POD 6: Biodynamic farming and winegrowing
Biodynamics has 3 key elements, thinking holistically, using the biodynamic preparations outlined by Steiner and using the biodynamic lunar calendar.
Element 1: Thinking of the farm as a whole-farm system
Biodynamics seeks to be regenerative. We want to create a farm that does not rely on imported materials but instead creates what it needs. In a perfect biodynamic farm, the waste from one part becomes the energy for another and forms part of a circle of life that is self-sufficient and self-renewing. It is an ongoing creative journey. There is an element of permaculture in this component although biodynamics and permaculture are separate but complementary agricultural philosophies.
Element 1: Thinking of the farm as a living and self-sufficient entity
Element 1: The farm as a self-sufficient living entity, examples at Chateau Feely
Initiatives at Feely farm that form part of this element include:
- grape waste is used to make compost
- chickens scratch in the vines and eat unwanted insects and give us their eggs and waste which goes on the compost heap
- damaged or broken wood trellis poles are used to heat the house in winter
- water collected on our roofs is used for sprays* and for watering** the garden
- we collect and use plants available on the farm for tisanes for example stinging nettle*** and willow***
- Sean grows most of the vegetables and salads that that we eat and some of the salads served to wine tour visitors in the farm potager or food garden
*The quality of the spray is better with rain water than with tap water
**PDO Protected Designation of Origin or AOC vines in France are not allowed to be irrigated
***Look out for these on the physical trail at Chateau Feely
Element 2: The biodynamic preparations and teas
The two key preparations used in biodynamics are the 500 cow-horn manure preparation and the 501 cow-horn silica preparation. Despite their tiny doses, a small handful per hectare for the 500 and less than a teaspoon per hectare for the 501, these are powerful preparations.
The 500 and 501 are counter-balances for each other. The 500 is for the earth and fertility forces and is dynamised and sprayed in large droplets on the ground in the evening and the 501 is for the sky and light forces dynamised and sprayed in a fine mist into the sky in the early morning.
Dynamisation means mixing the preparation in pure water for about an hour making a spiral motion clockwise and then anticlockwise to create chaos at the changeover. When Sean and Caro Feely started biodynamics they dynamised by hand because they couldn’t afford a dynamiser. It was a great learning experience as you can feel how the texture of the water changes with dynamisation.
Element 2: The biodynamic preparations
The Biodynamic Preparations in Detail
The 500 cow horn manure biodynamic preparation
Creation of the 500 cow horn manure preparation
To create the 500 preparation cow horns are filled with fresh biodynamic cow dung and buried for six months from the autumn solstice to the spring solstice.
Applying the 500 preparation to the vineyard
For a hectare – about 2.5 acres – a small handful of the 500 preparation is dynamised into around 30 litres of pure water. Dynamisation means special stirring – described above -for about an hour. The temperature of the dynamised water must be around 36 degrees and the temperature of the earth must be warm enough too. The dynamised preparation is then sprayed in large droplets on the ground in the late afternoon in spring and autumn.
500P – the 500 integrated with the compost preparations
The 500P is the 500 cow horn manure preparation including the biodynamic compost preparations listed below. This creates a way to include the compost preparations where biodynamic compost has not been used in conjunction with the 500.
How can this tiny amount make a difference?
The microbiological activity in the cow dung that has been in the horn is ten times greater than the same cow dung left in a clay pot or glass jar for the same period. Something in the cow horn enhances the fertility. We know this is fact but we don’t know exactly why.
So we start with a super charged handful of cow dung but how does that create fertility across a whole hectare? We mix it into warm water and spray it on the ground as outlined above. Think of making yoghurt, you can take many litres of milk and if the temperature of the milk is correct then a few drops of starter culture will turn the entire amount to yoghurt. This is the same idea. The 500 is a powerful fertility booster that with the right conditions promotes increased soil life through growth of beneficial bacteria.
The 501 cow horn silica biodynamic preparation
The 501 cow horn silica biodynamic preparation brings light into the vineyard. It reinforces the vine’s health and vitality and improves verticality (the ability to remain upright – important for vines), leaf surfaces and fruit skins. The 501 enhances the light metabolism of the plant. It stimulates photosynthesis and the formation of chlorophyll and thereby influences grape colour, aroma, and flavour.
To make the silica spray pure quartz is ground to a fine powder then packed into a cow horn and buried around the time of the spring solstice and dug up around the autumn solstice so it is the opposite half of the year to the 500.
A tiny dose, half a teaspoon per hectare, is diluted in about 25 litres of pure unpolluted water, dynamised and then sent in a very fine spray, like a light mist, in to the air. Each minute particle is like a multi faceted tiny mirror that brings light into the vines.
Beware the power of biodynamic preparations
Sean has always been wary of the 501 given the hot summers of South West France. At the start of 2016 with the cold, rainy spring, Caro convinced him to do a second spray of 501 on part of the vineyard, taking the cue from a biodynamic colleague who saved his crop in wet 2013 with 11 passes of 501. But the cold wet spring catapulted into hot summer with a peak of forty degrees within a week of the spray. The 501 magnifies heat and light forces and the young cabernet sauvignon vines were burnt, like someone had passed through with a flame thrower. Fortunately the vines survived.
The photos Sean doing the spray in June 2018.
The compost preparations listed below function together in a compost pile to bring balance to the compost and eventually to the soil it will be added to. These compost preparations provide the same action in the 500P described above. To be effective each of the compost preparations must be collected and prepared in a specific way as outlined by Steiner in the Agriculture Course.
