In 1993, when Montecastelli was first purchased by the Schmidts, the surrounding lands had served as a local garbage dump for generations. We could see that there were some small stumpy olive trees sprouting out of the garbage and weeds, but it was hard to tell the value of what was there. The first summer and fall were spent just removing the garbage. Two full truckloads of scrap metal and several more of old shoes, broken bottles, pottery, and other refuse were removed in this period.
Slowly it became apparent that the scruffy olive trees were shooting up from enormous root balls, apparently centuries old. In 1985, there was a brutal winter in Tuscany that killed all of the olive trees, but not the root balls. Throughout Tuscany, one sees still today, very few trees older than 1985. The Montecastelli olives were no exception, and the next work was an intensive pruning under the direction of landscape gardener and plant mentor to the Schmidts, Sandro di Mare. The first year was spent pruning and harrowing the soil by hand with a pickaxe around the base of every tree. Then fertilization with organic fertilizer and compost. This was repeated every year for five years, until the soil quality was such that the harrowing could be done by rototiller. Flytraps were hung in the trees so that no spraying for insects was necessary. The harvest was all done by hand with extra care to remove inferior olives and the tannic leaves and stems. The principles of organic gardening were followed throughout the cultivation producing visibly healthier, stronger trees in a very short time. (For more information on the olive groves, see Farm)
The Tufo soil is the best for Tuscan olive oil, and we later learned that the oil from the Montecastelli olive grove had the reputation locally to be the best in the area. The first oil was called "Primo Olio™" and the name stuck. Within two years, Primo Olio was establishing a high reputation for quality in markets across Europe and the United States. It is still the basis for the agricultural activity at Montecastelli, today, with 250 trees in the original olive grove and another 1000 planted in 1997-98.
After the first work in clearing out the garbage and recuperating the olive trees, a vegetable garden was the next step. Ruth had previously lived in upstate New York close to a Biodynamic Farm, where the principles of organic gardening according to Rudolf Steiner are practiced. Attending sessions on Biodynamic Farming and working closely with experienced gardeners in the area, she brought this knowledge to Montecastelli. The land was cleared, a bit more each year, and generous amounts of sheep manure from the pastures below Montecastelli and garden compost were added to build up the soil, in addition to marble dust obtained in a local quarry and "greensand" full of micronutrients from the sea.
Seeds from heirloom variety plants, many of which were originally from the gardens of Italian immigrants in America, were brought in to be planted in the "serra" or simple greenhouse structure. Emphasis was on a large variety of plants of each type (15 kinds of tomatoes, 10 types of Basil, etc.) in order to see what adapted best to the area. The heirloom variety tomatoes, including Old Flame (Yellow with flame red streaks through the middle) and Brandywine (Pink) readily took their places next to Milano, San Remo and the local Tuscan varieties. Conservation of water is crucial in the summer months, therefore the typical mounded beds of North American intensive organic gardening methods, were channeled at the top and mulched with straw on the sides, in order to conserve water. Drip irrigation hoses were used for daily watering of the beds.
Today the vegetable garden comprises three terraced areas and produces enough food, with what is able to be canned and preserved, to feed all of the residents and guests of Montecastelli. It is a continual pleasure to harvest dinner at the end of the day and change one's diet according to what is freshest in season. Between the produce from the garden, eggs from the chickens, meat from the pigs and our own olive oil, the table is filled most of the time with the produce from our own land.
The expert hand of Sandro di Mare sculpted the master plan for the flower gardens, trees and shrubbery at Montecastelli. The first thing one sees as one approaches is the tall, Cyprus shaped oak trees planted by Sandro along the back side of the buildings on the courtyard. Just beyond is the Mediterranean garden, planted with aromatic Mediterranean shrubbery found at the well known nursery for aromatic plants, Vivaio Vensano, near Volterra.
A general philosophy of raising plants from seed and reseeding and regrafting from plants that have adapted well to the land in Montecastelli, has been followed. Further, plants native to the area or at least to a similar region are chosen for new plantings. The gardens hold Nespole trees grown from the pits of fruits eaten at the lunch table, poppies of all types adaptable to low rainfall climates, lavenders, jasmine, rosemary, sage, Artemisia, columbine, many types of hardy roses such as rosa rugosa, and of course, climbing roses growing up into the branches of the olive trees that surround the beds throughout Montecastelli.
With the Chickens and the Cinta Senese pigs, the olive groves and the vegetable and flower gardens, Montecastelli is once again coming to life in the legacy left to us by the Benedictine monks of so many centuries past.