Mother Earth News Blogs > Organic Gardening

Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

How To Build a Vegetable Bed Biodynamically, Part 1

For those of you who are not familiar with biodynamics, let me set the scene for you: It is a method of agriculture that originated from the scientist and philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. The method was created to address farming problems with monoculture (growing of one crop on the same land year after year) and livestock yields resulting from health and fertility troubles of the land.

Biodynamic growing can be thought of as the next step up from organic growing, as many of the principles of organic growing are followed in biodynamics. The biggest difference in biodynamics is that everything starts with the soil and the alignment of the sun and the moon in the cosmos for planting, harvesting and tending to types of plants.

In biodynamic growing and agriculture, there are several preparations which are used on the soil and the plants to build fertility and fend off problems such as pests and disease. These preparations are diluted down in water and could be considered as "homeopathic treatments for the land" given the dilution factors used.  Biodynamics is often described as a holistic growing method.

Biodynamic growers use a planting calendar which shows fruit, root, leaf and flower days these correspond to the cultivating of certain plants, for example, broccoli is a flower plant along with roses, hops and petunias. Root plants include beets, onions and carrots; beans, squash, chili and peaches are all fruiting plants whilst lettuce, cabbage, leeks, sage and rosemary are leaf plants.

I am no expert at this method, but I have experimented frequently with biodynamic gardening and have had many successes with reduced pests and diseases, more flavorful crops and good yields in comparison to conventional organic growing. The biggest difference I noticed was with the soil in the biodynamic area of the garden — I had a greater population of earthworms in these areas versus the organic plot as well as much better water retention. 

current soil

In my current garden, I have minimal earthworm activity, sandy soil with little humus (see image above) and no idea how the previous owners cared for the land which means to me, that I need to take steps to address those issues. Biodynamic growing appeals to the scientific part of me which loves to experiment with new techniques and finding solutions to problems in the garden.

First, Answer These Questions

Building a bed biodynamically isn’t any more difficult than building a “normal” organic vegetable bed — the same planning questions need to be answered before you begin:

1. Where do I want to put the bed?

2. How much sun will the bed receive throughout the day?

3. Will it be raised or in the ground?

4. How much compost or soil amendments do I have available?

5. Will it be watered by the sprinklers or does it need watering by hand?

6. Will the sprinklers be in the way?

7. Will this be for annual crops or perennials?

Once you have decided on the site of the bed and whether it will be a raised bed or one dug in the ground the bed building can begin.

Building A Non-Raised Garden Bed, Step by Step

Step 1: Mark Out The Area

 Mark Out The Bed Area

Mark out the bed area, I tend to eye-ball it using a shovel but you can use chalk or flour to mark out where to dig.

Step 2: Remove Turf

 Renove Turf

Remove the turf, weeds, and roots in the area that will be your new bed.  The turf can be put to use on bare areas of the garden or placed grass side down in the compost heap to rot.

Step 3: Dig Over & Add Organic Matter

Dig over ground 

You can see in the image above the stones and sandy soil that I contend with in my garden which makes digging extremely labor intensive. 

Digging over the bed is optional, you can just lay compost or manure on top however, I dug everything over then added compost I had sprayed with the biodynamic preparation prior to digging then worked that into the bed with a garden fork.  The reason I did this was to distribute the humus rich compost and organic matter throughout the soil to help with moisture and nutrient retention as the plants grew bigger.

 Rake the bed level

Finally rake to level the bed. As far as making a vegetable bed goes, you can go ahead and plant it up or sow your seeds now however, for biodynamics we need to use the biodynamic preparations.

Steps to Using Biodynamic Preparations

Whenever I start a new set of sowings or work with new ground, there are two biodynamic preparations that I use on the soil or compost: valerian (biodynamic preparation 507) and horn manure (biodynamic preparation 500). These may not be in line with other biodynamic growers but this has worked well for me over the last two years.

According to the information I received with my biodynamic preparations from Josephine Porter Institute, valerian stimulates soil and compost so that phosphorus may be utilized properly by the soil and horn manure promotes root activity, as well as stimulating microbial growth and numbers of beneficial bacterial in the soil and stimulates seed germination.

I always use the valerian preparation first then the horn manure preparation.

Step 1: Prepare the Water

Measure out approximately 1 gallon of water for each preparation and leave to stand overnight if the water is chlorinated.  If your water isn’t chlorinated you can use it right away.

Step 2: Make the Valerian Spray Solution

 adding valerian

Add the vial of valerian (if purchased or about 30 drops of valerian preparation) to the water and stir.  I'm using a homemade biodynamic valerian preparation here.

stirring the water 

Stirring the preparation is done in a unique way; the water is stirred clockwise ensuring a vortex is created then when the swirling has stopped, it is stirred anticlockwise to create a vortex. This stirring technique is done for about 10 minutes and usually by one person.

stopping of swirling

You may notice that the water viscosity changes and less stirs are needed in each direction to create the vortex, this is normal.  If it doesn't change, don't worry it is still ok to use.

Step 3: Spray the Soil

Once the time for stirring is completed, transfer the solution into a clean garden sprayer.

spraying compost added

Spray the area with the preparation including any compost and soil amendments such as manure.  Typical usage directions of the preparation is that a gallon is sufficient for 1 acre.  You can use less preparation and/or less water for your space; I use enough of the spray solution to dampen the soil and compost then I spray the rest into the compost heap.

Step 4: Make the Horn Manure Spray Solution

There is some different information about how long you should wait before moving on and spraying with the horn manure preparation, I generally only have weekends in the garden so I spray straight after the valerian so I can get as much done in the time I have available which I then follow on with planting and seed sowing.

 horn manure amount

I use about ¼ teaspoon of pre-potentized horn manure to a gallon of water.

 stirring horn manure

The preparation is stirred in the same manner as the valerian with the clockwise and anticlockwise vortex being created.  For this preparation however, the stirring is continued for 1 hour.  I find that listening to music helps the time pass or simply using stirring the preparation as a relaxation exercise in itself; it is quite hypnotic watching the water swirling around!

spray area

Once stirring is complete, transfer to a garden sprayer and spray the bed and the soil amendments which will be added to the bed.

Once the spraying has been finished, you can sow your seeds and transplant your seedlings according to the biodynamic calendar.

 planted bed

It was a fruit day and this particular bed was planted up with elderberry, black currant, a grape vine, a filbert (hazelnut) and several varieties of strawberries. The bed will then be mulched with conventional woodchip mulch made from pruning waste from the garden or grass clippings to help retain moisture.

Part 2 will cover how to build a raised vegetable bed biodynamically.

Emma Raven has been gardening, cooking, canning and home brewing for most of her life. Formulation scientist, blogger, home brewer and avid gardener. Born in a village on the northern east coast of England, she now calls the Wasatch Mountains of Utah home. Find Emma at Misfit Gardening, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.