Saturday, 16 March 2013

Biodynamic Germination of Dye Plant Seeds

This time of year, I stalk the racks of seed packets in the garden centre, imagining myself as The Germinator - 'Come with me, if you want to live...'  I have been sprinkling seeds on trays of compost every spring for decades, but truth be told, not all of them have lived.
Last summer, I began to try brewing herbal dyes for wool, out of nettles and bracken and plants I already had in the garden.  There are lots of herbal dye recipes in books and online, the colours they gave on small skeins of wool were soft and nuanced, utterly unlike any wool I had bought. The fact that the process never gives the same results twice and often is not as predicted, made it even more exciting.   I coveted flowers I now knew to be dye sources, growing in my neighbours' gardens.  However, being too noble (or cowardly) to pinch them, I have had to wait til now to grow my own.  

Over the winter, I plot how many annual plants, vegetables and flowers I can fit into my suburban garden.  Initially, I generally have a harmonious and subtle colour scheme in mind, but the way I feel by February, if the flower picture in the catalogue is orange or purple, especially if it is big, it will end up on the shopping list.  This year, potential dye colours are my main consideration.

Having pored over the famous 'A Dyer's Garden' by Rita Buchanan, for 2013, I have bought sunflower seeds, lots of varieties, because I love them and read one can make green dyes with them.  Green is not so easy a colour to get out of plants as you might imagine, though early summer nettles give a soft dull green and bracken shoots a vivid lime.  I shall also have weld, because it is supposed to give a clear and colourfast yellow, woad, which I have grown before, for indigo blue, and some new choices for flower dyes which I hope will also be a pleasure to see in the garden.  In March I shall be germinating Cosmos Sulphureus for orange and Coreopsis, for golden browns.  Madder seeds will be sown, but apparently it takes three years for their roots to establish enough to harvest for the red dye.  

All of these plants want full sun, but they will have to do their best with shade for some of the day, or indeed all of it, often enough in Wales.  Please let it be a hot sunny year!  I have cut back a big shrub and rooted out a huge clump of fennel in a patch that gets sun til lunchtime, leaving only the tulips which will have died back by the time my seedlings get outdoors. 

One thing I can do is give them a head start.  I germinate seeds in trays wrapped in clingfilm, indoors under a skylight, but window sills are fine, especially if there is a radiator under them.  The packets usually tell you they need to be kept at 20-25 degrees centigrade, but nowhere in my home is consistently that warm.  I belong to the 'put another jumper on' brigade, when the children complain of frostbite.  

I discovered years ago that it does make a big difference to both success and speed of germination to put seeds in the compost at the right time of the month, when the moon's orbit is bringing it closer to the Earth.  This is one part of the Biodynamic Calendar, which is arrived at by calculating a complex combination of factors, starting with this orbital cycle, called the Sidereal.  Then there is the phase of the moon, which is the one you can easily work out by its shape if it is not too cloudy to check.  How much lit moon surface can be seen from the ground tells you how the moon and sun are aligned in relation to Earth.  This is called waxing and waning or the Synodic Cycle.  Then the calendar takes account of which constellation can be seen behind the moon and planetary influences.

I cannot quite go the whole Biodynamic hog, with its homeopathic sprinkling of stirred water and burying of cow's horns full of dung, but I had to concede years ago that planting and transplanting by the Calendar makes an immediate and obvious difference to how many of my seeds germinate and how quickly they do so.  This has given me food for thought.  Theories of astrological influences don't really count as explanations to me, although I would not object to sacrificing a few slugs by starlight or even doing a special little germinator dance, if it got results.  If you want to buy The Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar 2013, you can find it on Amazon.

This is what my seedlings looked like six days after sowing at the beginning of March, towards the last perigee.  OK, they are going stalky and had to get out to the greenhouse despite bitter cold weather returning, on with the frost watch heater and good luck to them.

I would hypothesise that the real influence being picked up on by all these astrological observations is familiar old gravity.  We know from space station experiments in zero gravity that while light is important, gravity directs roots and affects their pattern of growth.  The moon and sun exert a significant gravitational pull on the earth, which is constantly changing as the interrelations of their angles of orbit alter.  Everybody knows about high and low tides, the moon's gravitional pull makes the water on this planet bulge toward it as it circles above.  Each month, when the moon's orbit brings it closest to the earth, at perigee, the gravitational pull is 50% stronger, causing higher tides.  All gets very complicated, but I suspect the basic phenomenon the biodynamic calendar measures, to find the right days to plant for faster germination and stronger growth in seedlings, is the impact on them of little changes in the gravitational pull of moon, sun and planets.

From cosmic mysteries to next week's jobs.  In the Northern Hemispere, the moon will start coming back closer to earth on Tuesday 19 March and will continue descending til Easter Monday.  Because it always starts 'in Gemini', biodynamic types would say next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are ideal days to plant flower seeds, whereas next Sunday, when the moon is 'in Leo', would be tops for fruit.  So I shall get trays of Coreopsis and Cosmos going midweek and sow tomato seeds at the weekend.  Madder seeds will wait for a root day the following week.  Maybe I shall do a dance too, just in case.


  1. I have just spun some wool and I think I will have ago at doing my own dye, love the blog,

    1. Hi Laura, I am really glad you like the blog. I am going to try a dye with faded daffodil petals as there are loads in the garden this year and I am told you can get a real Easter Chick colour.

  2. Loving the blog too Fran, especially the flying off in astral tangents or is it astral plains?

    Keeping me hanging on tenter hooks either way! :O)

    Did you like the wool process reference there?

    Matty xxx