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The Gardens

There are three gardens on my island

By Hákon Kjalar



There are three gardens on my island. They have been here for hundreds of years and are made using ancient Icelandic tactics. You won’t find many handmade gardens like this anymore,after the introduction of the tractor,which allows Icelandic farmers to plow enormous fields under their crops. Traustholtshólmi is an island; the tractors never made it out here, across the water. These few hectares of farmland are safe from the industrial revolution.

I refer to the gardens as the house garden, the middle garden, and the big garden. The house garden has been in use since 1943,when the island became a private summer getaway for my family.When I first moved to the island, I uncovered the other two gardens;removing the turf,plowing the muddy ground and laying down seeds for my crops. At that time,nobody had used them since 1880 when Magnús, the last farmer in Traustholtshólmi before me,moved to the mainland. The gardens are far older than that, though. They are traditional Icelandic vegetable gardens.For all I know,they might be as old as the settlement of Iceland a thousand years ago. A few centuries old, in any case. Older than the USA, I sometimes joke.Their sloping turf walls erupt from the hills around my house; a little patch of cultivation on the wild landscape.

They are traditional
Icelandic vegetable gardens
that could be from the
settlement of Iceland a
thousand years ago

Growing of vegetables is hard

They slope because of the conditions here in Iceland. That’s why they are built into the side of a hill. As anyone will tell you, Icelandic summers are very short and rather cold,by European standards. This makes growing vegetables a complicated task. You need all the advantages you can find.

The turf walls have two functions. Firstly, they keep domestic animals out of the gardens, just like any other regular fencing. Turf was the primary building material for the old settlers. Wood was scarce,so they used sod and rocks instead. The walls’ other function is to work as a wind barrier for the garden,raising the temperature of the soil by a precious few degrees by eliminating or decreasing the effects of wind chill—which can be a significant factor in Iceland.

“but what I love the most is
knowing that I got my
fingers in soil that tens of
generations have been
harvesting before me “

To get as much direct sunlight, you

need to slope the garden towards it.

But it’s the sloping itself that is so ingenious to me. You don’t see that anymore. People usually find a flat piece of land to make a garden. There is an abundance of flat land son the island but the people living here centuries ago still decided to set their gardens on a south-facing hillside. Why?

Iceland lies far in the north, near the Arctic Circle. Although our summer days are long,the sun doesn’t rise as high in the sky as it does in other European countries. By setting the gardens into the side of a hill, they are angled towards the sun, giving them as much direct sunlight  as possible. Another genius function of the slope is the draining. Since the actual garden is surrounded by turf walls, you might as well think of it as a large, rectangle hole in the ground. It can rain a lot in Iceland, so there is a risk that this“hole” might simply turn into a pond in heavy rain, drowning your harvest. That’s where draining comes in. The crop gets all the water it needs but it will never over flood as the water runs downwards through the soil.

For me to be reusing thus old gardens and

preserving their heretic is a great pleasure and

honor in its self.

For me, reusing these old gardens and preserving their heritage is a pleasure and an honor in itself, but their actual functionality also makes them ideal for securing my livelihood here on the island. Still, what I love most about them is knowing that I have my fingers in the soil that tens of generations have harvested from before me. I get to use their gardens, their soil, their land.It’s a feeling of companionship.Like we’re all in it together.

Come lie in the tall grasses and experience the true sense of seclusion and peacefulness that Traustholtshólmi has to offer.

“Everywhere you look,
Hakon’s resourcefulness
and tender care for the environment is evident.”

There are three gardens on my island

Catching salmon the traditional way