planting by the cosmic calendar: a biodynamic q&a with turtle tree
WHEN TO DO WHAT in the edible garden? One gardening and farming discipline, biodynamics, looks for clarity to a special calendar that in turn looks to the cosmos. Biodynamic seed farmer Lia Babitch of Turtle Tree Seed offers a 101 on planting (and tending and harvesting) by the planets, as depicted in the Stella Natura Biodynamic Planting Calendar.
Some background: The Stella Natura calendar has been published since 1978 by Camphill Village, Kimberton Hills, in Pennsylvania, and edited by Sherry Wildfeuer. Turtle Tree Seed, where Lia is co-manager, is located at another Camphill Village, in Copake, New York. Camphill Village is a biodynamic intentional community engaged in farming, gardening and handcrafting, that includes adults with developmental disabilities; a portion of each calendar sale goes to support Camphill.
The 40-page Stella Natura calendar includes astronomy basics, a constellation chart, and many philosophical articles—besides the calendar itself. But it’s not a “calendar” such as you might pencil in your dentist appointment or kids’ soccer practice on; it’s a reference guide and tool (that’s a page from a recent edition, above). How it works is explained in my Q&A with Lia Babitch.
my q&a on planting by the planets, with lia babitch
Q. Though all the meaning and research behind the creation of the Stella Natura calendar may be a lot to grasp, and came from many years of research, the calendar actually makes gardening easier, you often remind me, Lia. How?
A. We find that at Turtle Tree, and also for many home and/or beginning gardeners we know, the structure of the calendar can make it easier to organize one’s time and to make sure nothing gets neglected.
Q. Yes: structure! We all need it at planting time, especially. The calendar seems to be structured according to plant groups—but not like the official botanical plant families, exactly. Tell us how it’s organized.
A. The calendar breaks down plants into four groups:
- the ones we grow for their roots, including things like kohlrabi, leeks and onions (which are not strictly roots, but in whom we want to bring out a certain “rooty-ness”);
- plants we grow for their leaves, such as lettuce, spinach, cabbages, arugula, etc.;
- plants we grow for fruit, such as peas, tomatoes, squash, raspberries, apples, etc.–anything that produces an edible part after flowering;
- and of course plants we grow for their flowers. This last category can also include broccoli and cauliflower.
A. Over the course of about any nine days, there are times to work with each of these four categories, which cover pretty much everything annual and many of the perennials we want to grow in a garden, as well as “off” times for the gardener to rest or catch up on maintenance of equipment.
So if you sow, plant, hoe, weed and harvest your roots on root days, leaves on leaf days, flowers on flower days and fruits on fruit days, then nothing will get neglected or forgotten in the busy heights of the season.
We find that nine days is about the maximum amount of time one can go between weeding or hoeing in any given area of the garden. Of course, this is counting on cooperative weather, which we all know is not necessarily something we can do as gardeners—sometimes you just have got to get things done while the sun’s shining!
Q. In biodynamics, do you look at the phases of the moon, or are there other factors being considered in when to plant what (and charted in the Stella Natura calendar)?
A. We do look at phases of the moon, but in her approximately 50 years of research, Maria Thun, on whose work the Stella Natura calendar (and others) is based, found that there was a relationship not just between what phase the moon is in for planting, but also what zodiacal constellation the moon is in front of at any given time.
The moon in any given orbit around the earth passes in front of each of the zodiacal constellations in turn. Maria Thun [she died in 2012; her obit] found that roots grew better when planted and tended on days when the moon was in front of constellations that in olden times were seen as relating to the earth element; leaves grew best when tended at times when the moon was in front of constellations once related to water; flower for the “air” constellations; and fruits for the “fire” constellations.
Q. Are there times when it is not recommended to do anything in the garden?
A. Yes, there were also times, such as eclipses, conjunctions, and the times when the moon is moving from one constellation to another, that things didn’t grow as well, so these are the “off” times.
Maria Thun found that this was related to astronomy–in other words, what one can actually look up and see in the sky on any clear night–not to the astrological zodiacal signs, which are somewhat off from what appears in the night sky.
