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GWM – March 2011

Catkins on my twisted hazel


Spring is just about to spring! We’re just coming into this month’s Northern Planting Time (NPT), that happens on Saturday 12th March with the Moon reflecting the earth-sign of Taurus the Bull.

Vegetable Garden

This is a good time to get sowing if you haven’t already, especially root crops like turnips, swedes, parsnips, early carrots and to get those spuds you’ve been chitting into the ground. You’ll need to cover the spud-bed with fleece in most areas unless you live far enough south to be past your last frost date. It’s worth it though, to get the spuds started, especially the first earlies, so you have some to harvest along with the first peas and broad beans for a lovely warm salad.


I already have swedes and turnips coming in pots on the window-ledge but I’m going to get some early carrots started in boxes in the polytunnel. A fairly deep box is fine for them, especially if you choose an early variety like Amsterdam Forcing or Nantes 2. The Nantes – my favourite carrot – grow to about 16cm so your box needs to be a good 20+cm deep. I usually use one about 25cm deep. If you use a cardboard box then this can be dug into the ground once it’s warm enough and will rot down around the growing carrots so there’s no need to disturb them and cause deformed growth or flagging. This is a good trick to use with lots of veg.

  • Do remember though that you can sow anything on a root day – all plants have roots, need roots in order to grow, so they will get the benefit of root-day sowing.
  • You go on to cultivate – transplant, weed, hoe, generally care for – on the day relevant to the veg; e.g. fruit-day for peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers; leaf-day for cabbages, celery, leeks, lettuces; flower-day for broccoli, cauliflower, purple and green sprouting.
  • And, of course, you spray each with 501 on their relevant day too.

New Bed …

I found I really need yet another veg bed – who doesn’t? There was a piece of border along by the path in front of the house which was absolutely full of couch grass and buttercups suffocating the lovely plants I want like hardy geraniums, a blue aquilegia, lungworts and a pretty miniature rose. As soon as I could get out at the end of January I dug the whole lot out, potted up the plants I want and put the rest on the compost heap. I gave the whole lot a spray of 500 and covered it up with black membrane to warm it up and keep the weeds down.

I think I want to put the early broad beans in here so it’s now time to get a trench dug, bung in a good layer of bokashi and any other compost I have to spare and maybe a bit of manure. A layer of earth goes on top of the plant-food-layer, it’s no good putting seeds o

r plant roots straight onto hot compost! After a day or two I’ll sow the broad beans into the trench and put a row of pea-sticks to either side of each row – this has two purposes; to hold the plants upright when they get tall enough and to keep the kitties off! Nothing like a good hedge of pea-sticks to keep venturesome kitties at bay :-).

I’ll probably succession-plant this bed when the beans have gone with some autumn cabbages. If there’s a gap between those two I’ll fill it with some lettuces.

Flower Garden

Hellebore in the new bed

I’m also having a heave-ho in the flower garden too. Of course, there’s lots of weeding to be done now the plants are coming up and I can tell the difference between what I want and nettles, creeping buttercup and other weeds … definitely plants in the wrong place :-).

I had a go at that this afternoon and discovered that the heavy work I did last year had been effective, there were a lot less horrors than I’d feared. The worst problem was wretched purple loosestrife! This stuff, while lovely in a wild setting, seeds like it’s going out of fashion and always where you don’t want the darn things! And, just to make things worse, it has a creeping root-system of good thick stuff, belt and braces, seeds and rhizomes, just to make sure its genes get spread all over the garden. I was wondering whether to pot the things up and sell them at next month’s Farmers’ Market but I suspect my fellow gardeners are well aware of the problems and wouldn’t want them.

Purple Loosestrife

Purple Loosestrife is a problem-plant too, an in-comer from North America. It can choke our waterways and won’t do your pond too much good unless you’re willing to drastically cut it back every year and pull the roots out too.

