I am taking part in a six session course in Biodynamic Gardening; this weekend was weekend one, with the others spread across the year until July.
If you're unfamiliar with Biodynamics (and I most definitely am!) then it's a holistic approach to gardening that accounts not just for the plant, but its whole environment, including influences such as the moon. Growing is quite strictly governed by principles that include the use of specific 'preparations' and certain activities at very definite points. I'm a scientist at heart, and whilst some of the ideas stretch my imagination, it's always nice to find new ways of doing things and expanding on what I know.
Our course is taking place at the Clervaux Trust, just outside Darlington. It's a smallholding run by the Ruskin Mill Trust that provides learning opportunities for adults that include the production of some outstanding looking vegetables! After the seemingly endless months of urban winter gloom, a day in countryside sunshine was enough of a joy in itself!
A group of around 15 of us are taking part, some of whom had travelled some distance. And we are a real mixed bag - everything from entire novice gardeners through to full scale farmers. But some really interesting people, all keen to take a step away from the conventional and people from which I can learn a lot.
We began by testing a sample of our soil from our home garden. In a jam jar, with about one third soil and two thirds water, we shook and mixed and then left our samples to settle to determine their composition. The different sized particles settle out slowly with the coarser material at the bottom and the finer clays at the top. Predictably (for someone whose house adjoins an old brickyard in an area once famed for its pottery!) mine was high in clay - good if you want a nutrient rich start, not so great if you want something easy to work with (I know this to my cost!) If you're after something a little different to do, it makes for an interesting experiment.
A substantial part of Biodynamics centres around using preparations of various different plant-based materials. These include nettle and valerian for additions to compost, and partially rotted cow manure applied to growing plants. These are prepared by methods such as burying in cow horns for six months and steeping in buckets of water! We spent the afternoon applying some of this theory to building a biodynamic compost pile. I guess we will see the results within a month or so.
We also had the opportunity to take a soil profile - a wedge shaped piece of the earth showing the layers from top to bottom. This can be used to analyse the composition too, and it was good to see the penetration of the roots (in this case a green manure crop) and to see that clay is also an issue at Clervaux!
Our day was punctuated by some outstanding home made soup and bread made by the Clervaux bakery - just delicious! There was also a little shop stall selling things that people had made there - all as sustainably as possible. Woollen scarves knitted by hand from wool produced, dyed and spun on site; ceramic dishes created using the underlying clay and fired in their own kiln; and the thing that caught my eye - a beautifully hand carved wooden spoon, something I've wanted for a while! I do like that closed loop kind of thing - no external inputs and just using what's available to its best advantage.
We're due back in a month or so and whilst I find myself questioning some of the ideas, it definitely has made me think differently about the way I grow plants. And I'm certainly more aware of the external factors, even if I find myself contemplating just how important they might be. But if nothing else, a really lovely day with lovely people and a grand day out! Looking forward to next time.
(And their rhubarb is most definitely better than mine!)
Treading Lightly is simple living, within your means and the means of the planet, and making a minimal impact on the Earth. Find out more here about Catherine, of Barefoot Solutions, does this from day to day.