A: There is no hard and fast rule about what plant goes into which category—it depends on the use to which the gardener or farmer wants to put that plant: Should it make a large root or rooty lower stem structure? Do we want to encourage leafy growth? Are we aiming for early and prolific flowering, or is fruit formation the most important?
Of course, since fruit formation depends a good flowering, in a pinch one can do some fruit related things on flower days, and since both strong root and leaf formation depend on not bolting soon, one can also be occasionally flexible between these two.
This is something that you can play with to some extent. However, most plants we grow are already bred in a certain direction, and this will have a strong effect on how they grow, even if you can’t plant or cultivate them on the “right” day.
Also, the season will have a strong effect on the plants—of anything in the sky, the sun has without a doubt the most influence on plant growth, and coming up to the longest days of the year, your arugula will very likely want to bolt, even if you’ve sown, hoed and weeded it on leaf days. Working with the calendar is not a fix-all, but just helps to support the plants to do what they do best.
Q. Is this the same grouping of plants that advises your system of succession sowing as well–what follows what as space comes available in the biodynamic garden or farm rows?
A. Many biodynamic gardeners use the four categories of plants to inform their crop rotation. The garden is then broken up into five sections: a root section, a leaf section, a flower section, a fruit section, and a section to rest or be sown with a cover crop.
Each year the sections shift, so that at the end of five years, each section will have had each crop category once, and can then start over again.
This can be a very simple way to organize crop rotation, but it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes there are crops in two or more categories that might be from the same family or even species, for instance, crops such as kohlrabi (root); kale (leaf); and broccoli (flower), and care needs to be taken that these are not planted one after another in the same bed in consecutive years.
Each bed should take a break from brassicas (the three mentioned above are all specifically Brassica oleracea) for a minimum of four years before growing them again, since otherwise diseases (clubroot, etc.) can build up and become a problem in the soil.
Q. Is it even more complicated when you are farming for seed, as you are at Turtle Tree, not just for the fresh food crops themselves?
A. In our rotation at Turtle Tree things are more complex, since we need to keep plants of the same species isolated from one another so that they don’t cross-pollinate. This means that we can’t plant all our tomatoes in a “tomato section,” but need to spread them out throughout our three gardens, only growing one kind or variety in any area, and we need to keep in mind how tall plants get when they go to seed, and what airflow is needed between crops to keep them healthy.
Our crop rotation ends up being a “4-D” puzzle, taking into consideration all 3 dimensions and time as well! Luckily, unless you are doing a lot of seed growing, a simpler rotation is very effective.
A. Pretty much any gardening activity from sowing and cultivating to pruning and harvesting can make use of the calendar, but for harvesting, there are certain things that should be taken into consideration:
If you are harvesting for immediate use or short-term storage, then harvesting on the day relating to the plant you’re working with is fine, but if you’re harvesting for longer-term storage (over a week or two), then choosing a fruit or flower day will almost always be your best bet.
Harvesting for longer storage on leaf days can sometimes lead to poorer storage, since things are more watery on those days.
And of course the time of day you harvest really affects how well things will store, too: Leaves and flowers store best when harvested in the mornings before or just barely after the dew is off the plants. Roots store best when harvested either early in the morning or later in the evening when things are cooling down. Fruits very often should be harvested during the dry part of the day to avoid including excess moisture on the harvest–but then peas are happy to be harvested in the cool times, while beans, squash and tomatoes much prefer to be harvested when they’re warm and dry, as touching these plants when they are damp can spread disease.
Q. Any other tips?
A. While the calendar is a very useful tool, it is important to remember that there are two things that influence your garden that do not appear on the calendar—the weather and you!
If the weather is wrong for the task you have scheduled, that should take precedence over what the calendar says, and if the timing is wrong for you, then don’t stress it—stressed out gardeners are no good for the garden. If you’ve got time and patience enough to pay close attention to what’s going on in your garden, your garden will be able to tell you what it needs!