Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Biodynamic Wizzard: yarrow, dandelion, nettle, horsetail, chamomile and valerian, in different vegetables

About a week ago, I started some biodynamic experiments.

I was curious to see whether the Steiner herbal preparations would have some effect. He claimed that this plants would have a positive effect on vegetable growth, by way of cosmic and nutrient workings. Furthermore, the plants like dandelion, yarrow, nettles, horsetail, chamomile, valerian and oaks, are well known as dynamic accumulators, that is, they pull specific nutrients from the soil, which are lacking near the surface, and make it available to other plants. Something similar to the nitrogen fixing plants but for other nutrients.

I was really compelled to see whether those herbs would work.

Below see the dried herbs, waiting to be made into teas.

From left to right: chamomile, nettle, valerian (top), yarrow tops, dandelion and horsetail (bottom)

Of course I did it the simple way, I simply transplanted some of my vegetables with some of these dried herbs on the soil, and then both sprayed them and water them, with a tea made of those dried herbs. This is a lot of fun, as I could drink the tea at the same time I applied to the vegetables.

I did these 6 different herbal teas for 6 tomato seedlings, one per each plant (but those are from different varieties), for lentils (same variety), and also in cabbages, rucula, squash and beans. It is a very rough experiment, just to have a feeling of whether these herbs work at all, and if they work, in what way.

Below are the tomato seedlings, which have the "special" herbs on the topsoil, and were also watered and sprayed with their teas.

Wizard of Biodynamics: applying the different herbs to different tomato plants to see how they react.

After one week now, I can already see something happening.

So far, it seems that yarrow and dandelion have induced stronger growth, including nicer side shoots, and larger leaves. This is consistent and expected as they accumulate potassium, which is good for a stronger growth, stronger roots and increased plant resistance. The effects of yarrow seem clearer in the lentils (with large side shoots than the other plants) and the effects of both yarrow and dandelion in larger tomato seedlings. It is known that yarrow is full of other micronutrients, so its positive effect is expected and welcomed.

Lentils watered with yarrow (right) seems to have developed much sooner side shoots than the plants watered normally (left). Probably a positive effect from yarrow.

The chamomile seems to have induced smaller but bushy and harmonious plants, both on the rucula, tomato seedlings and lentils; so far a subtle difference. The chamomile is rich in phosphorus, its lack on vegetables manifests in weak stems, leggy plants with no flowers or fruits, so it could be that the tea has also some effect.

Nettle seems to clearly induce a strong leafy growth. This is not the first time I observe this, nettle seems really to be a strong inducer of leafy growth, just like a nitrogen or compost fertilizer. It is also full of other nutrients. The ruculas watered with nettle tea are very vigorous, as are the beans, but not so much the tomatoes.

Rucula grown with nettle tea (left) compared to without (right)

I did not see clear effects for the horsetail and valerian. So, I will wait another week or two to see what happens with those tests.

I also have one squash plant watered, sprayed and containing in the soil these herbs, and another without. The one with the herbs shows plenty of tiny ants, probably attracted by the herbs laying on the topsoil, I do not know why, but this is surely a nice ecological difference. The plants so far seem similar size, but the one without the herbs seems less healthy (its larger leaf shows some yellowing), while the one treated with the biodynamic teas shows healthier leaves.

Squash watered biodinamically (right) seems healthier than the one watered normally (left)

I also tried this on two cabbage plants. Before the experiment, they were in very good shape, having some sort of deficiency (scorched leaves, yellowing at the edges, probably a lack of potassium). Now, the one treated with the herbs is much greener color, but the leaves are curled (which points to some nutrient problem), the other is blueish color and looks better. This is a clear difference. I was surprised by a less positive effect on the cabbages, might have been too much of something, but I will wait a couple of weeks more.

The cabbage watered biodinamically (right) is greener and shows curled leaves than the one watered normally (left)

Friday, 13 April 2012

Vegetables that survive a polar climate

Here in Iceland, growing seasons are usually small. The spring is between May and August, sometimes it can snow even as late as early June, and frosts often begin by late August.

Last summer was unusually cold and dry. However, the weather remained mild until November, when suddently a severe frost began, and deep snow acumulated until February, when the weather warmed. This allowed many vegetables to survive in a good shape until that time. However, the tricky Icelandic winter brought many frosts/thaws since after. Nevertheless many vegetables managed to survive the hrash Icelandic winter!

Carrot family: extremely cold resistant vegetables
Carrots were completely unaffected by the polar winter! So tasty carrots! They enjoy the cold summer and do not seem to mind the extreme cold and snow. Another proof that the carrot family is well adapted to polar climate, are the native herbs Angelica, Lovage, Cumen and Sweet Cicely. Celery survived very well the first frosts, since then it suffered a bit, but most plants are still ok. Celery is quite cold hardy, especially Celeriac (the bulb forming variety). Another proof of cold hardiness comes from a Florence Fennel plant that survived the polar winter in our garden. Fennel is a warm loving vegetable, but still one plant survived and has now a nice side shot coming from its bulb. I think perennials like Skirret and Water Celery could be good investements as Icelandic perennial vegetables.

