Can we Live From Nature Without Exploiting it? (Part 4/4)

First there was the garden. Then the idea of utilising the surpluses. In his restaurant Botanico in Berlin Martin Höfft serves herbs, fruits and vegetables from permaculture. His credo: business becomes more successful if it is run in harmony with nature instead of against it. The last part of our 4-part series about permaculture.

Martin, which one came first: The permaculture garden or the Botanico?

The garden came first. I have been an avid gardener for more than 20 years, mainly as a source of fresh produce for me and my family. Then, one day, I discovered this abandoned and completely overgrown allotment garden in Richard Street in Berlin and convinced the owner to let me cultivate it. In order to fund the lease and to sell the surplus produce we didn't need, I came up with the idea of opening a little café-restaurant. It all came down to my father-in-law Stefano Emili, who is an experienced cook from Rome and loves my salads made from wild herbs. We designed the garden and café as an integrated unit and made sure they harmonise with each other. A while ago, my father-in-law handed over the toque to Roland Schulze, a young chef from Berlin. He continued the restaurant in the Italian tradition and added a few hints of Berlin, for example a vegan chickpea-mayonnaise and garden herbs popcorn.

 

The basic idea may sound a little naive: a business becomes more successful if it is run in harmony with nature instead of against it. Surprisingly, it seems to work quite well.

Martin Höfft

Why do you favour vegetables and fruits from permaculture for your culinary creations?

It has much to do with our idealism, but also has many practical reasons: The concept of permaculture is one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture: The methods incorporate ecologic, economic and socio-cultural aspects and offer a pathway to optimising our living environment in a sustainable way in all of these areas. It goes way beyond simply maximising profits as fast as possible, but is rather concerned with the continuous improvement of the living conditions of everyone involved, as far as possible. The basic idea may sound a little naive: a business becomes more successful if it is run in harmony with nature instead of against it. Surprisingly, it seems to work quite well. And here comes the practical reason: You can buy a much bigger variety of fresher and more organic products with a lower input in terms of work, fossil energy and other resources. You let mother nature do the work for you, without exhausting her.

Lamb’s salad, rocket salad, avocado - what exactly should be grown?

That depends on your personal preferences, as well as on your own openness to be surprised by mother nature. Over time, this cultivation method becomes more sustainable than all other known cultivation systems, because the ecosystem is allowed to reproduce and replenish itself, rather than being exploited to the point of exhaustion.

 

What do you focus on?

We are focusing our work on wild plants and less common varieties of vegetables that are not that easy to find in the city. The garden and the café will carry the message of a colourful and diverse mother nature that takes a friendly attitude towards us humans, that invites us to taste her treasures and to live in harmony with her.

But permaculture is more: It means the harmonic coexistence of opposites and the acceptance of differences.

Martin Höfft

Permaculture means that your menu changes with the seasons - is that well received by your customers?

That is precisely the reason why they come to us in the first place. They want to experience the combination of organic gardening and outstanding cuisine. We also use purchased products, preferably from the region, organically grown, seasonal and at fair trading terms; but we don't want to overshoot the target with our good intentions: For us, the food has to be delicious and it has to bring people together, rather than make them build mental fences, that is what is really important to us. In our place, you can get the best of both worlds: a vegan garden platter with seasonal salads and vegetables, or a traditional Salumeria platter with ham, cheese and sausages from Umbria. But permaculture is more: It means the harmonic coexistence of opposites and the acceptance of differences.

 

How a permaculture garden works

A permaculture garden is an ecosystem that stays "in operation" all year round for as many years as possible. We do not immediately remove our crops or replace them with new ones after the harvest. The goal is to create a living environment that, to the largest degree possible, regulates itself and stays in a sustainable equilibrium - with the resources available to it and with only minimum human interference. The space between the individual crops should have a protective cover layer of catch crops, beneficial weeds or biomass (a mulch cover made from decomposing plant materials) for as much of the year as possible. Any soil tillage is limited to the surface and we try not to plough the soil at all. Some plants stay where they are after they have been harvested and continue to reproduce by spreading root suckers or self-seeding. The weeds we pluck out stay in the patch so that their decomposing biomass can return important nutrients to the soil.

 

Martin Höfft tests fruit, vegetables and herbs from his permaculture garden

Geographer and Berlin resident Martin Höfft has been operating a permaculture garden in the Berlin suburb of Neukölln since 2013. His organic cultivation on 1,000 sqm produces ancient types of vegetables, fruits and wild plans in a Perma culture setup - all with organic food certification. His café-restaurant Botanico uses the produce to create traditional Italian dishes with a few selected Berlin-typical accents.

Restaurant Botanico