Employing Biodynamic Gardening Techniques

Learn a few tips for building healthy soil and healthy humus using biodynamic or French intensive gardening strategies.

| May/June 1982


Barbara and Alan Sullivan pose near their garden at MOTHER EARTH NEWS' Eco-Village.


Because this is the season when growers far and near are busily busting sod, hardening off seedlings, and — perhaps — even nibbling the year's first greens and radishes, we thought you might be interested in the doings of MOTHER EARTH NEWS' gardeners, Kerry and Barbara Sullivan.

In only a few short years, the Sullivans have taken a piece of soil that hardly qualified as marginal and transformed it into a showplace with carpets of flowers, and lush organically grown vegetables in groomed beds. But the gardeners rarely talk about their successes, since their primary concern is "the vast amount of work" they feel still needs to be done. The focus of that labor is a constant effort to further improve the soil, because our master growers consider that medium the key to solving every potential garden problem.

Now almost everyone who's read articles about holistic gardening has seen, over and over again, the statement that healthy plants are pest-resistant plants. However, when a plague of bean beetles or cabbage loopers chomps down on our own pampered (we think!) homegrown edibles, many of us suspect that this optimistic dictum may not always hold true! The brief history of MOTHER EARTH NEWS' garden, though, already includes strong evidence that soil improvement can dramatically reduce insect damage.

Take flea beetles, for instance. The tiny black-bodied nibblers devoured the entire fall crop of mustard and turnip greens sown during the first months (August and September 1979) after Kerry and Barbara came to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. By the following spring, though, the soil had already been upgraded to the point that the greens were able — in effect — to outgrow the pests, and suffer only modest damage. And this past year, the garden suffered no flea beetle raids at all!

The couple's emphasis on — and study of — soil health has also given them a more understanding, and even tolerant, attitude toward pest outbreaks than most home gardeners have. Still, it would be misleading to say that they never employ defensive measures. The Sullivans will use Bacillus thuringiensis when cabbage worms get too numerous (although Barbara notes that their need for that agent has been dropping sharply . . . they sprayed BT only once last year). And they're "quick to pick" if unwanted hexapods threaten to get too numerous. In fact, the two were pretty well able to defeat the Mexican bean beetle menace that had — in a previous year — ruined their green bean harvest, by simply spending a couple of hours handpicking the first wave of the little varmints thereby preventing the production of a more populous second generation of beetles.

Of course, although soil improvement is an effective insect-control strategy, creating a plant-enhancing and pest-resistant environment isn't a simple task. Indeed, the Sullivans are constantly working to promote their soil's health, tilth and life by following five major practices: [1] rotating crops, [2] sowing cover crops, [3] composting, [4] double-digging and [5] using biodynamic soil aids.

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