Cervo, Sustainability

The Schweibenalp - INTERVIEW with Tabea Ehrensperger


The Schweibenalp is a very special place surrounded by mountains with a view of Lake Brienz. The alp is located in the Bernese Oberland at 1,100 m above sea level.
The CERVO management team got to know Schweibenalp for the first time in the autumn of 2020 and reworked the company's philosophy and guiding vision there.
On Schweibenalp, a multi-layered interwoven permaculture system of herb, perennial, vegetable, seed and mushroom gardens is cultivated. There is a small apiary as well as water and wilderness zones.
The perennial nursery was a great support for the realisation of the herb garden at CERVO Mountain Resort.
The plants were not only optimally adapted to the alpine altitude in Zermatt, but we also had a large selection of native herbs and perennial plants, all in organic quality.

Find out more in the interview with Tabea Ehrensperger.

Tell me something about you and the perennial gardening of Schweibenalp?

Our perennial nursery is located on Schweibenalp high above Lake Brienz and is part of the Alpine Permaculture Schweibenalp. We grow our plants at 1100 m above sea level. Due to the high temperature fluctuations, the high solar radiation and the cold winters, they become particularly robust and hardy. They are therefore suitable for gardens at high altitudes as well as in the valley.
I decided to learn gardening after my studies in environmental sciences. Plants have fascinated me since my childhood and every year I continue to learn something new. I especially enjoy passing on my knowledge to our volunteers and giving them insight into the secrets of nature.

Are there any particular plants you specialise in?  

We have a wide range of native wild flowers, medicinal plants, culinary herbs as well as fragrant and incense plants. We make sure that the plants we have in our range are of particular benefit to either insects or humans.

What makes the perennial nursery on Schweibenalp so special?

The altitude and the permaculture design of the nursery.

What special challenges did you have to face? 

Due to the long winters on the northern slope, we have a very short growing season, which is a challenge for propagation. This means that there is little time for development from seed to full-grown plant. When it is already spring in the valley, there is often still snow here. However, thanks to our straw bale greenhouse and the Walipini, the earth greenhouse, we can start growing annual crops early in the spring. Our perennial plants, however, overwinter outside, which is why we always "plan" in spring until the snow melts so that we can take our plants to the markets.

What is the difference between conventional perennials and those that incorporate permaculture principles? 

Perennials are mostly grown from our own seeds, which have already adapted to the altitude. Thanks to permaculture elements such as a heat-storing deep bed or dry stone walls, we can grow plants at altitude. In addition, we do not use any external fertiliser, but care for our perennials with our own nettle manure. All this results in our plants being very strong and hardy.

Is there anything you are particularly proud of? 

The best thing is when customers tell us how much they enjoy our plants and how lush they are in the garden.

Can you give us and the readers some tips on caring for perennials in your own garden? 

It is important to give the plants good starting conditions. This starts with choosing the right location for the respective species. Then the soil should be well loosened and the plant well watered. After that, I like to leave the plants to themselves, because the less you spoil them, the more robust they become. I only like to use stinging nettle liquid manure for strong-growing plants such as mints. To ensure that the soil retains moisture well, I recommend mulching it with green cuttings or leaves.

There are perennials that can be cut back to the base after flowering and will then flower a second time (remontant cutting).
For example:
Lavender, sage, catmint, lady's mantle, globe thistle, cranesbill, dyer's chamomile, bearded iris, Jacob's ladder, yarrow.
While we are on the subject of cutting back: For many insects it is important to cut back perennials in spring and not in autumn. Some wild bees overwinter as larvae or adults in hollow plant stems, some butterflies overwinter as pupae on the perennial, there are also species that lay eggs on the plant in autumn and hatch in spring. Other insects also overwinter on the plants. 

In spring, if possible, the cuttings should be piled up in a loose heap in a quiet place and left there until the end of May (late hatching species) before being composted or taken away.

However, to keep things looking good, it is worth including perennials that have a high winter habit and also add structure to the garden in winter.
For example:
Wild cardoon, wild carrot, horehound, poppy species, echinacea, rudbeckia, globe thistle, donkey thistle, golden balm/rose balm, fireweed. 

What is your favourite plant and which one should not be missing in any garden? 

One of my favourite plants is the large-flowered mullein, its size and majestic shape never fail to impress me. One year we had a specimen that was no less than three metres high! In contrast, its small yellow flowers are almost inconspicuous. If you take the time to observe the plant throughout the day, you will notice that every day new buds open early in the morning and by noon the flowers are already starting to fall off again.

A flower that, in my opinion, no garden should be without is the purple loosestrife. It blooms relatively late in the year and gives us and the insects a lot of pleasure again in autumn with its purple glowing corolla. Although in nature it is found in damp places, it also does well in lean dry places; in our area, for example, it also grows in the middle of the stony herb terraces.

Where can you buy your plants?

You can buy our plants either on site or at the speciality markets, such as the wild plant market in Bern, Thun, Eschholzmatt or the Pro Specie Rara markets at Elfenau or Weggis. We also send the plants by post, which is especially good in spring when they are still small.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

If you would like to learn more about permaculture, you can get to know our project at the monthly guided tours, where we present the herb terraces, the seed gardens, the vegetable garden and the perennial nursery and much more in more detail.