Café Botanico is a Café-Restaurant located in the heart of Berlin (Neukölln), with its own lush permaculture garden. Last Summer, me and Margaux Blache had a chance to visit the place and have a chat with Martin Höfft, who runs the venue.
-Tell us a bit about your experience with permaculture in Café Botanico.
Permaculture is a balance between letting nature freely take its course and guiding it in a certain direction in order to get the preferred results. For example, we divide the garden into “zones”, or “circles”, each with its specific use. For example, the zones included in the first circle are the ones you tend to visit every day, for harvesting the most commonly used items. Generally, the first zone is the closest and most accessible area from the house. It needs to be near you and easily accessible, so you don’t need to wander far out and across the garden for your daily needs.
If we want to use an urban metaphor, you want the supermarket to be near your place, not beyond a forest. Zone five is the last one, and it’s where you go only once in a while, for example to take a walk on the weekends. It is an area where you do not interfere much, you let it alone, performing only basic maintenance. Generally, it could be represented by a forest, or similar wild areas.
-How important is biodiversity in such a space?
It is one of the most important things in the garden. Being sure to find the best plant guild for companion planting, or “what should I do, plant my carrots here or there?”, are not our highest priorities. If we are not sure about something, we will probably end up doing both things! It’s better to plant something somewhere, rather than having gaps and holes in the vegetation. The most important thing to us is to try and create diversity in the plots. Diversity is also about allowing the insects to thrive in there, which is the reason why we also host a few beehives in this garden. In fact, bees are fundamental to garden ecosystems because of their function as pollinators.
Also, near the pond there are a few toads, which are great at keeping down the numbers of pests. In the future, we would like it if hedgehogs lived in this space as well. Ducks would also be great help, but they do tend to feed extensively off the vegetation, which is instead important for our dishes at the restaurant. The presence of these predators allows us to have a healthy and lush garden without using chemical pesticides, which is really something we don’t believe in.
I believe that there are three main important variables in permaculture gardening: diversity, beauty and water. Here, we prioritize beauty in the human experience over the other two factors, it is our main driver. Diversity comes second, I was able to tap into my personal seeds’ collection in order to fully satisfy this aspect. It took us a few years before reaching the current level of diversity, and now a lot of annual plants here are self-seeding or grow spontaneously. Being able to recognise and favour the growth of local wild herbs has been very important in this sense.
-What about water then? How does your irrigation system work?
In the past, we would only use rainwater and the water that we collected, nature would do the rest. It would rain rather regularly here in Berlin during the summer, with milder average temperatures. Lately, due to climate change, the weather conditions have become more and more dry and we need to water the garden with a hose in order to keep it lush. We also collect rainwater from the rooftop of the building, which is then used to fill up the pond and water the plants. Rainfalls have become more sudden and unpredictable, nowadays we tend to have heavier and less regular rainfall events compared to a few years ago. These types of phenomena are more stably common in other parts of Europe, such as southern France or southern Italy. The Brandeburg area is starting to be affected by these events comparatively later, although in the future we will face an increasingly higher need to collect rainwater for gardening purposes in an efficient way.
-In your experience, how important is the design of the garden in relation to human interaction?
It is of extreme importance. It must be based on intuition, easy access and on the most natural way to walk across the space. Feng-shui notions helped us a lot while thinking about this space.
The area around the pond was created by observing how a group of students walked across it. They all followed a similar path, which ended up defining a preferred pathway in the vegetation. That process was the basis on which I decided how to position boundaries and delimitations in that zone.
It has to be practical. It is already hard work: people are always in the garden to work, plant something, collect something, and if it is too hard to go from one point to another, if it isn’t practical, you will just end up not wanting to do it.
-I noticed that you have a pond, and that a lot of your guests have children, are there any concerns for safety?
We keep the pond fairly shallow for this reason. When my child was a one or two years old, he was not allowed to crawl through that part of the garden. However, he is now nine years old, so I don’t really worry anymore. Anyway, ponds should better be kept at the depth of a large puddle if the garden space is accessible for a young public.
-Is the presence of poisonous plants such as the digitalis a way to increase biodiversity in the garden?
Yes, it goes in the direction of increasing biodiversity, but it also has an educational aim. We want to show to the people and children coming to look and help in the garden that in nature there are many types of plants, and that we must learn which one are good for us, while preserving the dangerous ones as well. Everything is important in a garden.
-Is the restaurant vegan? How do you source your meat?
The restaurant is not vegan. There are a lot of vegan and vegetarian options, but we also serve meat, mostly lamb. We purchase it from a local farm in Brandenburg, they all are organic and free-range animals, which enjoy a decent lifetime in nature before reaching our kitchen.