine, Jancis Robinson, in the Financial Times Weekend Magazine of September 29/30th 2018. If the FT is sitting up and taking notice of biodynamic wines, then this is an indication of a significant shift in culture among the monied classes; and where they go, mainstream culture will surely follow.

True, Robinson shows no real understanding of biodynamics in her column and a sarcastic sub-editor gave it the headline “Hogwarts school of viticulture.” But she does appreciate some of the reasons why people might be wary of conventional viticulture: “Anyone who has visited a wine region and seen vineyard workers spraying chemicals so potent that they are clad as if they were investigating a Novichok incident is likely to find organically grown grapes an attractive proposition”. She goes on to say:

“The principles of biodynamics were outlined by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Many of them seem barmy. The emphasis on soil health, as in organics, is surely sensible. The postwar period of technological revolution coupled with the imperative of quantity over quality left a legacy of heavily compacted soils deprived of nutrients, organic matter and microbes. Healthy soil encourages healthy plants and I have often found extra vitality in wines that turned out to be biodynamic.

Steiner’s insistence that a farm should be a holistic ecosystem rather than a commercially efficient monoculture is a much further step away from conventional science, but has resulted in a dramatic increase in fauna to be found on the land of biodynamic practitioners.

But it is the third tenet of biodynamics that is most controversial and the reason why many rationalists dismiss it as ‘pseudoscience’. Full embrace of biodynamism involves the application of homeopathic doses of preparations based on the likes of quartz powder, camomile and nettles. Some are supposed to be buried in cow horns or other animal parts. All are supposed to be applied, and vineyard operations conducted, according to the celestial calendar.

This is the part only the most devoted biodynamic practitioners adhere to, but they assure non-believers that these can transmit energy and health to the soil, vines and grapes. Sceptical scientists point to the weakness of lunar forces. But even non-biodynamic wine producers have long been careful to time their bottling with the phases of the moon to ensure their wines are star-bright”.

Well, you can tell from all of this that Jancis Robinson is some way from any real appreciation of or insights into biodynamics – but it’s a start and it should be applauded. She goes on to list some of the starry vineyards that have adopted  biodynamic viticulture – too many to list here, I’m glad to say – but they include the very best of French producers, including chateaux in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Champagne and Alsace, as well as wine growers in Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, California, Washington, Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. (There are also at least three biodynamic vineyards in the UK.)

But her column got me thinking: if the world is starting to wake up to biodynamics, is the biodynamic movement in a position to respond to meet increasing demand for knowledge, techniques and the supply of BD preparations?

This question has recently taken on a personal dimension for me. When we moved into our house in Forest Row in 2015, one of the things that attracted me to it was the garden and the possibility it gave of planting a small orchard, which is something I have wanted all my life. When I say a small orchard, I mean it: there are just fourteen fruit trees. But although it’s small, each variety was chosen very carefully, for flavour rather than yield and with pollination compatibility in mind where appropriate. There are four apple trees, three of them varieties from Sussex; three pears; one plum, one gage and one damson; one quince; one mulberry, a morello cherry and a fig. We’ve also got a soft fruit bed, with blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and blueberries (the last in large pots, so I can give them the acidic soil conditions they need).

It’s a sad fact but once you have planted your trees, you cannot just let them get on with growing. They are subject to attack from birds, animals and insects, plus all sorts of diseases and ailments – they still need your care and regular attention. Given all these problems and predations, I’m impressed that farmers and growers manage to provide us with anything to eat at all; and it’s no wonder that conventional horticulture has come up with many kinds of chemical cocktails to be sprayed at regular intervals to save some of our food and fruit from wildlife and diseases. But I’m one of those who likes to think that there is a better way of dealing with these issues and for me, organic and biodynamic are my preferred methods.

So when the gage tree, a 19thcentury variety called Early Transparent Gage and planted with loving care as a one-year old tree in our garden in December 2016, developed signs of bacterial canker on the trunk, I was devastated. There is no chemical remedy for this disease and all you can do is to cut out the signs of canker and put wound paint on the area – and since the canker is on a large area of the trunk of what is a young tree, the prognosis isn’t good.  Following advice from the excellent Briony Young, who makes the biodynamic preparations at Tablehurst Farm, I decided to cut out what I could of the canker and apply biodynamic tree paste to the wounds.

It was at this point where my question occurred about the availability of biodynamic remedies. There is no possibility of going to a garden centre to buy a tin of tree paste. Anyone seeking to use this remedy needs to assemble some ingredients, not all of which are easy to source, and then go through a fairly elaborate and lengthy preparation process.

