Celestial Gardening

At Threefold Farm in upstate New York, the roots of the biodynamic movement in America run deep.

By Sari Harrar

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Gardeners tending the biodynamic garden at Threefold FarmDressed in worn leather boots and jeans, Mac Mead reaches between Swiss chard seedlings to scoop up handfuls of dark, moist earth. It’s a breezy spring morning in Threefold’s historic Pfeiffer Center garden in Chestnut Ridge, New York—America’s first biodynamic garden.

“Everything needed to heal the earth can come right from your own garden,” says Mead, the center’s program director, as the soil filters through his fingers. “That’s the heart of biodynamics—a partnership with the forces of the earth and the cosmos.”

If biodynamics (BD for short) sounds a bit mystical, that’s because it is—yet a growing community of proponents ranging from backyard gardeners to small-scale fruit, vegetable, and dairy farmers to commercial winemakers claim big results from its unusual techniques. These include tracking the movements of the moon and stars to guide planting and cultivation, using composting techniques that employ herbal preparations to enhance the breakdown of organic matter, and spraying specially aged manure and silica elixirs on beds and plants to focus the growth-promoting powers of soil, light, and air.

“Biodynamics is all about rebuilding healthy soil, growing healthier food, and building a community of people around that,” Mead says. “And in the U.S., it all started here in this garden.”

Founded in 1926 as Threefold Farm, this peaceful oasis is just 30 miles from New York City—yet worlds away from the malls and interstate traffic jams just up the road. Here, honeybees buzz in a tidy apiary. There’s a small orchard of dwarf apple and pear trees. Phlox, mayapple, and bleeding heart bloom in exuberant, half-wild borders. Inside the fenced vegetable garden, cover crops of crimson clover and blue-green rye ripple in the wind. Onions and peas, lettuces and radishes—30 vegetable varieties in all—reach for the sun.

Look closer, and there are signs of the garden’s biodynamic roots everywhere. This beyond-organic approach has been practiced here for most of the past 84 years. A planting calendar based on lunar cycles hangs in the garden shed. The 68 beds in the vegetable garden are raised—BD practitioners believe this enlivens the soil. There are big patches of chamomile, yarrow, and valerian—herbs added in small quantities at specific places in a compost pile to improve the conversion of garden and kitchen scraps into rich, moist humus. And a barrel of stinging-nettle tea—with a smell so pungent it makes my eyes sting—waits to be used for watering vegetables. (Tomatoes love it.)

“Biodynamics is definitely spiritual,” says assistant gardener Megan Durney. “But there are no hard-and-fast rules. Add pieces of it to your gardening—you don’t have to do everything. And you don’t have to take it on faith. Experimenting and being skeptical are encouraged. See for yourself what works. That’s what I do.”

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