Bauerngarten: the essence of South Tyrol in a few square metres

Bauerngarten: the essence of South Tyrol in...

Bauerngarten: the essence of South Tyrol in a few square metres

By Ilaria Persello

What is a Bauerngarten?

In South Tyrol, people usually stop to admire the small plot of cultivated land next to a house. Between a typical green garden and a garden, they are a sort of urban green gardens where, next to sunflowers, marigolds, coneflowers and roses, you can admire heads of lettuce – so perfect that your mouth starts to water – and several varieties of seasonal vegetables.

It is not easy to explain the so-called urban garden (or domestic) – a Bauerngarten in the German language – of South Tyrol.

At first glance, it seems like a jumble of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. At a closer look, you discover all the harmony made of knowledge handed on from generation to generation. Also, the flowers are not just an ornament but provide ingredients for a natural medicine that cures the most common illnesses. Or they enhance, with their aromas, the authentic poor cuisine.

A clear definition and a list of its essential elements do not exist. Nonetheless, there are common characteristics. The cross is a typical feature of these green gardens: it divides the area into four slots. This organization helps observe the crop rotation as a clear identification of hefty, medium and weak consumers of soil nutrients and how perennial plants survive. Nature is inside and around the garden. It is delimited by a wooden fence and, at times, a wall or a hedge.

The primary aim of the green garden is food independence. If one sows, takes care and harvests the crops, they know and savour what they eat. In the past, peasant families relied on them; now, they are just an inspiring delight, a passion for what is good and homemade, a passion for nature.

If the Bauerngarten has always existed as an autarchic way for a supply of vegetables thanks to which survive in a harsh and poor mountain economy, nowadays we assist to a rebirth since people want to get back to nature. The green garden has become the basis for a natural way of eating and is no longer an economic need as in the past. Furthermore, they even see it as a pastime to free your mind from everyday tension.

The past and present of Bauerngarten

The first green gardens date back to when nomads became settled farmers.

Fundamental in South Tyrol is the division of the farmland based on the maso, connected lands with, at the centre, a rural home with stables and barns. Even if the green garden has become a small piece of farmland near the farm (or house), they still cultivate herbs and seasonal greens necessary for the family’s daily diet. Vegetables and aromatic plants are typically local: chives, lovage or mountain celery, chervil, dill, and cumin.

The characteristic of the gardens in Alto Adige is the vast assortment of cabbages and turnips. There is a wide use of spinach in cooking, and worthy of mention is the cultivation of poppies, seeds used in bakery or pastry making, and parsnips.

In the domestic green garden, next to lettuce and numerous vegetables, there are raspberry bushes and fruit trees, too, which seem to invite us to pick one of these delicacies. Some roses complete the harmonic mixture, creating a colourful picture.

In South Tyrol, these green gardens were rectangular with these features in common: the cultivation of flowers and vegetables on one piece of land, a practical subdivision through trails and wooden fences. These fences kept away animals and foreigners. They had a law that defined the minimum height a border had to be: up to the chest of an adult man.

Those that come closest to them in the structure are the historic gardens of monasteries, starting with those inspired by Hildegard of Bingen, which combined, with a specific design, aromatic or medicinal plants, vegetables and flowers. An example is that of the Novacella Abbey near Bressanone.

We often tend to link the origin of the Bauerngarten to the tradition of the “enclosed farm” and the need to keep the agricultural property intact.

Since a further element that defines the green garden is the research (mainly in the peasant world) for self-sufficiency, the first incentive for the rediscovery of this type of green garden happened because of the food sustenance during the world wars and (as many scholars underline) as a distinctive sign against the obligations imposed by the fascist regime. With the separation of Tyrol and its annexation to Italy in 1919, the population of the German language subsequently started to confront the fascist attempts at assimilation. They abolished the local traditions and the old hereditary law of the enclosed farm. That brought the German language population closer to its Middle-European roots, reinforcing its cohesion to resist the Italianization pressure and preserve its own Heimat. In those days, the green gardens were a local identity symbol, not just a fundamental factor of survival and autarky.