To describe it as briefly as possible, here’s what you do. First of all, source the ingredients:

  • 1 part clay, mixed with a little rainwater and chopped up to achieve a smooth texture with no lumps
  • 1 part fine sand (or diatomaceous earth)
  • 1 part fresh cow manure
  • 1 unit of horn manure 500
  • Equisetum tea 508 made with rainwater
  • A generous handful of cow pat pit preparation (CPP)

I was fortunate in being able to get all of these ingredients from Tablehurst Farm.  Then you:

Make the equisetum tea with rainwater:


Use the tea to dissolve the horn manure and dynamise the liquid by stirring for 1 hour, creating and breaking vortices in the water:


Add the CPP for the last 20 minutes of stirring:


Pour the dynamised liquid into the bucket with the clay and then gradually stir in the fresh cow manure:


Gradually stir in the sand:


The finished tree paste should have the consistency of pancake mixture, sloppy enough to apply to tree trunks with a paintbrush. (Here it is being applied to an olive tree in a pot):


Well, quite apart from the difficulty of finding the ingredients, you can tell that all of this is a great deal of trouble and work, unlikely to be done by the average gardener. So why did my wife and I do it? It’s because as far as I know only biodynamic tree paste has the capacity to work on the bacterial canker and to heal the disease so that the tree can survive. The commercial tree wound paints are effective only if you can remove all of the canker and cut back to clean wood, which in the case of a young tree like our gage was not possible because of the extent and location of the canker.

I’ll let you know in a year or two whether the tree paste has done what we hoped for; and if it does, then I think there is a commercial opportunity for someone to make pre-prepared biodynamic tree paste widely available in garden centres for the general gardening public.  If biodynamics is to become mainstream, then ways need to be found in which these wonderful preparations and the philosophy behind them can be made less “barmy” and more widely available to amateur gardeners and professional growers alike.


Filed under Agriculture, Biodynamics

Biodynamics versus Permaculture

We had a lovely outing on a recent Sunday to Stanmer Park near Brighton, where the Brighton Permaculture Trust  had organised their 2016 Apple Day. Apple Day celebrates all things to do with the apple, including the revival of old Sussex varieties of apple, some of which the Trust has brought back from the brink of extinction. I’ve bought two of these Sussex varieties (Forge and Saltcote Pippin) for our garden and can’t wait to collect them for planting in December.


Delicious Sussex apple varieties on display at Apple Day

It was a wonderful autumn day with lots of sunshine and the fine weather brought out families in their thousands. Apart from the focus on apples (including cider-tasting), there were stalls from many local organisations and food producers, as well as morris dancers, a Brazilian salsa band and dancers, a ukulele band, a choir, talks about bees, scything demos, tours of the orchards, permaculture taster activities etc. It was all very good-humoured, well organised and a truly impressive example of a community-based activity that also put across a serious message about sustainability and caring for the earth.

The Apple Day came just a few days after news of the death in Tasmania on September 24th of Bill Mollison, one of the two founders of permaculture.


Bill Mollison – photo via permaculture.co.uk

Bill Mollison was quite a character and the source of many pithy quotations. Here are some of my favourites:

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

“I teach self-reliance, the world’s most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. So, yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.”

“The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves.”

“If and when the whole world is secure, we have won a right to explore space, and the oceans. Until we have demonstrated that we can establish a productive and secure earth society, we do not belong anywhere else, nor (I suspect) would we be welcome elsewhere.”


If you’ve not come across permaculture before (the name comes from “permanent agriculture” but is also coming to mean “permanent culture”), it is both a philosophy and a farming and living method that grew out of the books and permaculture courses of Bill Mollison and his fellow Australian farmer and researcher, David Holmgren. Permaculture systems or gardens are modelled on patterns observed in nature. Structures, access and water systems are also designed to be energy efficient and placed with a focus on the relationships between elements of a system rather than on individual components themselves.



Bill Mollison and David Holmgren – photo via Dr Benjamin Habib’s blog.

David Holmgren once explained permaculture quite neatly by saying “Traditional agriculture was labour intensive, industrial agriculture is energy intensive, and permaculture-designed systems are information and design intensive.” As a basic definition, permaculture is a holistic design system for creating sustainable human settlements and food production systems. It is a movement concerned with sustainable, environmentally sound land use and the building of stable communities, through the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth.

Clearly the work of the Brighton Permaculture Trust is having an excellent effect in the locality – they have for example helped to establish about one hundred community orchards, revived interest in local food production and sustainable methods of agriculture, and they specialise in working with schools and community groups. They have made enough of an impact to attract sponsorship for Apple Day from Infinity Foods, one of the UK’s leading wholesalers for organic and natural foods.

