The biodynamic agriculture method uses a number of tools to provide sustainable soil fertility and management practice of a particular property – for example, a vineyard – whilst recognising the link between plant growth and the rhythms of the Earth and cosmos above us. Using various natural fertilisers, compost teas and preparations, such as 500, 501 and so on, up to 508, biodynamics encourages the farmer, gardener, or winegrower, to reconnect with their property by engaging in, learning from observation, and reporting on the various activities that are occurring every day, week, month and year, throughout their property.
An effective biodynamic farmer will utilise a specific calendar, known as the biodynamic calendar, which specifies important information, such as lunar phases, that help with organising and executing various planting and spraying regimes. With regards to wine, many biodynamic winemakers use the calendar to plan racking, bottling and any other activities that occur whenever the wine is to be moved. In Australia, and New Zealand many biodynamic farmers and winegrowers use the Antipodean Astro Calendar, created by Brian Keats, one of biodynamics most informed proponents.
“I see the Earth as an organism, rather than a lump of dirt,” says Brian, “and my quest has been to try and understand the pulses and rhythms of the Earth so that I can work more strongly with them.”
Brian Keats grew up in Zimbabwe, and spent his early 20’s travelling the world, “searching for something,” ending up in India around Christmas time, in 1974. Whilst preparing to go hiking in the Himalayas, Brian became inspired by the night sky, and started to teach himself astronomy. He arrived in Australia in 1976, got inspired by the ‘back to land movement‘ and, with some money he’d earned working with computers, he was able to buy a small farm in the Nambucca Shire, in NSW, where he built his own house and grew sub-tropical fruit, organically. In 1984, he discovered biodynamics.
“I’ve always been interested in not mucking around with my food by polluting it with chemicals and the like,” explains Brian. “I can’t say exactly what drew me towards biodynamics, I just had an immediate connection with it… it seemed to combine with my interests in astronomy and good farming practice.”
Delving deeping into the (unnecessarily) mysterious world of biodynamics, Brian soon realised that significant research and information wasn’t available to him in Australia, and there was no version of the biodynamic calendar specific to the southern hemisphere. So, motivated by his own quest for research and learning, Brian set out to create the Antipodean Astro Calendar, a tool that offers insight into the astronomical movements of the cosmos above and how they relate to the observable rhythms of the Earth, as well as an instrument to record these movements and rhythms and relate them back to one’s own garden, farm, or vineyard.
“The calendar is presented as a research tool, so people can work collaboratively with it,” says Brian. “I’ve deliberately set out to not give specific times when to plant, because there’s many different ways to work with the rhythms, and I don’t know all of them. It’s not a recipe that you can just follow, you have to think about it and work with the calendar.”
Looking at the calendar for the first time can almost make your head explode. There’s multiple colours seemingly splashed across the page for no other reason than aesthetics. There are rocket ships and tiny stick figures, a roller coaster of moons following a series of lines, dots and dashes, as well as a wave of strange symbols that look like they’ve been lifted from the horoscope section of the free community paper. Unfamiliar words, such as ‘nodes’, ‘perigee’, and ‘apogee’ feature alongside more familiar terms, like ‘plant’, ‘focus’, and ‘planet’, which, when combined with the pictures, shapes and symbols from above, complete a confusing and mystifying picture, which seems perfectly at home with a subject like biodynamics. But, if you spend some time reading about what each of the individual elements signify, which Brian provides in an easy to read ‘How to Use’ guide, the unfamiliar becomes recognisable, especially once you start putting into practice exactly what the calendar is designed for… observation and reporting.
“You’re not going to understand everything about the calendar after one glance,” says Brian. “You need to use it daily, take records and engage with it. I cop a lot of flack from people saying the calendar is too complex, or it takes too much time, which puts many people off,” explains Brian, “but, I can’t be true to myself or to others by making something too simplistic and which doesn’t engage you. Life isn’t like that, anyway.”
The calender is used within the wine industry throughout Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere by winegrowers, sommeliers and other individuals involved in the trade. For a winegrower, Brian’s calendar proves to be an effective tool to help with vineyard management.
