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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath
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What do Permaculture, Biodynamic & Biointensive mean?
Q. I've been looking into the different design systems I could use in establishing a new organic garden and food forest fruit orchard. I've heard about permaculture, biodynamic, and biointensive, but I'm really confused: What's the difference between these three? And finally, which do you think would give me the best view on how to design my new garden in a functional way for the long-term? Thanks.
---Joe from Greenville, NC
A. At least two of the three you name—biodynamic and biointensive—sprang from the same source as the stripped-down style I espouse every week on this show: Plain old 'Organic Gardening'. No, 'OG' (or more correctly, OA for Organic Agriculture, so it includes farming) doesn't have as catchy a name as the philosophies cited, but it is the British/American counterpart to the German biodynamic method, it evolved from the same influences as the biointensive system, and it predates permaculture by at least a couple of decades.
What J. I. Rodale called "the British system of organic gardening" came into its own at about the same time the German philosopher and mystic Rudolph Steiner was popularizing his theory of biodynamicism. Both were rebellions against the 'accepted' highly toxic and destructive agricultural practices of the day. But while the Brits and Steiner were both inspired by rural forms of Agriculture from around the world—all of which emphasized the use of every available form of organic matter—Steiner also veered deeply into symbolism, astrology and astronomy.
True biodynamics will bury animal parts (cattle horns, deer stomachs…) stuffed with objects like crystals or manure at precise times of the year in precise locations to later be dug up and made into homeopathic soil and compost preparations following the exact formulas created by Steiner back in the 1920s. Biodynamic agriculture is timed to the alignment of the planets and phases of the moon, and is accompanied by rituals like sitting naked on planting beds at precise times of night. Biodynamic tools contain copper plugs to help channel planetary energy into the soil and crops. And, like all of the philosophies named by our listener, biodynamic agriculture is strictly organic, using no man-made chemicals and emphasizing the creation of naturally fertile soil.
How important are the rituals and other mystical aspects to being biodynamic? I suspect that depends greatly on the individual. I can say that from my perspective and that of the late Robert Rodale, that there is zero 'wrong' with the biodynamic method. In fact, Bob once remarked that "the biodynamics are as organic as we are, and arguably more fun."
The biointensive method most emphasizes my style of organic growing: Build up the soil with lots of organic matter (especially in the form of compost), keep it light and loose, and design systems that allow you to grow a lot of food in a small area. It's a version of (and very true to the components of) the French Intensive style—a system that predates all the other named philosophies and that gave us the original concept of raised beds.
Steiner incorporated elements of the French method in his biodynamic system, and then his student Alan Chadwick refined those elements—minus Steiner's mysticism—into a system he called biointensive. Chadwick introduced his new/old concept to the United States, where the method was popularized by the great John Jeavons and the group Ecology Action.
Jeavon's classic book, "How to Grow More Vegetables: And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine" remains an incredibly useful treatise on intensive growing. Every serious organic gardener should read it.
Which brings us to permaculture, a philosophy based on the fashioning of systems—agricultural and social—that are naturally sustainable and that utilize a local area's resources to their utmost. Think of it as "permanent culture", both in the concept of agri-culture and human culture. Although it lacks the mystical elements, permaculture owes much of its core philosophy of thinking in large scale cultural terms to Rudolph Steiner, who helped found the Waldorf Schools and Camp Hill communities, where residential living and agriculture are fully intertwined.
Three systems of growing food without toxic chemicals and in ways that imitate and respect nature would seem to me to be much more alike than dissimilar—especially when you look back to the common influences that inspired them and the cross-pollinations between them. Add 'my' style—which I'll here call the Rodale method of organic growing—and Mel Bartholomew's intensive system of Square Foot Gardening, and we've got five philosophies that mesh like the fingers of a hand.
Now, if you're tight on space or just want to grow a lot of good eating in a compact area, the biointensive, Rodale, Square Foot and original French intensive methods should all work well for you. If you're leaning more towards building a long-term sustainable community of plants (like the 'food forest' our listener mentions), take a look at permaculture. And if your instincts lead you towards building that community—or just plain gardening—in a way that incorporates symbolism, astronomy and planetary energy, biodynamicism might be what your spirit is craving.
Back when I was the editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, we plucked thoughts and ideas from all of these philosophies; and we found that rather than clash against each other, they tended to naturally aggregate into common themes and goals. Read up on all of them; take from each what you can use; and don't be afraid to create your own system.
Note: I'm sure that proponents of each system will find fault with my 'outsider's view' of their worlds, and while I tried hard to get the history and chronology correct, I'm sure there's fault to be found there as well. So let me make it clear that this is my opinion, culled from a lot of recent research, a long association with all of these techniques (especially during my time as editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine), and personal conversations and experiences with people like John Jeavons, Permaculture's crazily wonderful Bill Mollison, and the late great Robert Rodale. I encourage those interested to research the topics themselves. Here are some starting points: