Another Life: Grow it yourself – with a hoist from the moon
Biodynamic growers study the lunar cycle before deciding when to sow their seeds
‘Beaming down the bog’: sunrise on Mweelrea, Co Mayo. Illustration: Michael Viney
The first real day of spring is when the mountain moves out of the way of the sun. Freed from Mweelrea’s flank last week, it beamed down the bog to wrap each gravid ewe in a golden warmth. It floodlit our kitchen at breakfast-time, bouncing round the walls and turning my porridge spoon to silver.
Worshipping the sun is as near as I get to religion, so the great pagan gatherings for the eclipse, in the parks and on the rooftops of these islands, brought me rare communion with my race. Unlike the ancient Ojibways or the Sencis of Peru (whoever they were), nobody fired fire-tipped arrows in the air to rekindle the fading light . But, whatever their understanding, even as coached by Brian Cox on telly, it was good to find the populace mostly out of doors and peering up at real events on the biggest screen on the planet.
The night before the mountain moved, as it happens, we celebrated the spring equinox with a good friend to the north, who salutes these occasions with a bonfire in a barrel and a glass or two of wine. Arriving home, I stepped out beneath a starry sky of overwhelming magnificence and clarity. Perhaps I should get out more after sunset, but for sheer humbling gobsmackery, this is what should bring the light-mazed masses of the cities to the hilltops, preferably in Mayo as weather permits.
For some gardeners, and even farmers, a proper cosmic sensibility assumes a special function in April, when so many seeds are sown. It’s an act of faith that could well benefit by blessings from the heavens – in particular, from the moon. If, after all, a close encounter from a supermoon could draw up supertides last month to isolate Brittany’s Mont St Michel, its gravitational pull must surely give a helpful hoist to the water in plants and the soil. Thus, think “biodynamic” growers, there must be good and bad weeks for sowing leafy or root crops and fruit, depending on the state and whereabouts of the moon and its relation to the 12 signs of the zodiac.
This necessarily demands an elaborate calendar, sorting the seeds by their celestial influence. A model was one produced annually by a German farmer, Maria Thun, from the 1960s until her death at 89 in 2012. By that year, biodynamic techniques were in use on some 142,500 hectares in 47 countries, almost half of these in German farms and gardens and quite a few in Ireland (go to biodynamic.ie). They have also been taken up, somewhat controversially among winemakers, in several notable vineyards in California’s Napa Valley.
Maria Thun built on the original work of Austria’s Dr Rudolf Steiner, whose name you may know without quite knowing why. His “spiritual science” was expressed in anthroposophy – a human relationship with nature – in biodynamic cultivation, and the excellent Camphill communities caring for children with disabilities and with autism.
There is also plenty to respect in Steiner’s pioneering of organic ideas around a century ago. When the Vineys moved west at the end of the 1970s to experiment with self-reliant living, “organic” ways were still reckoned a bit hippy. Now, crop rotation and diversity, compost heaps, and a ban on toxic chemicals are basic to grow-it-yourself gardening, and “organic” wins a premium on supermarket shelves.
What was different about Steiner was his conviction that pre-industrial farmers, timing sowing, planting, pruning and harvesting by the phases of the moon, were in tune with something fundamental in mankind’s relationship with earth, moon and stars.
Maria Thun began to codify his ideas after her own series of experiments with sowing radishes in adjacent plots on different days. Comparisons of foliage and root size convinced her. Much more elaborate and dramatic demonstrations are to be explored on the web, together with some sceptical abuse of “pseudoscience” and “magical thinking”.
Some details of biodynamic practice can seem, indeed, a little esoteric. Burying a cow horn stuffed with manure or ground quartz “to harvest cosmic forces in the soil”, spraying with special tinctures of herb, or trusting to the influence of not just the moon but the near and far planets can raise a lot of eyebrows.
Looking back on my own cultivation of the acre, there are many things I wish I’d tried from the start – permaculture, for example, the planning and design that makes a productive, self-sustaining ecosystem of a garden (try cultivate.ie or thevillage.ie). Now that my efforts are largely confined to a polytunnel, there is even less scope for experiments. It has room enough, however, for a comfortable canvas chair, where I could test the proof that helped to convince the biodynamic winemakers of Napa Valley: that a glass of even quite a decent red can taste better on different days.