I managed to get just about all I could see out but I know there will be some roots left so it’s a case of being vigilant and getting in there to dig them out as soon as I see them. Ho hum … a gardener’s work is never done :-).

The flower beds benefitted greatly from the cold and the snow. Last year’s vegetation disappeared and clearing has been very easy. The new growth is coming through nicely despite it still being cold with hard frosts some recent nights I’ve not pulled too much off the herbaceous perennials so it still mulches them, keeps the frost from damaging, killing, the lovely spring growth. This is something to remember – if you clear up too much and too quickly then you can seriously damage your plants! Nature knows, this is why there’s lots of “untidy” litter around in nature, it has the purpose of guarding the new growth from the frosts that are likely to go in until May in this garden.

Daffy Down Dillies

It does feel like everything is bubbling in the earth, the sprouting growth bursting out of the pot, the earth-cauldron, shortly to froth into blossom. I love this season :-).

Elen Sentier

behind every gifted woman there’s usually a rather talented cat …

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GWM – Flower Day

I did it! I got the dahlia tubers into pots today so they should come up early and flower all summer long. I’ve got 3 Bishop of Llandaff and 8 assorted cactus. I have to have Bishop of Lllandaff, living where I do, in the birthplace of the first Bishop of Llandaff, our Merlin-figure, Dyfrig of Madley. He’s the hero of the novel I’m writing at the moment. and I just love the cactus dahlias, so wild and exotic.

I was lucky in that I have the old soil from the potato bags. Seeds don’t need much nutrient as they have all they need within them, tubers do it in spades :-). The dahlia tubers are still half in hibernation and need to come out gently. I put some damp earth in the bottom of the pots then some dry earth from the potato bags which I used to fill in and cover them. then I popped a plastic bag over the top of each pot and stood them in trays in the scullery which is cold but doesn’t freeze. That way the tubers can wake up slowly, gently feel their way back into flowering life. I won’t need to water for a wee while but I’ll check them every day.

The old potato soil was given a dose of Prep 500 over the past 3 days so the tubers have that to help them as well.

Tomorrow and Saturday are leaf days so I’m going to sow cabbage and lettuce. Sunday and Monday are fruit so I’ll be sowing my first tomatoes of the year … watch this space 🙂

Elen Sentier

behind every gifted woman there’s usually a rather talented cat …


Wye’s Women Elen’s Books Rainbow Warriors

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Pests & Diseases

Slug !!!

Pests and diseases, the little darlings, are major bug-bears of gardeners. Slugs, snails and rabbits that munch cheerfully through your salads before you get the chance; aphids that cause havoc with the roses and honeysuckle; blackfly murdering your beans; leatherjackets wrecking the lawn; mice eating the pea seeds and all the other critters that want your plants. Then there are all the diseases the plants can get. Gardening can be a nightmare!

Biodynamics does not eradicate pests, this is quite contrary to its ethos, but it does help you put the garden into balance with itself, and its surroundings. Being in balance really makes a huge difference to how pests and diseases work (or don’t!) in your garden.

Pests and weeds come when things are out of balance, when you have row upon row of lettuces just asking for slugs to come and make a feast, with nothing to get in their way. The darn lettuces seem to actually be singing siren songs to the slugs! And in a sense they are. Nature abhors a vacuum. And she abhors gluts too. This doesn’t mean you must grow fewer lettuces but it does mean it’s worth doing what you can to help maintain the balance. Gardens are not natural places, they are made by human beings – as is most of our countryside in the populated world. Therefore we are a part of the system we have made, so we need to work with it to help it work well. Biodynamics helps us do just that.

The spray preparations – the 500 horn manure and the 501 horn silica – help the soil and the plants reach their optimum potential. This happens, even if we don’t really know why. We don’t know why electricity works, but we’re quite content to trust the light switch will work whenever we want, we may even get quite cross when it doesn’t. With a little practice we can become equally blasé about biodynamics and with equal justification. We know how to make electricity work even if we don’t know why it does it. We can learn how to make biodynamics work as we have learned how to make electricity work and, again, without needing to know why it does it. And it does work. A part of its work is to help the garden grow into balance with itself, and stay in balance, so the pests and diseases don’t trouble us. It’s been working well for me since the early 1990s.

