The sleeping beauty

A biodynamic vegetable-garden in the wild heart of Tuscany (Podere Le Ripi, Montalcino, 2018)

The vegetable garden rises in Podere Le Ripi biodynamic wine farm, is conceived and cultivated with synergic and biodynamic methods and is located among four monumental Olive trees, covering an area of approximately 150 square metres. Here the land gently slopes toward the vineyards, offering an enchanting view on Monte Amiata and the hills surrounding.

The garden has been planned (and has been realized, and is managed and taken care of) following and taking inspiration from the principles of biodynamic horticulture and synergic gardening.

The very concept is based on the idea of creating a permanent space, reducing or totally eliminating, through time, soil tillage. The aim is to preserve and increase soil fertility with nature-inspired and non invasive techniques, as for example the use of biodynamic preparations (in particular, as per the fertility of the soil, preparations 500 and 500K), compost and herbal macerates and, last but not least, straw mulching.

The practice of mulching needs to be tailored to the kind of soil texture and climate you are working with, and also has to be modified through the changing seasons, but it constitutes a multipurpose solution to various garden issues. Mulching decreases soil evaporation, thus involving a smaller need of water supply and a stabler degree of humidity, protecting the plants from thermic stresses. Moreover, mulching notably diminishes the growth of spontaneous herbs and infestants which, in some time of the year, can become a real problem. But it’s not finished. As straw decomposes, it transforms into a mild, carbon-based fertilizer, and becomes part of the soil. So, straw is quite a helper!

Another peculiarity of the garden is its shape. It’s not flat, but full of curves. In realizing the garden we decided to maintain the natural, south-oriented gentle slope, instead of making everything plain. This allowed us to take advantage from the differences in water distribution. On the North corner, the higher one, you can find the “dry zone”, with some officinal and aromatic plants, and chilly peppers. The South corner hosts the “humid zone”, with plants with a higher water demand.

Also, we raised earth beds (with a maximum height of 1.4 mt and a maximum width of 2 mt approximately, with brick accesses to the centre of the larger parts). The beds are made from earth, biodynamic cow compost, straw, cut grass (fresh and dry) and olive branches of various size. The idea was to use the branches to build a skeleton (and as the branches will slowly decompose, they’ll contribute to soil fertility), then covering the skeleton with straw as if it were the muscles, and then earth and compost as if they were the flesh of a very large animal. In trying to mimick nature motives, I avoided corner-shaped figures, using almost only curves, round or oval (except for the perimeter, which is a square, and in fact it needs to protect the garden, “keeping out”…).

The main beds are designed to remind the shape of a coffee grain, a beautiful natural shape which in turn, if you look at it, indeed reminds another famous shape, which is that of the Tao symbol. So both the concepts were on my mind when designing the beds: they are oval shaped as in a coffee grain but they indeed look a little like a Tao (also thanks to the plants disposition), and also like a sleeping gentle animal.

In the garden we grow pretty much all the main vegetables used on our tables… Plus some singularity. They are disposed in order to optimize the use of space (occupying every layer) while at the same time respecting sympathies and repulsions plants have among themselves. We know for sure that some plants help each other out, in growing stronger and defending themselves, while other plants do not like to stay close (mainly for the chemicals their roots produce, or for their needs in nutrients).

There are tomatoes (10 different varieties, from Superkilo Potato Leaf to Sugar Cherry, Sungrape, the Sardinian Camone…), pepperoni (4 varieties), aubergines (4 varieties), onions, carrots, different varieties of salads, zucchini, pumpkins, beets, cabbages, and also fennels, chicory, celery, leeks…We also grow some aromatic plants (as Basil, Thyme, Persil, Sage, Mint, etc..) both for their culinary or herbal use and their function as garden protectors.

In fact aromatic herbs and flowers, apart from their pleasing beauty, bring with themselves more than one (as always in synergic horticulture) precious contribution.

They attract insects, first of all, luring them into the vegetable garden, where they usefully help the pollination. Sometime they also predate some kind of parasite! Planting flowers and aromatics also helps bees to survive. Bees and butterflies and all the insects bring astral forces into the garden, and chemical messages. They are so important also because they are the counterpart of parasites. They help to balance the bug population in the garden.

Apart from this, flowers and aromatic plants also produce chemical substances which help protecting other plants, such as some parasite repellents, antimycotics and antibiotics essential oils.

So flowers are not just beautiful, they are important. True beauty is never useless.

If you see the garden as an animal, you can understand far better its needs and behaviours than if you look at it as if it was dead. Since it is alive -totally, completely alive, and hopefully populated by a thriving web of microbes- you need to treat it consequently. Every part is linked to the rest, and you need to find a balance. Also, it changes through time. The plants disposition changes, the soil changes as the garden grows older.

In the vegetable garden are also included blueberries, raspberries and strawberries (they are important because they set the perimeter of the garden, its space, and they offer a protection from the wind, which sometimes here blows strongly), and a wild weed corner: a place in the garden where wild weeds of culinary or medicinal interest are encouraged to grow (and they look spectacular!).

I take care of the plants only with herbal infusions (mostly prepared with herbs gathered on Mount Amiata), propolis and other natural extracts and biodynamic preparations, and try to follow and to steer into the rhythms of the Moon and planets.

As the garden is an animal, in fact, also is the Earth: a living organism included in an even bigger one, the Cosmos. So it is better if we try to team up with microbes, plants and also planets, instead of fighting them or acting as if they mattered nothing.

In the garden, as everywhere elsewhere, you need to balance the opposites in order to make life stronger. Here we remind us this concept with two plants. On the East corner I planted Saint John’s Wort (Hypericum hidcote), representing the Male principle, the Sun. On the West side there is a Rosa chinensis mutabilis, standing for the Female, the Yin part. Among them, the wind flows along the rounded forms of the garden, bringing messages from near and afar, seamlessly mixing things up. But this is the way we want it.