Biodynamic Orcharding: Creating Connection to Earth and Spirit Mike Biltonen

Imagine entering a pristine old-growth forest replete with the organic luster of life. Your senses jump at the aliveness of this new world around you. You close your eyes and feel it in you. You hear the breeze, the birds, and the insects. You smell the richness of the soil and feel the pureness, soaking in everything around you and at your feet as if for the very first time. This is not a normal place or time; it is alive with magic and wonder, timeless yet ephemeral. This is also the sensation one gets when one enters a mature biodynamic orchard–alive and magical.

So, what makes a biodynamic orchard so special? Many orchards worldwide are like industrial landscapes–largely barren of life, managed as factories for maximum production and profit. A biodynamic orchard is managed, in a sense, but it might be more accurate to say it is shepherded or spirited towards an ecological ideal where life and the living dominate. Production and profit are the healthy result of a functioning biological ecosystem rather than the penultimate capitalistic goal.

In 1924, a small group of farmers approached Rudolf Steiner to address an urgent need they saw in their fields, livestock, crops, and their very lives. They were already in the midst of an industrial agricultural revolution. The process for making synthetic nitrogen fertilizers had been devised, fossil-fueled tractors had been around for about thirty years, and a full armory of synthetic pesticides was just around the corner. Yet, despite the relative youth of industrial agriculture, the decline in the quality of the soils, the environment, and the crops we grow was already evident. So, in June of 1924, Rudolf Steiner gave a series of lectures to a group of farmers and interested anthroposophists in Austria that has since become known as the Agriculture Course (GA327).

Rudolf Steiner was unable to follow up on his agricultural teachings. Yet, several in the audience, including Lili Kolisko, took his teachings and wisdom forward to further develop what we now call biodynamic agriculture. Others who were absent, such as Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, continued to expand the work in North America, leading to groundbreaking work in the field of organic farming and the establishment of important individuals and organizations that continue this work today.

Few know that biodynamic agriculture, the foundation of organic agriculture, is rooted in ancient teachings and practices that have been reinterpreted over the years for an evolving world. Steiner took this wisdom and brought it into his time to address problems that were only beginning to be recognized. Problems that have compounded over the years, leading to a very real global crisis in how we grow food and treat the Earth, leading to an almost continual reinterpreting and applying of those principles to our world today. In 2024, the hundred-year anniversary of the agriculture lectures, we stand at the vanguard of restoring how we farm and grow food through biodynamic farming practices and principles.

An Awakening

Today, nearly a century after Steiner’s agriculture lectures were given, biodynamic practices permeate the global wine industry. Whether for marketing reasons or a fundamental spiritual impulse, this is changing how many growers approach viticulture and enology. Yet, for better or worse, much of this impulse is centered in arid regions with low disease pressures and has not been widely adopted in more humid regions like the northeastern US.

The opportunities for practicing biodynamic farming in less arid regions are often considered unrealistic or irrelevant, given the challenges of growing in moister climates. We have yet to reach a collective transformative reimagining of how we grow tree fruit (or grapes) in the eastern US. Biodynamic agriculture can significantly change the landscape–on scale – of how we grow tree fruit, especially apples and pears, and a paradigm shift is close at hand.

In the spring of each year, the orchards awaken as the soil warms, the sap flows, and the days get longer until the trees push out their first little green leaves. We know then that we’ve arrived at spring, the annual awakening of life and vitality in our orchards. The trees are still barren of lush green foliage–but that’s coming, along with the developing flowers. The birds and insects are out, the first leaves from the groundcover are poking through, and flowers–critical for early awakening pollinators–are emerging. Spring wipes the sleep from its eyes, gives an ecological yawn, and suddenly we are here once again.

Trees follow their own rhyme and rhythm as we witness the development of the first little fruitlets. The trees enter their summer growth phases with leafy growth and fruit cell enlargement. Life is in full swing now, with birds, insects, plants, and soil pulsating with life and vitality.

By mid-summer, the green growth in the trees is arrested, slowing down so that these growth forces can be directed to the expansive fruit ripening in the autumn. We know harvest time when we see marked color changes in the skin of the fruit and finished seed formation when we open a fruit. The fruit’s brix levels (sugar concentration) rise, as do the aromatic compounds that round out the sensory experience. Everything that makes fruit taste so good is at its peak of ripeness and tells us it’s time to harvest. Noted biodynamic farmer Alan Chadwick quipped, “Every fruit will have the same perfection of totality.” This suggests that there is only one moment when the fruit is perfectly ripe. Ripeness in all things comes about because of its immersion in the air, light, and warmth of autumn.

