Dynamic way to think ecologically

SUSTAINABLE GROWTH: Biodynamic farming and gardening is based on a simple but vital activity – observation.
SUSTAINABLE GROWTH: Biodynamic farming and gardening is based on a simple but vital activity – observation.

In times long ago Aotearoa was a unique biological ship sailing through the great ocean of Kiwa (Pacific).

Then people came and things started to change.

They cleared land for horticulture and for moa hunting and with them a few exotic species, such as the kumara and the kiore (pacific rat) appeared.

Later arrivers intensified the changes and vast areas of rain forest were converted to farmland where a huge range of newly introduced species could now be found.

The story of land use in New Zealand is a story of change.

Our land has changed faster and more radically than land in many other places. In thinking about farming and gardening we easily accept that change is part of the way of it. It has made us flexible and adaptable but it has also meant that we sometimes accept changes without looking too hard at them.

One change that has gone almost unnoticed is that agriculture and horticulture have become dominated by the sciences of dead things.

How much clay is in your soil? How much magnesium or phosphorus does this plant need? What chemical fertiliser should I use? Which agrichemical will I use to overcome this pest?

There has been a shift from seeing the farm and garden as built of biological processes - as life - to seeing it as a matter of chemistry and physics.

While this was happening, a new science developed that has, as yet, hardly found its path into the way we farm and garden.

That science is ecology, which Wikipedia says "is the scientific study of the relationships that living organisms have with each other and with their natural environment".

If we can apply ecological ideas to agriculture - develop agroecology - we can start to redress the balance that has in my view shifted too far towards "things" and too far from "processes".

The biodynamic approach is one of the ways that can help us move in this direction.

Biodynamic farming and gardening is based on a simple but vital activity - observation.

A biodynamic gardener called Maria Thun once noticed that plants she observed closely every day were also different every day.

She spent the next 60 years documenting her observations in more and more detail, and her work has encouraged others to look at the relations between astronomical activity and plant growth.

Other aspects of biodynamics also encourage us to look, and to see what we might have missed. There are particular preparations used in biodynamic farming and gardening, and the best known of these is probably the horn manure. Cow manure is overwintered in the soil in a cow's horn, and during that time it completely loses the qualities of manure and becomes more like humus. This doesn't happen if you bury it in a bottle or a plastic container, for example. When it is dug up it is stirred into water and spread over the land in very small quantities. Commonly, from this, changes have been observed in the soil.

It has been seen to become better structured so that it supports plants better through droughts and drains better in floods.

Changes have been observed to the depth plant roots penetrate into the soil, to the number of earthworms and to the enzymes at work there. These changes are almost always seen as changes for the better.

There is often a change in the farmer or grower too.

Use of the biodynamic preparations, in such small quantities, encourages - perhaps demands - the land manager see the land with new eyes.

You might say it teaches a new way of observation, and a new way of thinking. instead of saying, "How do I get rid of that pest?", you may start thinking, "How do I arrange my farm or garden ecosystem so that the pest just isn't there?".

For example, biodynamic sheep farmers don't drench lambs regularly.

They don't need to, because they focus on developing a farming system that avoids the internal parasites in the first place.

One of the ideas of ecology that is most pertinent to farming and gardening is that of emergent patterns and properties - that there are things that happen as the result of the system as a whole, not just one part of it.

"The whole is more than the sum of the parts", the saying goes.

We need to keep what is good for farming and gardening from the sciences of chemistry and physics but add to them what we can learn from the vision of the wholeness of life. You can find out more about it on the website of the Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association biodynamic.org.nz.

David Wright is the secretary of the Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association in New Zealand

Northern News