Since the 70s of the past century, they started to idealize the peasant community as the spiritual core of the population and the mountain peasants. Mountain farmers increasingly found themselves facing “heroic” agriculture.

The rediscovery and development of popular traditions have brought a rebirth of domestic green gardens in South Tyrol, so much so that they have become part of the Gardens of Castel Trauttmansdorff in Merano. Other traditional green gardens open to the public are those of the Museo Provinciale degli usi e costumi in Teodone/Brunico.

Characteristics of a small green garden

The peasant green garden has retained peculiar aspects that make it not an autarchic green garden for the people’s survival but a synthesis of South Tyrolean popular culture. Marked by a pen, they place the green garden near a house. In South Tyrol, the traditional wooden fence, built in different modes, is the characteristic element of the cultivated land, and public financing supports their construction. The woven garden fence has almost always been created manually by skilled craftsmen who bind the larch boards by intertwining thin spruce branches and bending them over the fire. It’s not long since houses in mountain villages have had lush vegetable gardens. In the past, in mountain areas, vegetable gardens were small gardens of aromatic plants in which they also grew vegetables along the edges of the fields. Flowers have made their entry even more recently.

The plants in the green garden have a long tradition, as recounted in a 1743 manuscript found in the library of the Franciscan convent in Bolzano. Among the many plants mentioned in the “herbs for the vegetable soup”, we can find the so-called “Viselen”, as they call beans still today in the South Tyrolese dialect. Beans were rich in proteins and appreciated since meat was expensive and difficult to find. Apart from the fence which defines its surface, all crops have a specific place in the green garden. Small trails, often arranged in a cross shape, divide the crops. Each green garden – even the smallest – has chive and lettuce (mainly butterhead lettuce and the sauerkraut cabbage), which they define as the fundamental vegetables of the green garden.

The winter onion is also a perennial plant that they have cultivated for centuries in the gardens of peasant homes.

All fresh vegetables have their own space, as do aromatic herbs such as parsley, fenugreek, marjoram, medicinal herbs and numerous ornamental plants.

Home gardens are also surfaces often used to experiment with new crops. The new crops are first grown in vegetable gardens and then transferred to the fields for large-scale cultivation.

They even pick the leaves of spontaneous plants for their salads. During the centuries, the people ate them raw in salads and cooked like spinach.

Another typical plant is a poppy, cultivated preferably in sunny areas and repaired from the wind. To prevent stems from bending, they put some strings among the plants. During blossoming and the maturation of the seeds, the poppy needs much sun and heat.

In the gardens of the Alps, you can find common beans and climbing beans, white Spanish beans, peas and broad beans. Until the 16th/17th century, the broad bean was one of the most widespread crops and was considered the bean par excellence. Only with the arrival of the common bean did the broad bean lose its prestige and begin to be used as fodder for animals. In some Alpine valleys, the broad bean is still present in vegetable gardens today, for example, in Val d’Ultimo, so much so that it has earned the nickname ‘Ultner Boa’, Val d’Ultimo bean. In this valley, they harvest the broad bean when it is still green and eat it with potatoes.

The future in the tradition 

Maybe the main feature of the South Tyrolean home garden is that it has roots firmly planted in the peasant tradition and history of this area. Yet, the element that stands out most is the ability to innovate and make each Bauerngarten unique. Often, women take care of this small vegetable garden with boundless passion and cleverness, as they have done for centuries.

Even the autonomous province of Bolzano and the trade associations have defined the farmer’s vegetable garden as an asset to be protected and promoted in every possible way. The farmers’ markets, which happen weekly even in small towns, are only its best known but perhaps not its most significant part.

Probably, this synergy will carry such a beautiful and colourful tradition in the future and protect its biodiversity.

Related Articles

Man and Food


Dear Readers, You will surely know that to embark on this magazine means to venture the thousands of meanings that food and its preparation had and continue to have in the history...

Posted on by Massimo Bartoli
Food and Art


when art masterpieces inspire healthy and tasty recipes Take the professionalism and passion of an art critic, Caterina Corni, with the passion for contemporary Indian art, the...

Posted on by Fiamma Domestici