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part 2: what is biodynamics?

A thermometer checking the temperature inside a compost heap at Brick House winery in Oregon

It is helpful to think of biodynamics not primarily as an agricultural system, but rather as an altered philosophy or worldview that then impacts on the practice of agriculture in various ways. In other words, to farm biodynamically, first you have to think biodynamically.  

It has its roots in a series of lectures delivered by Austrian philosopher–scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1924. Steiner’s life mission was to bridge the gap between the material and spiritual worlds through the philosophical method. To this end, he created the ‘spiritual science’ of anthroposophy, which he used as the basis of the Waldorf school system that persists to this day.

It was only quite late on in Steiner’s life that he turned to agriculture: his eight lectures, entitled Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, were delivered just a year before his death, but they remain as the foundation of biodynamic farming. Modern biodynamic practice is built on top of Steiner-inspired theories, but it is important to emphasize that there are a number of growers who practice biodynamics but who would distance themselves from Steiner’s beliefs and teachings. 

Key to biodynamics is considering the farm in its entirety as a living system. To this end, biodynamic farms are supposed to be closed, self-sustaining systems. Biodynamics also sees the farm in the context of the wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms. In this holistic view, the soil is seen not simply as a substrate for plant growth, but as an organism in its own right. The idea of using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides is thus an anathema to biodynamic practitioners. Instead, they use a series of special preparations (see Table) to enhance the life of the soil, which are applied at appropriate times in keeping with the rhythms of nature. And disease is seen not as a problem to be tackled head-on, but rather as a symptom of a deeper malaise within the farm ‘organism’: correct the problem in the system and the disease will right itself.

The different biodynamic preparations



Mode of application


Cow manure fermented in a cow horn, which is then buried and over-winters in the soil

Sprayed on the soil typically at a rate of 60 g per hectare in 34 litres of water.


Ground quartz (silica) mixed with rain water and packed in a cow’s horn, buried in spring and then dug up in autumn

Sprayed on the crop plants


Flower heads of yarrow fermented in a stag’s bladder

Applied to compost along with preparations 503-507. Together these control the breakdown of the manures and compost, helping to make trace elements more available to the plant


Flower heads of camomile fermented in the soil

Applied to compost


Stinging nettle tea

Applied to compost. Nettle tea is also sometimes sprayed on weak or low vigour vines


Oak bark fermented in the skull of a domestic animal

Applied to compost


Flower heads of dandelion fermented in cow mesentery

Applied to compost


Juice from valerian flowers

Applied to compost


Tea prepared from horsetail plant (Equisetum)

Used as a spray to counter fungal diseases

Note: All these preparations are diluted and then activated or energized by a special stirring process known as ‘dynamization’. 

A short film of James Millton, a biodynamic winegrower in New Zealand, perparing and spraying BD501 in his vineyards. [This was filmed at 6.30 in the morning after a big wine dinner the night before.]

Biodynamics is in effect a supercharged system of organic farming. Where biodynamics differs significantly in practice from organics is in the use of these special preparations and the timing of their application—in other ways the techniques employed are quite similar. 

As I’ve talked to various biodynamic winegrowers from around the world, one thing has become clear. While they tend to agree on the big details, each has their developed biodynamics to suit their own particular situation. Winegrowers drawn to this philosophy tend to be inventive types, always experimenting and refining their practices to see what works best. As a result, there are many different flavours and variations around this common theme, and it’s hard to define biodynamics in any sort of rigid way.  

Biodynamic preparations 501 and 500, with a cow horn in the background

One of the most common emphases of biodynamic practitioners is the importance of soil health, and, in particular, the development of a healthy soil microbial population. Composting helps achieve this, and all biodynamic growers will have big compost heaps. Indeed, if anything is going to be added to the soil, such as lime, it is usual to do this via the compost heap.

Compost heaps will typically contain waste material from the winery (such as the grape seeds, skins and stems), plus cow manure (some wineries, such as Millton in New Zealand have their own herds; others will source manure from suitably organic farmers), covered by straw and then watered at regular intervals. The microbial activity in the heap generates heat, and the temperature in the pile will reach perhaps 130 or 140 F (c. 60 C). The difference between biodynamic compost and organic compost is simply the range of special preparations added to the heap, as detailed above. After about a year, the compost is then ready to be added to the vineyard - typically, growers will do a plot at a time - you don't want to be adding to much compost because then the soil will be too rich and will promote vigorous growth, which isn't conducive to quality.

Another important aspect of biodynamics is working the soil by manual plowing - of course, the usual viticultural practice of keeping rows clear of weeds by means of herbicides such as glyphosate (Roundup) is not permitted in biodynamics or organics. Many biodynamic growers advocate plowing to break up superficial roots and encourage the vines to sink their roots deeper. Others will allow weeds to grow between the rows. Under the rows themselves it is common to find growers working with special devices that weed manually but then avoid the trunks of the vines. Some growers even use horses to plough with rather than tractors. 

In later parts of this series we’ll explore in greater depth exactly what applying biodynamics to a wine estate would involve, and take a look at a biodynamic property in operation.

Other topics in this series 


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