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Bio-Dynamic Garden Digs Into Natural Techniques

Times Staff Writer

A band of about 15 gardeners gathers each Saturday morning in the backyard of Peter Dukich’s Simi Valley home for a scheduled four-hour lecture.

By nightfall, some are usually still there, intensely discussing the making of compost or the role of ants in controlling aphids. By midnight, Dukich said, stragglers are “politely told that it would be best if they depart.”

The focus of such zeal is bio-dynamic gardening, a little-known method of growing plants that goes organic gardening one better.

In addition to forswearing, as organic growers do, the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, bio-dynamic gardeners and farmers recycle everything that is not eaten. Bio-dynamic gardens revolve around the compost pile.

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Foster Harmony

Further, bio-dynamic gardeners seek to foster harmony among plants by strategically locating various vegetable, herb and flower plants based on their compatibility with other plants.

Bio-dynamic gardeners view the output of conventional growers as chemically tainted and lacking in nutrition and flavor. And they view modern farming practices as destructive to the soil.

Developed in the 1920s by Swiss philosopher Rudolph Steiner, bio-dynamic gardening has been slow to take root in the United States, although adherents say it is firmly entrenched in Europe and Australia.

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Ironically, in California, long reputed to be fertile ground for the exotic, the bio-dynamic movement was almost unknown until two decades ago.

Maria Linder, a professor of biochemistry at California State University, Fullerton, and leader of the movement, attributes much of the growth of bio-dynamic gardening in the region to Dukich and his marathon lectures.

Runs Nonprofit Group

“Peter has been particularly successful in firing people up on bio-dynamic gardening,” said Linder, who, from her Burbank home, operates a nonprofit association that certifies bio-dynamically grown food.

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Since moving here from Ohio in 1970, Dukich has lectured on the subject at private schools and institutes, chiefly at the private Waldorf schools, including the Highland Hall Waldorf School in Northridge.

The Waldorf schools, often called Steiner schools, teach bio-dynamic agriculture and other aspects of Steiner’s philosophy of anthroposophy, which the Encyclopedia Brittanica defines as a “spiritual movement still active in Europe and the United States, based on the notion that there is a spiritual world comprehensible to pure thought but accessible only to the highest faculties of mental knowledge.”

Taught at Pierce College

In addition to the Waldorf schools, Dukich said he taught bio-dynamic agriculture at Pierce College in Woodland Hills from 1971 to 1975.

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For the past decade, the 70-year-old retired carpenter has done most of his teaching at home, first in Northridge and, since moving a few years ago, in Simi. Dukich estimates that 5,000 people have taken his classes in California. He charges $50 for six half-day lectures.

The garden in which Dukich demonstrates bio-dynamic principles is a one-eighth-acre plot that is weed infested and chaotic, with dissimilar plants growing in what seems to be random fashion. Contributing to the appearance of agricultural anarchy is the practice of allowing plants to go to seed after they are harvested.

For those used to neat rows and dark, weed-free soil, the effect is jarring.

But, behind the seeming chaos, bio-dynamic practitioners see their own version of beauty.

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Dandelions are encouraged as a “rich source of potassium,” Dukich said.

Radishes and carrots are planted together so that the fast-growing radishes provide partial shade for the slower carrots. Thus, water consumption is reduced.

Green bean plants surround strawberries because the beans deposit nitrogen into the soil and strawberries are heavy nitrogen users.

Near-Mystical Properties

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Calendula, a minor flower to most gardeners that is planted throughout Dukich’s garden, has near-mystical properties to the bio-dynamic grower. When combined with water, it makes a liquid that, when sprayed on other plants, “discourages all insects that chew, such as the tomato worm and the caterpillar,” he said.

“Whatever the calendula is close to, it enhances,” said Dukich. “It seems to give off good vibrations for reasons we don’t fully understand.”

In concert with ants, sunflowers are used to control aphids, the bane of rose growers. Ants collect aphids from throughout the garden and deposit them on the underside of the broad sunflower leaves.

As each leaf becomes loaded with aphids, Dukich breaks it off and feeds it to his chickens.

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Chickens Control Snails

To control snails, the chickens are periodically set free in the garden to eagerly snap up the crawling creatures, much hated by California gardeners.

The aphid-laden leaves and snails provide the chickens with “much-needed fresh protein,” Dukich said, “which makes their eggs richer and better and makes for a better chicken manure, which enriches the compost pile.”

All bio-dynamic gardens and farms have a compost pile consisting of layers of household garbage, grass clippings, leaves, manure and chopped-up branches.

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Every eight weeks, Dukich said, the pile yields a dark, worm-infested humus that is regularly plowed back into the soil. “The cycle continues on and on, in harmony with the earth,” said Dukich.

Enriching Soil a Key

Enriching the soil is a key principle of bio-dynamic agriculture.

Conventional, large-scale growers regularly fumigate their soil to kill pests and diseases, then apply chemical fertilizers to stimulate rapid plant growth.

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Bio-dynamic growers instead seek to create a healthy soil in which plants are strong enough to thrive without added fertilizer and to fight off diseases and pests on their own.

Linder, the biochemist, derided conventional farming as “more like mining than growing. Each year the farmer takes more and more from the soil, never replacing nutrients.”

In addition to damaging soil, she said, modern growers sacrifice flavor and nutrition for fast growth and shelf life.

Food Costs Could ‘Skyrocket’

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But, in an interview, B. W. (Bud) Lee, chief farm adviser for Ventura County, said that, if many growers farmed organically, “the price of food would skyrocket.”

He said output would “drop dramatically because there is no way you could pursue large-scale agriculture and keep pests under control without chemical sprays.

“Also, there isn’t nearly enough organic matter around to provide sufficient fertilizer. Maybe when horses were used for transportation there would have been enough manure.”

The chief source of fertilizer would have to be household garbage, Lee said, “and there isn’t nearly enough of it to serve modern agriculture.”

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As an example of the output Lee said could never be achieved with “time-consuming and costly” organic methods, he cited strawberry growers in Oxnard and Camarillo who in recent years have refined their use of concentrated chemical fertilizers and soil fumigants.

Growers Rely on Chemicals

While Ventura County’s long growing season is an aid, Lee said, local growers have relied chiefly on chemicals to push their output to an average of 26 tons an acre, while the national average for strawberry growers is six tons an acre.

With silos throughout the United States overflowing with surplus grain, corn, soybeans and other foods, and with farm bankruptcies rising, the time would not seem ripe for persuading growers to adopt bio-dynamic practices.

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But bio-dynamic enthusiasts are looking to consumers disenchanted with the lack of taste and heavy chemical content of today’s fruits and vegetables to provide the impetus for forcing growers to adopt organic methods.

They concede they have a long way to go.

Linder’s year-old certification group, the Demeter Assn., has approved 10 farms in the United States as following bio-dynamic principles. Six more applications are pending.

“The quality of our food is going downhill fast,” she said. “Bio-dynamics provides a scientifically based means for growing good food that tastes excellent. It seems logical to me that it will catch on more and more.”

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Dukich, displaying the flair for drama that keeps his backyard students riveted, said:

“One bite is all I need to convince someone. One bite of a carrot that tastes like a carrot, a beet that tastes like a beet. That’s the vulnerability of modern agriculture--that someone might taste really good food.”


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