During harvest, the trees have already started to draw carbohydrates from the leaves down into next year’s fruit and vegetative buds, branches, scaffolding, trunk, and roots. The drawdown of sweet sap is the storage food for the tree through the winter that it will use when it awakens again the following spring, starting the whole unbroken process once again.

Biodynamic principles and practices are something that, out of necessity, must follow the seasons and the natural rhythm of the trees and their pattern of development each season. What does it mean to work with these rhythms of nature practically?

The Biodynamic Preparations and Practices

The life of an orchard follows the path of deep winter dormancy to an awakening in spring that leads to the first leaves, flowers, and fruit. Summer vitality is ripe with biological life, growth, and development within the farm organism, leading to the fall period, where vitality declines, astral forces dominate as the fruit ripens, and trees slowly descend into dormancy once again. These patterns are influenced by forces from the cosmos as well as the physical work of the farmer and orchardist.

The key to biodynamics is contained in the hidden powers of the nine biodynamic preparations. Rudolf Steiner described each of these preparations, and each has a specific energy, or force, that has yet to be fully researched and explored. But the aim of biodynamics is to imbue plants with all the earthly and cosmic influences and forces they need for a full healthy expression of each stage of life.

The first two preparations, 501 and 500, are the horn preparations. BD 500 is known as the horn manure preparation. This is where cow manure is stuffed into a horn in the fall and buried over the winter. The following spring, it is dug up, and we find that the previously raw manure has been transformed into a colloidal quality compost in which no structure remains. The manure is no longer a physical substance per se but something that has been transformed into pure forces. The transformed manure smears like clay and nothing resistant is left: only the living powers of winter and manure remain, ready to be given to the soil. This preparation ensures that we do not put plants into dead soil.

501 is known as the silica horn preparation, which is made from crushed quartz crystals, finely ground and turned into a paste. This crystalline medicine is stuffed into a horn spray and buried in the ground over the summer to be unearthed in the fall. The crushed quartz is quickened to a new life and reintroduced into the realm of the living. It is as if this new silicic acid we create wishes to crystallize again, but now in plant form. The 501 participates in the crystallization of new plant forms out of the unformed potential of humus and earth. Horn silica brings light and warmth into the orchard, enhancing photosynthesis and overcoming dampness.

The next six biodynamic preparations are known as the “compost preparations.” BD 502 through 507 are made from specific plant parts that are properly transformed into their respective preparations or treatments. The biodynamic herbs are yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettles, oak bark, dandelion, and valerian, each corresponding to the numbers 500 through 507, respectively. For all but stinging nettles and oak bark, the flowers of each plant are used. The flowers for these special remedies are harvested fresh, dried slightly, reconstituted in a tea made of the leaves of each of the plants, and then stuffed into their appropriate animal sheath. They are then hung over the summer, buried in the fall, only to be dug the following summer, having transformed into their own fine colloidal preparation. Nettles are harvested before they come to flower, and they’re buried in a protective casing like a screen pillow and buried over the summer. Oak bark shavings are used to make 505. The valerian flowers are harvested, and the juices are expressed and fermented until the following spring.

The ninth and final preparation is 508, or horsetail (Equisetum arvense). This ancient herb is harvested and dried, then used to make a fresh or fermented tea that can be sprayed directly onto the tree to help reduce pathogens or used as a soil spray to stimulate beneficial fungal populations.

Each of these preparations has a particular planetary or cosmic association. For example, the horn manure (BD 500) corresponds to the world of fertile chaos of earthy humus and salts. By contrast, the horn silica (BD 501) expresses the outer, cosmic impulse reaching out to the universe. When using these preparations, we encourage vitality or astrality, each being important in its own right and in balance with the other. When forces of nature seem out of balance–too wet or too dry, for example–we choose to use the appropriate prep to influence the out-of-balance force.

Traditionally, the compost preparations 502 through 507 are put into a compost pile for a minimum of six months to radiate their influence through a larger, physical substance that is then spread in the orchard, dispersing their influence throughout the farm. But uniquely, and not widely practiced, is the individual use of the preparations throughout the growing season. Since they are associated with each of the planets Mercury, Venus, the Moon (even though it’s not technically a planet), Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, they have a specific quality or influence to help direct energy flow toward specific biological activities. This shouldn’t be confused with growing more fruit or getting greener leaves, but instead, influence the forces that direct those activities.

