Permaculture on Swedish bedrock

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Helena von Bothmer and Ivar Smits

‘Is there really an organic farm on a rocky island like this?’ Ivar looks at me in surprise. We’ve anchored at South Koster, an island measuring eight square kilometres off the Swedish west coast. We previously visited the national park here, which we wrote about in the previous blog. Our walks across the island have taken us along rugged coastline and through ancient woodland. We came across a few hamlets, consisting mainly of little summer houses. A single small supermarket serves the entire island.

Permaculture, properly applied, is sustainable by definition. Ivar Smits Ivar Smits Skipper

And there’s supposed to be enough space and fertile soil here for a farm? Our scepticism is only increased by our location: we’re almost in Norway, which means the growing season here is bound to be short.

Family farm with principles

‘I definitely read about it’, I say, dismissing Ivar's doubts. ‘Let’s go and look for the place’. Some time later, we find ourselves at Kosters Trädgårdar – the Koster gardens. The families on bikes we see around us are a giveaway that this is more than just a farm. It’s seriously busy here. Delicious smells from a good restaurant greet us as we walk up the path. Wooden tables are laid out between a building and a pond. The place is full of visitors, mostly Swedish. Children play among the vegetable beds, chickens and sheep. A shed in the middle of the garden houses a small shop selling freshly baked bread and all sorts of vegetables grown right here. There are books about permaculture too.

We talk to Helena and Stefan von Bothmer, the founders. Over lunch with the staff, they tell us that they bought this plot of land twenty years ago. Before that, they had worked on a number of farms, where they saw both good and bad practices. When they thought about how they wanted to live, permaculture turned out to be crucial to what they would grow and where, and how they would work the soil. It all sounds a bit abstract, so we ask lots of questions. Helena suggests giving us a permaculture lesson in the afternoon – an offer we’re happy to accept.

Ecology as the basis

After the couple’s son, Benjamin, has given us a tour of the farm, Helena takes the time to explain the basics of permaculture. ‘It’s a matter of good design: ecological principles form the basis of a project, from farming to business. It’s all about how you bring the elements together, how they interact. The more connections you make between the different elements, the better it is for the output and resilience of the total system. What I mean by connections is a positive way of depending on each other: creating symbiosis. That’s what makes permaculture a broader concept than organic farming.’

We gradually begin to get it. Which ecological principles does she mean, though? ‘They’re based on several fundamentals: care for the soil, for nature, for people, for an adequate income and for sharing out the results fairly. You have to ask yourself all the time if other people could do the same as you, and whether that would be harmful to nature or to people. It means that working the land with non-renewable inputs like artificial fertiliser and pesticides is a problem by definition.’

Smart use of natural resources

How does all this apply specifically to their business? ‘You start by observing. How does the sunlight fall on the garden? How does the wind behave? Where is there water? What’s the soil like? And how do we move around the garden? You then look at the best way to use natural resources. We planted a hedgerow, for instance, on the south side of the garden. It acts like a kind of cloak, retaining warmth and protecting against the wind. We grow vegetables there that need plenty of sun and warmth. And we plant crops that need a lot of attention along the paths we use most frequently.’

‘We also use natural soil-improvers, like clover and worms. We compost garden waste and leftover food from the restaurant to make our own natural fertiliser. The vegetable beds are planted on a cycle lasting several years; crops are rotated so that the soil isn’t depleted. And we use seaweed and straw to enrich it in the winter.’

Caring for people

The principles of permaculture are also applied in the restaurant, both in the kitchen and in the serving area. They use products from the gardens, and offer a menu that is seasonal and mostly vegetarian. The restaurant staff belong to a cooperative. They are joint owners and receive a fair share of the revenues. Their commitment to what they are doing shines through.

The gardens and the restaurant also offer training opportunities to interested people. We meet several young Swedes, for instance, and a Haitian who have been offered apprenticeships. It’s a great way for Kosters Trädgårdar to find help and to spread the word about permaculture.

Connections as the basis for sustainability

As far as Helena is concerned, the key to a sustainable society lies in mutual links. ‘Instead of competition, the emphasis should be on fruitful connections. The more links there are in a system, the more sustainable it will be. If you add an element to the system, you should use every aspect of it, otherwise you’re wasting energy. It’s not about how many elements there are, but whether they are being used optimally and how they interact.

What initially seemed like an abstract concept, has really come alive during our visit. Kosters Trädgårdar has given us the opportunity to see what permaculture means to Helena and Stefan: things like making optimum use of geographical conditions, varied planting and natural fertilisation. Unlike a quality mark, however, permaculture doesn’t impose any strict rules. It isn’t a box-ticking exercise, but a way of life. Which is precisely what makes it so widely applicable.

Permaculture is sustainable

The fundamental principles of permaculture are about responsible interaction with each other and our earth. If you make that your first priority, what you’re doing will be sustainable. It means that permaculture when properly applied is sustainable by definition. Thanks to permaculture, a family has been able to turn an organic farm on a rocky island in Sweden into a successful business. And if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere!

Norway, our next destination, is famous for its oil wealth, which isn’t particularly sustainable. But what if those riches were to be invested in a sustainable future? We temporarily swap Lucipara for a cool electric four-wheeler and head off to investigate.

Permaculture is a design philosophy, the underlying principle of which is a good connection with nature. Design like this can be applied very widely, from a single vegetable garden to entire urban districts. The three key elements of the permaculture approach are:
  • Care for the earth
  • Care for people
  • Return of surplus

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