Celestial Gardening

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

May 16, 2011

Dressed 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.”

The Organic–Biodynamic Connection

Biodynamics and organic gardening have much in common, including a shared moment of rebellious, chemical-free history—with connections to this little plot of land where renowned biodynamic scientist Ehrenfried Pfeiffer spent 17 years researching BD growing methods. The center is named for him, and his old lab is just up the hill. While Pfeiffer wasn’t the first to bring BD to America from Europe, he was an important early leader—working in Switzerland with the founder of biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, and running a successful BD farm in Holland before leaving Europe to come to America in the 1930s.

In Pennsylvania, Pfeiffer crossed paths with J.I. Rodale, founder of this magazine and of America’s organic-gardening movement. In the 1930s and 1940s, it took about 2 hours to drive between Rodale’s experimental farm near Emmaus, and Kimberton, where Pfeiffer was creating a model biodynamic farm and training center. “These were passionate men with big personalities and strong opinions. Their conversations must have been fascinating,” says Bill Day, development coordinator at Threefold Educational Center (parent of the Pfeiffer Center and of the other community and educational organizations on the propery’s 140 acres, including a restaurant, a food co-op and a Waldorf school).

Both men were intent on showing the world an alternative to the chemical-based agriculture they feared was sapping the earth’s fertility and leaching nutrients from food. Rodale funded some of Pfeiffer’s early experiments, including one in which mice fed an organic diet were found to be less irritable and have fewer digestion problems than those on conventional chemically raised feed. Rodale published Pfeiffer’s book The Earth’s Face and Human Destiny in 1947 and commissioned Pfeiffer to write for Organic Gardening. “The soil itself is now considered a living being,” Pfeiffer wrote in the pages of this magazine 62 years ago. “It dies when it is abused and mineralized. It is sustained when organic methods are practiced.”

Beyond Sustainability

Today, the Pfeiffer Center is teaching the world how to garden biodynamically. There’s a yearlong training program for aspiring BD growers, weekend workshops for backyard gardeners, and a program called the Outdoor Lesson that invites schoolchildren from local public schools to get their hands dirty in the garden—and taste the results.

“For years, biodynamics was a small movement—it’s better known in Europe and Australia,” Mead says. “Now, more small farms, orchards, and vineyards are adopting it. So are CSAs [Community-Supported Agriculture farms] where you can buy into a share of the harvest. You can buy biodynamic garden seed and find certified, biodynamic produce at natural-food stores. I think people who know about organics are looking for something more spiritual in the garden—and in their food. This goes beyond sustainability to resupplying the earth with what it really needs. We believe that’s our responsibility.”

One backyard gardener who’s convinced is Richard Makowski of River Vale, New Jersey. Makowski says he tried the biodynamic planting calendar a few years ago “for the heck of it”—and saw his winter squash yields triple. “My wife says the vegetables are sweeter,” he says, taking a break from planting a bed at the Pfeiffer garden. “I didn’t even believe this stuff at first. And maybe you don’t have to. But I’ve never met a gardener who isn’t spiritual on some level.”