The impression I got was that those attending the Apple Day are exactly the sorts of people who are concerned that our society has become estranged and alienated from nature, and that this increasing alienation has been to the detriment of both our health and the natural environment. My guess is that these are people who believe that there are effects of food beyond nutrition and that there are aspects of what constitutes a good life which go beyond the modern ideas of health and wealth. As such points of view become more widespread, they are gradually building a foundation for real change and for moves towards a more sustainable future. How many of these people know about permaculture in any kind of detail I can’t say (only a few, I suspect) but clearly they all know the name of the Brighton Permaculture Trust and associate it with the kind of things that they wish to support.



Thousands of people attended Brighton Permaculture Trust’s Apple Day.


I couldn’t help but ask myself whether biodynamics would get a similar level of name-recognition from these people – my sense is that probably it would not. Biodynamics and permaculture, however, clearly have a great many of the same attitudes and aspirations. What are the differences and similarities between the two systems?

Permaculture would claim to be an applied science, as its focus is on the application of scientific knowledge to achieve certain practical aims. It’s not about gathering information just for the sake of research but for the purpose of putting its scientific findings into practice. Observation and experience as tools in permaculture suggest that it is not a theoretical discipline, but one grounded in practicality and everyday reality.

I would say that biodynamics shares all of these characteristics with permaculture, although some might argue that, as the origin of biodynamics lies with Steiner’s supersensible perceptions and observations, it is not a science in the same sense. But these perceptions and observations by Steiner have been followed up, tested and proved on farms around the world now for more than ninety years. So I think we can argue that biodynamics is also both an applied and an empirical science.

Another shared feature is that, unlike other sciences, both permaculture and biodynamics are holistic and not reductionist. Both of them describe the connections and relationships between natural systems, the multitude of living organisms on this planet, and the planet itself. Both share strong philosophical and visionary ideas about sustainable patterns of living and social and ecological ethics.

Similarly, both permaculture and biodynamics share the goal of creating an almost perfectly closed system, in which all the inputs come from your own resources and as little as possible is brought in from outside. Permaculture does, however, imply that your system grows towards a natural maturity and then sustains itself there, while biodynamics works with fewer permanent plantings and has crop rotation cycles over several years.

Biodynamics, of course, also takes into account the connections with the cosmos, which permaculture does not, except inasmuch as it involves planting by the phases of the moon.

But I think there is a fundamental difference between the two: permaculture deliberately does not have an underlying spiritual system, whereas biodynamics arises out of a particular philosophy and spiritual system – anthroposophy. It’s relevant to quote Bill Mollison here: “We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening, but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy”. What I think he meant by this is that one’s personal philosophy should arise from one’s experience of caring for the Earth and the plants and one’s life experience – and not from reading about it. Not (of course) that this is how most people come to biodynamics – it is often because of the totally delicious food, or the sense that a biodynamic farm is a place where the wellbeing of the earth, plants and animals is tangible – but biodynamics may be seen as carrying a certain amount of historical and intellectual baggage from anthroposophy that is not always easy for people to get past.



A display of French apple varieties – photo via Brighton & Hove Camera Club


And here I think is the reason why those people attending the Brighton Apple Day might find themselves feeling more at ease with permaculture than they would with biodynamics. It is because permaculture, with its claims to being a science with its own values and ethics, can co-exist harmoniously with most religious and spiritual systems (or indeed with none) without offering a challenge to them or anyone’s pre-existing spiritual outlook. Biodynamics, on the other hand, is all too often tarred with the “all muck and magic” brush – instead of what it really is, which is a super-advanced science that scientists may catch up with one day – or with some other straw man set up by skeptics in their attempts to attack Steiner and anthroposophy.

It is of course perfectly possible for a permaculture farmer to be biodynamic and for a biodynamic farmer to farm using permaculture techniques. My own view is that biodynamics is greater and more all-encompassing than Bill Mollison would ever have acknowledged; I suspect he would have said: “Permaculture is the wardrobe and biodynamics is one of the hangers inside,” which is probably the reverse of the actual situation.

But I also suspect that Bill Mollison’s approach is the one that is more likely to find favour with the kinds of people who attended the Apple Day. In one of the obituaries for Bill Mollison, some words from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu were quoted: “True change is to so change things that it seems natural to everybody but no-one knows who thought of it.”

That surely is how the change that we all so desperately need is coming – like a thief in the night, without governments or media being aware of it, but happening in the hearts and minds of people everywhere – until the necessary changes just seem right and natural and commonplace.  Biodynamics, permaculture, organics and good conventional agriculture will all have their parts to play in making this happen.


Filed under Anthroposophy, Biodynamic farming, Biodynamics, Permaculture, Rudolf Steiner