So … the first thing to do, to deal with pests and diseases, is to get your garden working well, in balance, by using the spray and compost preparations.

cabbage white butterfly


Pests are just about anything the gardener has a problem with, animals, insects, birds, butterflies, other people, children.  Usually it is anything that wants to eat or otherwise damage the plants the gardener has carefully tended and grown whether ornamental or vegetable. Coddling moths, slugs and snails, leatherjackets, pigeons after the peas, blackbirds after the raspberries or pulling up the newly planted bulbs or onions, blackfly on the beans, whitefly in the greenhouse, rabbits in the salad, squirrels in the trees, caterpillars eating the cabbages.

cabbage white caterpillars

Many of these can be dealt with most effectively by prevention, barriers, stopping the critters getting at the pants in the first place. Netting, fine meshes, fruit/vegetable cages, grease barriers, all these are far more effective than poisons. Even the humble slug/snail pub does a very effective job and, if you go in for nematodes you’ll find you also need them to deal with the already grown adults the nematodes won’t get to.

Sometimes things can get serious very quickly, as with aphids, so that you have to use soft soap to kill them or the plants will die, you can’t wait for the more usual organic methods to work. Biodynamics doesn’t deny you this ability, nobody wants your plants to die.

Cute ... until he eats your veg !!!

However, thinking ahead really does help. I get my slug pubs going as soon as I start to work outside, I don’t wait for the baby slugs to get to adult size … and begin breeding to produce even more of the little darlings to eat my hostas and brassicas. All the brassicas live inside mesh tunnels to make it impossible for the butterflies to get to the leaves to lay their eggs so, with a reasonable amount of care, no caterpillars get to them. I do plant lots of nasturtiums which the caterpillars like even better, and leave a couple of cabbages outside the net so they have something to eat and we do have more butterflies next year. It’s all a question of balance, of give and take. I want to take from the land in the form of beauty – i.e., hostas, dahlias, etc – so I give back to the land and her creatures with some plants for them to feed on. Usually this works out, unless the weather is very bad with lots of summer rain to encourage the slugs, or some other factor comes into play. I win some, I lose some. In the long term both Nature and myself get what we need.


One creature that can really be a problem is the rat. Wherever you are on planet Earth you are never more than a couple of meters away from a rat. Rats and people have been close neighbours quite possibly as long as there have been humans … the rats, of course, are a far older species than we, goodness what they cuddled up to before we came along. Modern human living suites rats to a T, they really thrive on our wasteful culture. And we are generally terrified of them … a problem we’ve brought on ourselves.

The best way to tell if you have a rat problem is if you see them … if you do there are too many, they are getting hungry and much braver in consequence, so coming out when people are around and not running away. The milder winters we’ve had for some time now mean they don’t die off in the cold so there are more of them to start over again each spring. That happens with slugs and snails too, by the way … the milder climate means they live longer!

Whatever, rats are a problem, they do need to be kept under control and out of the compost heap. If you begin to see rats then you need to take steps to cull them, or have someone do this for you. The farmers’ stores have poisons that will do this or you can contact your local authority to sort them out for you.

  • NB – if you put poison down make quite sure it can’t be eaten by other creatures you don’t want to cull … like your cat or dog!
  • And – keep a very close eye on your own pets. Modern rat poisons work more slowly than the old ones and tend to make the animal drowsy, watch your pets, they might eat a rat that’s been poisoned, or even a mouse that’s take some of the poison. If you suspect this take your pet to the vet immediately and ask for tests. Vitamin K can counteract the poison and save your pet’s life but you must act quickly.
  • And – over the past few years many people have seen rats climbing onto bird tables and eating the seed and nuts. Some of the bird foods are rich in vitamin K, with the consequent result that the rats who eat it develop a resistance to the poison! Ho hum! We do make rods for our own backs so long as we look only to cure an effect rather than seeking the cause.