502 – Yarrow – flowers of Achillea millefolium
503 – Chamomile – flowers of Matricaria chamomilla
504 – Stinging Nettle – stem and leaves of Urtica dioica
505 – Oak Bark – Bark of Quercus alba
506 – Dandelion – Flowers of Taraxacum officinale
507 – Valerian – Flowers of Valeriana officianalis
508– Field horsetail – Equisetum arvense
The field horsetail preparation is not part of the compost pile. It is an optional preparation that can be sprayed on the ground around Easter as a preventative to fungal problems.
The power of teas made from plants
Most medicines originated from plants – for example aspirin is from salicylic acid found in its natural form in willow. In biodynamics we use natural solutions, ideally growing on our farm- to solve our problems. Here are some of our favourites.
Stinging nettle infusion is a mild antifungal and stinging nettle maceration is a fertiliser.
What is the difference between an infusion or ’tisane’ or tea, a decoction and a maceration?
- For an infusion we pour boiling water onto the dried or fresh leaves, flowers or fruits and leave it to infuse (usually around 10 minutes)
- For a decoction we place the fresh or dried root or stem into room temperature water and bring it to the boil for a few minutes (up to 10) then leave it to infuse for 10 minutes
- For a maceration we place the fresh parts of the plant into room temperature water and leave it for a long period e.g. 2 weeks
Willow bark decoction stimulates natural defences against fungal disease like downy mildew and reduces the impact of humidity.
Field horsetail as an infusion is an antifungal and a stimulant. It has been found to reduce sporulation of vine downy mildew by 70%.
Moon over Chateau Feely
Element 3: The biodynamic lunar calender
The third part of biodynamics is the calender that plots the earth relative to our moon, the planets of our solar system and the twelve 12 constellations that surround us. This calender helps us to plan our work at the ideal time. All farmers used a calendar like this, called the farmer’s almanac, until around the 1970’s when chemical farming took over.
We can see the direct effect of the sun and the seasons on our lives. A little less obvious but still visible is the moon and particularly its effect on the tides. The other planets and constellations also have an impact that is less visible. Like all farmers we follow the seasons and the weather, the biodynamic calender is a plus, it is used to fine tune our farming and winemaking activities.
The Lunar Cycles
Details of the Lunar Cycle
The moon has 4 different ‘motions’.
- waxing and waning
- ascending and descending
- sidereal cycle
- apogee-perigee cycle
Synodic cycle – waxing and waning: 29.5 days
Waxing is the moon going from new moon to full moon then waning is decreasing back to new moon. This happens over a 29.5 day cycle as the moon circles around the earth. The shadow on the moon is the earth’s shadow as it blocks the sun’s rays from that part of the moon. With a full moon there is more moonlight.
Ascending and descending: 27.3 days
Think of the sun’s movement through the seasons. As we go from summer to winter it is descending – days get shorter. As we move from winter to summer it is ascending – days get longer. If you plotted the sun on a window at the same time each day you would see the change. The moon follows the same cycle but instead of a year it does it in 27.3 days. As it ascends it is like going into a mini summer within the season concerned and as it descends it is like going into a mini winter within the season concerned. When the moon is ascending sap rises more strongly so it is a good time for harvesting or for taking cuttings. When the moon is descending it is ideal for pruning or racking wine.
Sidereal cycle: 27.3 days
This is the path of the moon through the 12 astronomic constellations. The moon spends 2-3 days in each constellation. Each constellation is linked to a primary element for example taurus is earth, pisces is water, libra is air, leo is fire. As the moon passes through each constellation the cycle is linked with the relevant element either Earth (root), Water (leaf), Air (flower) and Fire (fruit) and each of these are associated with the part of the plant in brackets.
Apogee-perigee cycle : 27.2 days
The moon moves around the earth in an elliptical orbit thus its distance from the earth varies through the month. When the moon is at apogee, it is at its furthest point from the earth and at perigee, it is at its closest. When it’s closest – perigee – we experience the most extreme tidal differences what is often called ‘spring tide’.
A calender of work in the organic and biodynamic vineyard
- October/ November: vineyard maintenance and building soil fertility with compost and 500 or 500P biodynamic preparation
- December/ January : pruning
- February: pruning and tying down
- March: finish pruning and tying down
- April: first shoots appear and initial mechanical weeding, close observation, second 500P preparation, teas and other plant preparations as required
- May: anti-fungal treatments and teas, mechanical weeding, unwanted shoot removal and 501 preparation
- June: as with May plus initial trimming of the vine canopy late June
- July: teas and treatments, mechanical weeding, adventitious shoot removal, vine trimming
- August: maintenance and winery preparation
- September: harvest
- October: winery work, start of maintenance and soil fertility work and potentially a second 501
Biodynamic farming and winegrowing: conclusion
Conclusion: Biodynamic farming and winegrowing
Organic and biodynamic farms seek to create beneficial circles that work with nature, it is about reinforcing the beneficial aspects of nature and avoiding the negative aspect of systemic pesticides.
Continue your voyage through our biodynamic trail with POD 7 on organic, biodynamic and natural winemaking or jump to the start of the trail.
Come and learn more about winemaking with a WSET wine course, a visit to Chateau Feely in South West France ; stay with us or do a multi day course or multi day tour . You can read about the story of our organic farm the series includes three books (order online with amazon or from your local bookstore)
Grape Expectations: A Family’s Vineyard Adventure in France (Caro Feely Book 1)
Summersdale publishers have also made the 3 book series available as a bundle for the UK market Caro Feely (3 Book Series)
by Caro Feely.
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