Food for the soul: A proliferation of flowers

One has to marvel at the lush garden plots that seem to dot much of the landscape between here in Ernen and the neighboring village of Mühlebach. In them, the visitor will see vegetables and grains, fruits and salad greens, but also a remarkable proliferation of flowers: cornflower blue next to the yellowy chamomile, parsley and hyssop next to lavender and sage. These are the plots of the Bergland production, whose produce is grown according to the stringent criteria of biodynamic cultivation.

I recently spoke to Daniela Schweizer, one of the Bergland initiators, who has charge of the planting, irrigation, harvesting, and use of the gardens’ produce, including the rainbow of blooms that make the village of Ernen ever more beautiful.

Why is there such a proliferation of flowers here in Ernen?
Because we use the flowers’ blooms and greens to make aromatic and medicinal teas. Once harvested, the flowers are dried in the cellars of the BerglandHof, the multi-generation house, hotel, and restaurant on the far end of the village. While the leaves and flowers are drying, their volume decreases at varying lengths of time, depending on their density. So, we have to empty the drying cellars continuously, turning the already-dry leaves and flowers over into a storage bay.

So, they don’t go onto the market right away?
No, after they’re dried, they are cleaned in a wind and sieve machine in the BerglandHof’s huge attic. Then, they’re stored there until winter, at which time we package them in small quantities for sale.

What’s the most popular of all the flower-products you sell?
At the moment, I’d say it’s lemon balm, which is lovely in the garden for its foliage, but also very nice as tea. But it’s also important for us to cultivate, as its small, purple-tinged white flowers are full of nectar, and that attracts lots of bees. We depend on them, of course, to pollinate the flowers, and we produce our own honey here, too.

Are the flowers also used for their beauty alone?
Oh, we certainly use them for decoration, whether by strewing their petals for special occasions, or in table bouquets at our outdoor concerts. But we also use them as a teaching tool: Many of the beds feature weatherproof placards explaining the unique properties and health-promoting attributes of each flower. Anyway, for me, anything to do with flowers is always food for the soul. But the garden products we harvest are primarily for consumption. The majority of what I and my family eat, in fact, comes from the plots we plant and harvest ourselves.

Did you have a farm-to-table model from the very beginning?
Yes, we’ve always used and lived by that model, having come here to the Valais some 25 years ago as a collective: four people who had researched the topic together in Lucerne, and were committed to landscape maintenance and preservation. We came to apply what we’d learned elsewhere, and, at the time, also had a large standing commission to deliver over a number of years.

Since then, though, have you had lots of competition?
Not overwhelmingly, no, even considering that our land tract isn’t really that huge. Fortunately, in the last ten years, we’ve been able to secure a steady turnover, and are well aware of what we can and simply cannot manage. That’s important, given that everything we do to prepare for the market is done manually.

How much of your success depends on the weather?
A good degree. Our early summer this year was super; there had been a great deal of snow, so the ground was nice and moist. After that, the weather was variable, but from June on, it’s been very warm and dry. While that’s hard on some of the stock, it’s good for the vegetables, even if we do have to water them more often. And practically speaking, all that irrigating means we’re constantly lugging the hoses about, moving them from one plot to another.

But you must have help to manage all that?
Yes, we always have a handful of people working with us between May to October. And at the moment, I also have two trainees, something like assistants, who will be here for the whole season, meaning five months in full—a great help, since I can turn over some of my responsibilities to them. One is doing civil service in lieu of active military duty, by the way; the other is a young woman who’s working towards a Masters in Nutrition and Agronomy.

And collectively, how big are the tracts of land that you garden?
Well, there are 15 gardens altogether, amounting to 1.7 hectares (17,000 square meters) of land.

That’s a lot of garden! One last–if cheeky–question, then. How will you deal with all that physical work when you get old?
Hmm, I suppose I’ll just look on to see how the others are doing!

Ernen, Friday, 27 July 2018, by Sarah Batschelet

The fine Bergland products are available for sale at the mountain inn and restaurant Chäserstatt (above Mühlebach), the ErnenGarten restaurant (attached to the BerglandHof Hotel and B&B), and at Pia’s Farm Shop (“Waren aller Art”) which is just off Ernen’s main square. Pia also carries healthy foods from other providers, and supports a number of textile artists and toy manufacturers, always with an eye to sustainable production and imaginative design.