By Joseph Murray
This article was submitted for publication in the 2020 Stella Natura calendar. I encourage you to purchase a calendar (or two) to support the great things going on at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills.
Now, a farm comes closest to its own essence when it can be conceived of as a kind of independent individuality, a self-contained entity. Rudolf Steiner
Ask homeowners about their landscapes and more often than not, you’ll hear a mournful tale of plants performing poorly. They myopically focus on specific features of their landscapes and fail to consider how the different “parts” could ever work together. Believing they lack the necessary knowledge to improve their landscapes, many homeowners turn to experts in the traditional landscape management industry to fix perceived problems. Yet the following year little has changed, or worse, the health of their land further degraded and their plants dependent on fertilizers and pesticides. In one year, a homeowner may hire a landscape designer followed by a tree expert, turf expert and a horticulturist or gardener. Experts often operate in their own bubble and fail to appreciate that their actions impact everything in the landscape. The experts and the homeowner may view their actions apart from, rather than a part of, nature. Their voluntary ignorance aside, the fact remains: the parts of the landscape areinterconnected and the landscape itself is connected to the greater community. To use a human analogy, the homeowner’s property resembles a precancerous cell operating independently of neighboring cells. This cellular dysfunction can impair the health of the tissue (neighborhood) and even the greater organ (community) should toxins (pesticide and fertilizer runoff) be released into the circulatory system (community’s watershed).
In response to repeated requests from farmers for Rudolf Steiner to provide guidance on how they could reverse the trend of soil degradation and reduced yields, Steiner gave an eight-part lecture series on agriculture in 1924. These lectures outlined principles to improve soil and plant health; afterwards they became the basis of Biodynamic Agriculture. Horticultural practices used in traditional landscape management have been influenced by the industrial agricultural model and, not surprisingly, produce similar problems on residential landscapes. Just as farms can be transformed by Biodynamic principles, I believe residential landscapes are capable of similar transformations. An understanding of Steiner’s agriculture lectures deepens one’s relationship with the land, be it a farm, garden, or residential landscape. The principles outlined by Steiner, particularly the concept of a farm individuality, can provide a way forward for homeowners struggling with their landscape’s identity.
Early in his lectures Steiner introduced his concept of a farm as an organism or individuality. Steiner concedes that although it’s unlikely one will ever achieve a farm that’s absolutely self-contained what’s critical is that one develops a holistic perspective in order to recognize the interconnectedness of all the farm’s components. Furthermore, Steiner said that there are non-material properties associated with the flow of energy and substances between the components of the farm that are not apparent to farmers only considering the outer material realm. I’ll attempt to provide my own interpretation of this imperative – homeowners should try to maintain the fertility loop on their properties by composting existing materials growing in the landscape, not bringing in compost produced from another location. In other words, over time, the landscape individuality will be able to detect excesses and deficiencies and make modifications to achieve balance. George Washington Carver, a contemporary of Rudolf Steiner and also a spiritually minded scholar, shared this idea of the farm as a self-contained entity. Although Carver’s primary focus was on helping southern black farmers achieve self-sufficiency, and viewed a reliance on chemical fertilizers counterproductive, his core belief was that to rely on external inputs implied that the farm was in some way deficient, an idea untenable to Carter.
Steiner’s description of a farm as an individuality can be applied to residential landscapes because both entities are ecosystems – a biological community interacting with its physical environment, a term that didn’t come into existence until 11 years after Steiner delivered his series of agriculture lectures. Believing in the axiom that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” Steiner encouraged farmers to hold the holistic perspective when considering how the parts work together synergistically. With a few modifications, the same Biodynamic principles used for the farm can be used for the landscape, the obvious exceptions being practices involving animals (manure and materials for making the preparations). The other Biodynamic principles can be performed on a residential landscape as they would on a farm: composting with the six compost preparations, use of potentized liquid field sprays, striving for biodiversity, and working with natural rhythms of the earth and cosmos. With this new focus on the landscape individuality, previously perceived weed and pest problems (should they occur) become valuable indicators to help the homeowner make small and slow adjustments to return balance back to the landscape. In some ways, it may be easier to work with a residential landscape than with a farm as an individuality: first, there’s no harvest and exporting of materials with the loss of nutrients from the property; second, since the plants in a landscape are primarily perennial, there is less disruption of the land and the perennial shedding of plant material can stay in place as mulch or be used in composting; and finally, typical residential landscapes are significantly smaller than farms and easier to maintain.
Steiner also called for a diversity of mini-ecosystems on the farm to include forest, orchard, woody shrubs, habitat for fungi, wetlands and meadows. Although a very large landscape may be able to incorporate these components, a typical residential landscape will not. Yet if homeowners reach out to neighbors to suggest that the topography on their land may lend itself to a meadow of wildflowers, a wetland, orchard or other component, then by connecting neighboring landscapes – each specializing in their mini-ecosystems – the parts may interact. In addition to partnering properties to develop a larger individuality, the opportunity exists to share perspectives on landcare with neighbors, family and friends. Indeed, transforming one’s landscape with Biodynamic principles is an example of the oft used expression – “Think globally, act locally.”
