Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Building a Permaculture Garden in Italy

This long-neglected olive orchard will soon bloom again. Pruning is kept to a minimum to avoid stressing the trees and opening vectors for disease and insect infestation. (Courtesy photos: Geobarns).

The Geobarns Team

As the son of an immigrant father, it has always been our founder George’s dream to return to Italy to honor his father’s achievements in America by replanting the family roots in his native soil. We were fortunate to find good land a few years ago in Rochetta, a place reminiscent of his father’s hometown of Arcetri, near Florence. George’s son Caleb lead the Geobarns Europe team developing the and began planning construction in earnest.

However, buying the land was the easy part. Gaining approval from the Italian authorities while navigating unfamiliar laws and customs was no easy task. Seven years later, we have only just begun building, yet among the delays and challenges, we have not been idle. The land came with remnants of a garden and a vineyard that had grown wild through neglect, so we set about rehabilitating the land while our applications worked their way through the labyrinthine local bureaucracy.

The delays gave us a most precious treasure: time to observe and study the natural conditions of the land, such as water flow, sun, wind, and wildlife. We wanted to do more than just prune and weed. To be good stewards of the land, we needed to rebuild an integrated ecosystem that could sustain itself naturally, without relying on chemicals, external supplements, or producing waste. Each component of our garden — soil fertility, water conservation, microbe and pollinator habitats, plant diversity — needed to connect and support the others. The solution lies in Permaculture, an approach to land design that uses a set of ethics, “thinking tools” and techniques to build the integrated ecosystem we desired. The term is a contraction of “permanent” and “agriculture,” and it implies long-term resilience.

A first step was to improve soil conditions in the garden area. We adopted an ancient technique called Hugelkultur, a German word that translates roughly to ‘mound culture’, in which our crop plantings are grown in raised beds that resemble mounds. A good Hugelkultur bed is built in layers, much like a lasagna. The base layer is built with decomposing logs, tree limbs, and twigs — the more decomposed the better. The next layer is made from loose organic material, such as grass clippings, fallen deciduous leaves, and plant waste. These should be tightly packed into the first layer. Continue building alternating layers of rotten tree branches and plant waste until the mound is at least a couple feet high. If livestock manure is available, this can be packed in as well. Once you’ve built your mound, water it thoroughly over several days, until mushrooms begin to sprout.

The result is a crop bed absolutely packed with nutrients. It’s also a healthy environment for microbes and small invertebrates, such as worms, which open tunnels in the crop bed to admit critical nitrogen from the atmosphere. Further, the decomposing wood retains rainwater and provides an enduring heat source for microbes and plant roots. Hugelkultur is an example of an intentional permaculture goal of stacking multiple functions and benefits into one system, like any healthy ecosystem that evolved naturally.

This water collection pool does double duty as storage with natural filtration and a source of water for birds and small animals.

The garden is similarly built in a diverse, multi-layer mix of fruit and nut bearing trees, shrubs, and ground cover; much like plant communities found in nature. Apple and pear trees add to our crop production while providing canopy habitat for insects and birds. The shrub layer includes nitrogen fixers and bioaccumulators, which draw nutrients up from deep in the soil and make them available for plants on the surface. Once a year, plant waste from pruning and harvesting is collected and chopped up into a nutrient rich mulch. Strawberries, herbs, and other plants form the ground-cover layer.

Water management was another task. We discovered the remains of an old water collection basin, which we restored and enhanced with stone facings into a bio pool to reduce erosion, establish water security, and provide an aesthetic and recreational amenity. It’s now the centerpiece of the garden and, with a little encouragement, has bloomed into a micro-environment all its own. The bio pool also gives us peace of mind as a potential source of irrigation water in the future.

The garden begged the help of bees to sustain it, so we hired a local beekeeper not only to bless our land with new colonies but to replenish the regional wild bee population as well. A recent visit from a Ph.D program researcher attested that after a few years of sustained effort, she has never seen a property as filled with insects and thriving biodiversity as ours. Success!

Finally, we turned our attention to the vineyard. Here we adopted another ancient technique pioneered by the Etruscan culture near the end of the Bronze Age. Wild grapes are a species of liana, which are climbing shrubs. The Etruscans discovered that grape vines can be trained to grow up tree trunks, improving yields and making harvesting easier. The technique is commonly known by the French term espalier, but in Italy it is called vite maritata, or ‘married vine’. Fully matured grape espaliers can span wide distances between trees, and the technique has evolved into the modern vineyard we see today: long rows of intertwined grape shrubs supported by trellis fencing.

Waiting for the building permits gave us something more important than we expected: a deeper connection to the land and community. As we applied permaculture design principles and techniques to the gardens and reveled in the bees and insects establishing their healthy homes with us as well within the broader ecosystem, an abiding sense of belonging filled our hearts. In the beginning, our mindset was to restore an old garden as we marked time waiting for approvals. Yet along the way, we forged new friendships, shared our knowledge, and learned from others, and together built a demonstration project that has won enthusiastic support from the local community, generated new work, and boosted the spirit of many.

And this is the serendipitous fruit of our labor: George’s father grew up in Italy and moved to America, but in a sense he never left. He has always belonged to Italy as much as he belongs to America. Building this permaculture project together helped us realize that the same is true for us all. We belong to the land, wherever it may be. Let us nourish it as much as it nourishes us.

The Geobarns team authors include George Abetti, founder, Casey Williams, site stewardship managing partner, and Caleb Abetti, project manager.

George Abetti: After retiring from ministry, George founded Geobarns in the early 90’s, when he developed a unique, proprietary design that combined the strength and beauty of post and beam timber framing with the versatility of free-span structures. He’s built his Vermont-inspired Geobarns across the United States and Canada and now in his father’s native Italy. George holds a Master of Divinity degree from Yale University.

Casey Williams: Casey serves as managing partner for Site Stewardship for Geobarns, which covers environmental assessment and planning in Geobarns building sites, as well as providing consultation for Geobarns clients to manage and enhance biodiversity in their properties. Casey holds a Master’s degree in Urban and Environmental Planning from the University of Virginia.

Caleb Abetti: Caleb has served as an ordained minister and rector in Vermont and now leads Geobarns’ expansion into Europe, where his experience in community outreach and Geobarns construction has been instrumental in bridging both language and cultural barriers. Caleb holds a Master of Divinity degree from Saint Vladimir Seminary.

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