The important biodynamic calendar addresses planetary and stellar configurations to create an understanding of the appropriate times for certain tasks or to influence specific plant growth and development patterns. For example, there are root, leaf, flower, and fruit days. During these times, particular aspects of plant growth and development are enhanced. When certain constellations and planets align, their enormous magnetic field has a specific effect on water. As the highest tides are found at new and full moons, specific alignments of various planets have a marked effect on the tidal sap flow within plants. Understanding these rhymes and rhythms via the biodynamic calendar is a critical part of how we approach biodynamic orcharding, as the practical utilization of the preparations requires us to understand the influence we are bringing to the orchard when we apply the preparations or do certain work.

As abstractly ideal days are exceedingly rare, we chose the relative best within practical limitations—which is always the real best option. Given practical reality, we cannot afford to wait for the absolute best time, so we chose the best approximate option that most closely approaches the ideal configuration within the season in which we are obligated to work.

For example, understanding this influence, an orchardist might prune during a leaf day to encourage vegetative vitality and growth or on a flower day to encourage fruiting. They might also prune on a flower or fruit in the summer when the time for vitality has passed, and a stronger astral influence is needed to encourage flower development and fruit ripening. Ideally, the first mode of pruning encourages leafy growth, while the other encourages the flower and fructification. Likewise, one may harvest on a fruit day and plant on a root day.

We are influencing or introducing an impulse into the orchard to amplify its particular activity within the plant itself. Our activity is inextricably enmeshed as part of the whole. Since many activities are ongoing simultaneously and overlapping throughout the season, presenting themselves at different times, understanding plant physiological science is integral to fathom how we can influence specific processes within the orchard.

For example, the inner planets (Moon, Mercury, and Venus) are variously associated with reproductive fertility, leafy growth, and homeostatic maintenance, while the outer planets (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) are associated with the sweetness of ripening fruit, the unfolding of flowers, and the protective influence enclosing the plant in the bark. If we want to enhance fertility and dynamic homeostasis, for example, we might employ yarrow or chamomile. To enhance fruit ripening, we might apply 501 or even 508 for that outer planetary (cosmic) influence.

Awareness of planetary associations of the preparations and their influences enables one to use the preparations to influence a particular aspect of trees in their growth and development. Each planetary influence is like a layer on a veil painting; each day has its own emergent complexity. This complexity acts as a lens for a deeper understanding of the intricate workings of the Earth but also reinforces the simplicity of how we can work with our soil, trees, and preparations and embody what it means to be a biodynamic orchardist. Because there are so many streams of forces to consider, it means that a sensitive use of the biodynamic calendar is fundamentally incompatible with a reductionist or mechanistic way.

Growing fruit biodynamically won’t come from a recipe or a stale process. How we farm apples, peaches, or any other tree fruit is as alive and dynamic as the orchard we shepherd. Awareness and patience are undoubtedly critical ingredients to successfully using biodynamic practices and principles. It is up to the orchardist to be aware of the individuality of each tree within a larger context and understand the impulse they are trying to encourage, either through activity or preparation.


Today, we stand at a moment where climate change, loss of biodiversity, and loss of topsoil, not to mention the poor quality of our global food supplies, threaten life on Earth. Industrial agriculture is failing humanity, and biodynamics is a way to revitalize not just the land but ourselves. Biodynamics can help us achieve a deeper, visceral connection with both the Earth and the spirit, something that is woefully deficient in industrial farming. Orchards extend that connection temporally as they grow and mature, creating deep roots and a strong sense of individuality. In my view, recognizing ourselves in everything around us is fundamental to biodynamics. How we grow and mature with the trees, utilizing our own individuality in the principles and practices of biodynamics, is fundamental to successful biodynamic orcharding.

BIO: Mike Biltonen didn’t intend to become a farmer while growing up in an academic household as a suburban child of the 60s and 70s. In 1984, as an undergraduate horticulture student at Virginia Tech, he took a job at a very conventional orchard in central Virginia. He knew nothing about farming orcharding at the time, but it was soon apparent how dangerous and destructive conventional agriculture had become. For the last four decades, Biltonen has searched for ways to make farming better, safer, and more sustainable. This path led to the world of biodynamics. He co-owns and operates Know Your Roots LLC with his wife, Debbie, where they work with plants to grow better food and medicine and seek to help others tread more lightly on the earth. He is also President of JPI and Interim Executive Director of the Holistic Orchard Network.