“I have used this calendar for the last 10 years,” says Stuart Proud from Thousand Candles in the Yarra Valley. “It is unique, as I have never found another 12 month calendar that gives you the ability to make plans based around the weather, seasonal variations and lunar rhythms.”
Stuart uses the calendar to plan the ideal times for planting, cultivating, spraying and harvesting, as well as helping to predict major weather events, such as frost, rain and heat waves.
“Brian’s calendar is as reliable as any other weather forecasting model,” explains Stuart. “I have a hard copy of it in front of me 12 months of the year… I use it to look for general trends and patterns, not specific events, because it is not made for an exact specific region. It takes a while to learn how to use it and get the best out of planned activities that coincide with the varying moon phases and gravitational rhythms.”
Hunter Valley biodynamic winegrower, Ross McDonald from Macquariedale wines also uses the biodynamic calendar to plan and optimise his farming activities.
“I use the calendar particularly for putting out the BD 500 sprays,” says Ross. “It’s good for home gardening, and also commercial farming. However, with vineyards being a monoculture, it’s difficult to perform all of the functions according to the calendar. We use it more as a guide, for example, when we’re pruning 40 acres of vines by hand, you can’t follow the calendar to the letter as there wouldn’t be enough time to get the job done.”
Ross uses the calendar to organise the best days to perform racking and bottling, and activities which involve moving the wine around in the cellar. It’s thought that wine is best moved around on days when the moon is closest to the earth, known as being in ‘perigee’. The gravitational rhythms that the moon exerts on the Earth is such that is pushes down any sedimentary elements that may be floating in the wine, down to the bottom of the barrel, or tank.
“For racking wine, following the calendar is a definite plus for maximum clarification of the wine, as it means we don’t have to do any fining, and only some filtration,” says Ross. “The calendar has been refined by Brian over the years and contains a mountain of information. His weather predictions have been spot on and are a big help in understanding the likely outcomes in weather rhythms.”
It’s been reported that UK supermarket giant, Tescos, arranges their wine trade tasting days around ‘Fruit’ days, which is when a wine is said to taste its best. Other days inherent in the biodynamic calendar include ‘Root’ days, ‘Leaf’ days and ‘Flower’ days, which all correlate with a specific rhythm of the Earth. Some days are considered better for drinking wine than others, however, just like those planned activities within the vineyard, the practicalities of a restaurant or bar adhering to specific days on which to taste and drink wine would not make smart business sense.
“Whilst I agree those particular days on the calendar do make a difference, it’s part of the ebb & flow of trying wines,” explains Stuart Knox of Fix St James, in Sydney. “The last thing I want is a restaurant full of people not drinking because it’s a root day… then I’d be ‘rooted’!”
“The calendar is not dogma,” explains Brian Keats. “There’s nothing in there that says, ‘thou shalt do this then’. It’s important to look at seasons and the weather patterns unique to the property, and to combine them with your own management practices. You always need to look at the whole.”
The biodynamic calendar, and Brian’s own Antipodean Astro Calendar is an enormous subject to try and understand, but it’s a two way street. To fully understand and get the most out of using it, you need to engage with it directly, by writing and recording your own data and information based on your own observations, whether that be in your own garden, farm, vineyard, or anything else you think it may apply to (Brian said there are people who use the calendar to plan out their meditation practices). For beginners, Brian recommends starting with the lunar phases and moving on from there, slowly adapting the hidden rhythms and pulses of the Earth and the cosmos to your own world.
“Many people want a recipe that you can just follow, but I think that’s dangerous,” says Brian. “I don’t want to convince people, or proselytise. I want to give people the tools to enable them to find out for themselves. To really grow,” he continues, “whether it’s your crops, or yourself, you’ve got to put in effort, engage your will and make some changes, because we all too often want to sit back and watch someone else do it, because it’s easy.”
D// – The Wine Idealist.
Obviously, there’s loads more information to cover in an article like this, so check out a few links below on other articles about when is best to taste or drink wine, as well as links to Brian’s website, where you can find and download a .pdf version of ‘How to use the Astro Calendar’…
- Brian Keat’s Astro Calendar Website
- How to Use the Astro Calendar .pdf
- Blind Corner’s Simple but Effective BioGarden App
- Using the Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Tasting
- An Easy to Read Australian Version of the BD Calendar