planting by the cosmic calendar: a biodynamic q&a with turtle tree

Plant types for biodynamic plantingWHEN 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.

Stella Natura calendar pageThe 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.

march 25, 2017 workshops at turtle tree

JOIN ME and my beloved neighbors and friends from Turtle Tree biodynamic seed company for a special opportunity to visit their charming and inspiring headquarters at Camphill Village in Copake, New York, and learn by doing how to successfully grow from seed. Camphill is a community of people, some with special needs, who live and work together caring for each other and the Earth, following practices inspired by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. In either a morning or afternoon half-day workshop, you’ll learn the basics of biodynamics, about timing plantings by a cosmic calendar called Stella Natura, and go home with a flat of seeds you sow in the greenhouse with expert advice. Get all the events details and register by clicking the button below:

Eventbrite - Seedy Saturday 3/25: Hands-On Workshops at Turtle Tree Seed

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.

turnipQ. So on the little boxes on the calendar I see “root days” and “leaf days” and so on; aha!

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.

Stella Natura calendarQ. I see the words “root” and “leaf,” for instance, on certain days on the calendar, and not on others. Can you explain how plants are grouped in biodynamic thinking, and on the calendar? 

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.

onions on back porchQ. Is it just sowing times that are recommended by the calendar markings, or does the same cosmic thinking govern other garden activities related to those crops, like harvesting? 

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!

  1. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I have purchased this calendar for years. It makes my brain feel really small each time I read it but I love planting by the planetary phases – I feel so much more connected to the earth! It is a wealth of information and much appreciated. I can’t imagine what it takes to figure all this out and put it together. I highly recommend it to anyone intrigued by biodynamics. There is something to it. One year I did not purchase the calendar and felt something was “missing” from my garden that year.

  2. Judy Leon says:

    This is our first year trying to follow the Stella Natura gardening calendar so we have had lots of questions. What group does bulb fennel come under – leaf I think but not sure? After reading the above I am now confused about cauliflower which my calendar (pg 4) says is best sown on leaf days while broccoli produces large firm heads when sown on flower days. Can you pass these questions on to Lia or should I go on the Turtle Tree web site?

      1. margaret says:

        Judy, I got this answer from Lia:

        Hi Judy,

        Great questions! I usually aim to plant fennel on root days, because here in the mid-Hudson valley of NY we find that fennel can occasionally bolt, and I want to reduce that. However, if your fennel usually is not under pressure to bolt, (it also helps to prevent bolting if you plant it after the longest days in summer) then sowing for leaf should work very well.

        The same principle is at play in the cauliflower–are you more concerned with bolting, or with the formation of too many leaves at the expense of the heads? For us, since we tend to sow cauliflower as a fall crop, we rarely have bolting cauliflower, but do sometimes have too much leaf formation before the plants start to form heads, so we aim for flower days, but it could go either way. If it’s possible I’d try both days and see if one seems to work better than the other for you. If you don’t want to sow both days and keep them labeled all season, then I’d just go with the direction of growth you want to encourage in the plants.


  3. Irena says:

    Moon fazes, I’m sure, have huge influence on plants (and us), and I wish to get a better grasp on what’s really going on there between the two. I believe certain fazes keep more water in the plants, others “suck it out”, but which do what? So much more to learn…

  4. Carol says:

    Could you please tell me in which group we plant asparagus? I have some roots for this year but would also like to plant from seed.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Carol. I don’t know with a certainty, but I think root. It has so much energy in its roots, and takes awhile to settle in and make that big root system before it produces “asparagus” as we think of it, I’d say emphasizing root is a good thing.

  5. Karen says:

    I am a hemp farmer and would like to know which category that falls under. While the flowers are the viable product it is not the usual use of a flower. Can you please advise?

    1. margaret says:

      Dear Karen: I askhed my biodynamic farming friends for advice. They said: “If you want to emphasize the flower (or bud) then treat it as a flower–if you want to emphasize the leaf, treat it as a leaf. People often go back and forth on crops like cauliflower and broccoli– also not typical flowers, but not really leaves as well. I tend to think that if your climate and conditions tend to push plants towards early bolting, then you want to counteract that by treating it as a leaf crop. But if your conditions tend to lead to robust leaf growth, then treat it as a flower so that you can tone down the leafy qualities.”

  6. Linda Ronchetti says:

    Should a new Apple tree from the nursery be planted on a route day to get a stronger root system or on a floating day as it eventually will produce fruit?

  7. Linda Ronchetti says:

    Oh dear. I see Siri once again has sabotaged my message, Substituting route for root and floating days for fruiting days. Well whatever, you get the drift of my message and I hope you’ll be able to answer my question about my sweet new apple tree. Thank you

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Linda. I don’t know (I am guessing on fruit days), but Turtle Tree could probably tell you. Their phone and email is on their About page on their website, which is here.

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