Onion family: very cold resistant vegetables
The onions from last year they are annuals, so I did not expect them to grow back again. However, the spring Onions were unaffected by the cold winter. If they are moved from indoors to outdoors they can suffer some minor damage but recover well. This might be because of their stored energy and thick leaves. I expect other species to be able to survive the winter and naturalize/ establish on a garden. Garlic, Multiplier onions (A. cepa agregatum), Walking onions (A. cepa proliferum), Welsh onions (A. fistulosum), Perennial leeks (A. ampeloprasum), Chives and Ramps (A. tricoccum or A. ursinum).

The Survivalists!
Many vegetables survived. Broccoli that did not flower last summer was well alive in February, but the following frosts killed most of the plants, but one or two still are still alive. Kohl Rabi was a crop that managed to survive several plants until now, better than the Broccoli. Brussels sprouts also surprised me; the plants were quite resistant to the cold, despite having a small size. All these crops seem to be cold hardy, but they need to be established there first. Rucula also survived but less. The cabbage family vegetables should be aclimatized before moving outdoors as they suffer cold damage quite dramatically, if not prepared. Some common herbs also survived: Lavender, Peppermint, Hyssop. The Thyme and Sage suffered heavily, and a bit of it survived. Perhaps they must be heavily mulched. Furthermore, there is a native species of Thyme here that is extremely adapted to the polar climate. More unaffected were the Lemon Balm and the Oregano.

The cold sensitive!
The Chicory survived the first frost in a good shape, I was excited about it, but the following frosts completely killed all plants. Beets and Swiss chard initially survived well the first frost, but did not stand a change to the rest of the frosts. However, they adapt well if transplanted outside in the cold spring and thrive during the cold summer. The Turnips, Radish Pak Choi and Mustard did not survive even the first frost. But they set seed before the winter. The same for the Calendula; these showed some signs of life after the first frost, but the rest of the winter killed them.

The cold hardy!
And likewise, Kale, a very cold hardy plant, is now beautiful. It seems to be unaffected, if the soil is protected by a mulch cover. S. Other unaffected vegetables  were the Rhubarb, Blueberries, Raspberries and the Lovage, some of them native to Iceland. There are also native Strawberries that stand the polar cold, but the cultivated varieties do not stand the cold. Some wild flowers demonstrated to completely stand unaffected the winter: Poppies, Ranunculus, Anemone, Tulips, Crocus, Muscari, Daffodils, Lupins, Astilbe, and even the Lilies. They all show a surge in growth just now, even if the weather is still cold. Carnations survived but suffered a little bit. There are herbs which stand the polar winter relatively well: Lady Mantle, Meadowsweet, Valerian and Angelica.

The surprise was the containers of tomatoes and eggplant. I had the dead plants standing outside, during the whole winter. As I brough the containers indoords, I was shocked to see some new seedlings from tomatoes and eggplants coming!

Warm loving crops
What about the warm loving vegetables? Obviously they do not survive the winter, but some of them can be cultivated during the polar summer. Squash grows quite well, if transplanted from a greenhouse, when it is already big. However, Cucumbers did not grow outside in Iceland (too cold). I haven't tried Pumpkins, but I heard people growing them with success in Alaska. I tried Bush Beans, but the warmth is just not enough; they also die when transplanted outside in cold spring, with frosts; Peas grow well; they are much more cold resistant and stand some frost and snow. They do not germinate if the ground is cold, but they stand very well hard frosts (even seedlings). I am currently trying Lentils outside; and the seedlings show the same kind of resistance. The plants also stand hard frosts (even in seedling stage) and adapt well to cold.

Perhaps less known perennial pea-family edibles could be attempted in Iceland, as the family obviously shows some cold hardiness. Lettuce obviously does not survive the polar winter, but the small plants do not mind a minor frost. They germinate well even with frosty weather.
Tomatoes seem impossible to grow. The plants stop growing if night temperatures are below 10ºC. They suffer leaf damage if temperatures are around 5ºC and are not adapted. But they grow excellent inside, because there is so much sunlight during polar summer. Potatoes can be sucessfully grown outdoors if started late, and having mulch protection. They are well adapted to cold conditions.

In summary - growing vegetables in a polar climate:
  • Carrot family: very cold hardy in Iceland
  • Onion family: very cold hardy in Iceland
  • Cabbage family: cold hardy in Iceland (except turnips, oriental types, radish, mustard)
  • Beet family: cold sensitive (do not survive polar winter)
  • Squash family: can be grown outdoors during polar summer (if transplanted big)
  • Bean family: cold-hardy members can be grown outdoors (not beans)
  • Nightshade family: excellent if indoors (potatoes can be grown outdoors)
  • Cereals: barley is grown outdoors (perhaps other crops can be grown too)