A biodynamic way of dealing with rats is to make a pepper – see the next section on Peppers – but handling rats is dangerous, even when they’re dead, because of the diseases you can unfortunately catch from them. We have used a rat-pepper and it does work, however it takes much longer than using poison so I don’t work that way if the problem is big, if we have an explosion in the rat population.

Rats in Compost Bins

Keeping rats out of the compost heap is best done by putting a layer of mesh – plasterer’s mesh, as it’s called in the UK – underneath the bins. This is sufficiently narrow so that even baby rats can’t get through, but the worms and bugs that do so much good in your heap can.

  • Go to a builders’ yard and ask for plasterers’ mesh.
  • Buy enough to go under your bin(s).
  • Lay it on the ground where the bin is going to be.
  • You may need to stake the mesh down into the ground or weight it down with bricks.
  • Put the bin(s) back on top of the mesh and continue making compost as normal.

We always do this with all our bins, whether or not we see any rats. We know they’re there and that they will go into the bins if they can so we use prevention, in the form of the mesh.

writer artist gardener shaman
Wye’s Woman Rainbow Warrior

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Making Prep 500 – Horn Manure

Shetland cow, just after she had calved, 2010

About Cows …

This is cow manure which has been buried in a cow’s horn from autumn to spring equinox.

All of nature, including us humans, are energy-consuming beings. When food is digested it gets broken down into its component parts. As it passes through the digestive tract it gets processed by the juices of the mouth, oesophagus, stomach and small and large intestines. All of these body-parts are able to absorb nutrient from the food as it goes through the process which turns the food back into energy again – as it was originally, in the form of sunlight – so our body-cells can use it. Neither we nor any animal actually uses the food, solid matter that we eat. We use the energy our digestive systems are able to obtain from it. This energy is measured in calories, the calorie is a measure of energy, we use and consuming energy.

Cows produce the very best manure, partly because of their size and diet as well as their temperament. They also have some forty to forty-five meters of digestive tract … that’s an awful lot! … which handles the near continuous eating that cows, kept properly, are built to do. But the most important fact about them – in terms of prep 500 – is their four stomachs.

All ruminant animals – cows, goats, sheep, deer – have very long digestive tracts and four stomachs. The word ruminant is about chewing the cud, likely you’ll have noticed how cows and sheep will stand or lie chewing quietly in the field, this is chewing the cud and a vital part of the huge digestive process these animals use. All ruminants are also cloven hoofed and naturally have horns. Modern insurance practices and rules try to insist that farmers cut the horns off their cattle or disbud them when they are new-born calves. Biodynamics does not go along with this and all biodynamic cows have their horns.

The cow's 4 stomanchs

Cows don’t naturally have three meals a day – they eat all the time, slowly walking across their pasture, biting off grass and herbs and chewing the cud. Unfortunately, because of economics, greed and the massive demand for milk, cows on industrial farms are fed about three times a day so their digestive tract doesn’t work as nature intended. The physical and emotional strain of being forced to eat when the human says so, being treated as a unit of production, despite the fact that your body was built for continuous input must be pretty bad for cows that live in deep litter for most of their lives, as many do on industrial farms. This stress has knock-on effects on the milk they produce and our health if we drink it and is likely a contributory cause of the massive dairy allergies current at the moment. Ditto butter and cheese produced from the milk too.

Naturally, on biodynamic and organic farms, the cows have food available to them all the time, in fields as much as possible and with continuously filled hay/straw racks when they are in deep litter, so their guts work as they are supposed to. As a consequence they produce superb manure for us to use in the garden and on the farm. And to make Prep 500 with.