I have been maintaining a Biodynamic landscape around our home for five years and have experienced a deeper relationship with nature than I ever have in my previous 30 plus years as a professional in the landscape industry. I have found it deeply satisfying to witness our landscape’s individuality emerge and surprising at times to watch it act on its own volition. These moments of surprise serve as a mirror in which I can choose to see myself or to see the whole; to either be apart from, or a part of, nature and the landscape individuality.
Nature has an impulse to perform what ecologists call “secondary succession.” I’ve observed abandon pastures on neighboring properties undergo changes in plant communities, eventually ending with a specific climax community, an oak-hickory forest for our region. Similarly, I see nature’s successional impulse on our property as I mow the lawn and encounter pioneering representatives from the adjoining forest advancing the forest farther into our yard. The regularly mown lawn and primped flower beds represent my impulse to achieve an outcome (albeit unsustainable) while the advancing forest represents nature’s impulse to undergo succession to restore a climax community as its outcome. However, there’s a third impulse, the most special places on our landscape, where the individuality of the land emerges, a combination of my desire mixed with the land’s impulse. These are areas where natural succession seems to have placed itself on “hold” in order for a new dynamic equilibrium to occur.
Two examples illustrate this new dynamic equilibrium, what I believe is our land’s individuality expressing itself on our property.
About eight years ago, our utility right-of-way corridor was, like neighboring utility corridors, overrun with brambles and invasive plant species growing on degraded soil, a result of aggressive trimming and spraying of herbicides by utility contractors. To encourage pollinator insects and discourage trees from taking root and growing into overhead electric lines, I set about the Sisyphean task of replacing the undesirable plants with what I believed to be more appropriate native species. Frustrated at not seeing “my plants” becoming established and realizing my task was futile, I approached the problem differently, investing my time making observations of the land. I felt as if the land was attempting to do something. I observed an increase in native wildflowers and grasses (which I did not plant) as the land rapidly transformed the utility corridor into a goldenrod corridor, providing wonderful habitat for pollinators and many other insects. An added benefit further satisfied my initial goal: goldenrod releases a chemical inhibiting the germination and establishment of tree seedlings. In reflection, I wonder why this transformation to a largely self-sustaining pollinator corridor didn’t arise in the past and why nature has hit the pause button on natural succession. Perhaps what is happening at this moment is a new phenomenon not covered in my ecology textbooks.
About five years ago I abandoned weeding our blueberry patch, again out of frustration, and admitted defeat in the war I declared on dandelions. Unfamiliar with growing blueberry shrubs, I assumed my bed should look like the pictures in books and magazines, weed free and mulched. In awe, I observed how fast dandelions completely enveloped the entire bed. As the bed was located in a prominent location, friends lowered their gaze to express sympathy that I had lost control and had obviously given up on gardening. They were confused by my enthusiasm for the blueberry patch and my reports that yields had increased, with fewer pest and disease problems. Turns out the dandelion blanket is just what was needed for blueberry shrubs and our soil. With its continual eruption of new leaves, the dandelion foliage serves as an effective green mulch throughout the year. The dandelion roots break up compacted soil and, with the aid of soil organisms, transform the soil into such a wonderful friable growing medium that we are reluctant to walk into the bed because our feet sink into the soil. The dandelions bloom all season to provide valuable support to pollinators otherwise dependent on more restricted blooming periods of other plants in the garden. We harvested dandelion roots and added them to yarrow to make a splendid bitter tonic used before meals to aid digestion. Plus, the greens are a tasty addition to salads!
If I had continued headlong into imprinting my control over my land, as many do, I might have escalated my tactics by carpet-bombing the land with fertilizers and strafing weeds and pests with pesticides. I’ve witnessed this war between property owners and nature for most of my career in the landscape industry. In fact, I’ve been both a hired mercenary and an arms dealer perpetuating this unsustainable attack on nature.
Although I had heard of Rudolf Steiner’s description of a farm’s individuality in the past, I assumed it was a concept that applied to farms and farmers. However, upon realizing the futility of my actions attempting to control nature, I slowly realized that his message has a broader appeal to anyone open to a relationship with nature. I only wish I had taken Steiner’s lesson to heart sooner and declared peace with nature years ago.
For more information on compost preparations used in Biodynamic farming see Wali Via’s article, “Biodynamic Compost Preparations,” published on the Biodynamic Association’s website, https://www.biodynamics.com/content/biodynamic-compost-preparations
Steiner, R. 1993. Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. A Course of Lectures Held at Koberwitz, Silesia, June 7 to June 16, 1924. Translated by C.E. Creeper and M. Gardner. Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Inc., Kimberton, PA.
Biodynamic Association. 2019, January 31. Biodynamic Principles and Practices. Retrieved from https://www.biodynamics.com/biodynamic-principles-and-practices