Making Prep 500

You need …

Cows’ horns – you’ll need at least three or four. If you’re going to do it why not get several and share the results with friends and your local garden club and/or biodynamic group? You’ll need 1-2 horns per person depending on the size of their land, we use 4+ horns per year here on our ¼ acre. You can buy horns from your local biodynamic association – see contacts.

Cow pats – freshly gathered from the field a day or so before you want to fill the horns. Make sure you have permission from the farmer to be on her/his land! Get cow pats that are stiff rather than sloppy in constituency. It helps if the farmer has been feeding hay for a week or two before you collect the dung.

NB – When you dig them up, the contents of the horns should be dark brown with no smell of manure, only the pleasant scent of humus. If the contents is wet, green or smelling of manure, the horns are not ready. The most likely cause is that the cow pats were too wet. You can leave them in the pit for a few more weeks to mature.

  • A Pit – to bury the horns in – see below.
  • Rubber gloves
  • Old tea spoon with long handle
  • Piece of bent coat-hanger
  • A table to work on and maybe chairs
The Pit

The pit should be between 30-50cm deep and about half a meter wide to accommodate the horns.

  • NB – ensure your pit gets a good dollop of sunlight each day, as well as some shade and that the rain can get to it as well. It needs the four elements – earth, air, fire (sunlight) and water to process properly. This is important for both 500 and 501 preparations.

Find a place that will never be disturbed as you will be using the pit year-in, year-out for both your spray preparations. It can be decorative and doesn’t have to look like a bit of old field but make sure the elements can get to it. It should be infested with tree or shrub roots – and digging around the roots twice a year won’t do any good to the trees either. It shouldn’t be near a wall, road or ditch. If the soil is clayey, wet or impermeable it’s a good idea to dig a drain for the pit.


Stuff the horns with the cow pat making sure it fills up all the way down. This is where the teaspoon and bent coat-hanger come in, poking the stuff with an old spoon or bent wire helps move it down and takes out air bubbles that stop it filling the horn.

When all the horns are full bury them in the pit and leave them there over the winter.

You put the horns into the pit open-end down and points up to stop water draining into them and wrecking the preparation. Then you refill in around and between the horns with good topsoil.

Make sure it’s marked in some way or you may forget where it is and spend ages come next spring hunting for it. A good idea is to mark the extent of the pit with flat tiles around the edge, sunk into the grass so that you can mow over them. It also looks good and makes a feature of the place. Our pit is in the middle of a circular lawn in the little grove.

A hornfull of Prep 500

The finished product

You leave the horns in the pit until after the spring equinox, or even longer depending on the weather. Good spring sunshine is necessary for the final weeks.

Remove the horns from the pit and refill it, or cover it if you are going to make prep 501 within a few days. Stack the horns outside under shelter and leave for two or three days to dry out. Then remove the preparation by knocking the horns gently together, open end down, over a bucket. The contents should fall out but a bent coat-hanger will get bits out of the corners.

Store the preparation in glass jam jars with lids loosely screwed on so a little air can get in, or you can put several layers of muslin over the top held on with an elastic band, like homemade jam. Or you can spend lots of money on the special earthenware pots most BD associations sell. The latter are very nice but glass jars work perfectly well and come for free with the jam in our house.

You need sphagnum moss to surround the jars and a box to put them in. The jars should be completely surrounded in the sphagnum moss to retain the atmosphere they need, and the lids should be only loosely screwed on so air and moisture can get into the jars.

A wooden box is probably the most convenient, it will be solid and cool and dark as required. Some people, who make a lot of preparations, build an outdoor box against the wall of a shed or garage out of concrete blocks, with a waterproof lid. This is fine, it fulfils all the criteria of dark, solid, safe, frost-free and retaining moisture. If you’re into DIY it’s a good idea.

writer artist gardener shaman
Wye’s Woman Rainbow Warrior

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Celtic shaman – Elen Sentier No-Knead Bread