I'm delighted to share today's post with you, the second in a series of in-depth conversations with people who have grown their gardens from scratch. Too often gardening books and magazines skip over the "before" shots of a garden, when the garden was a mud pit or a field of blackberry brambles, and we never see the hard work that went into making the dreamy space that is now splashed across glossy spreads. As a gardener who is starting from scratch, without even the bones of a garden in place, those are the photos I want to see! I need to be inspired and believe it is actually possible to turn our barren rocky ground into the garden I dream of... So this series is about filling in the "before" blanks and learning from people who have created dreamy gardens with their bare hands.
Camilla and I "met" via Instagram a few years ago. We've since developed one of those serendipitous internet friendships that are remarkable for the distances dissolved due to mutual beliefs and interests. I am in awe of the life that she has led in the time that I have "known" her. She left behind her premedical career and job (in a pediatric surgery lab no less), and moved away from her family and home in the Bay Area, California to the mountains of Slovenia to support her hubby Damir, whilst he trains for the Rio Olympics. She and Damir have built the most beautiful and productive garden on a hillside next to their home. They most certainly started the garden from scratch, and did it using a lot of old methods and back breaking work. What they have created gives hope to anyone who has a completely blank canvas and wants to grow food and feed their family, even on a hillside halfway round the world!
The Tree Diaries: Why did you move to Slovenia? Did you speak the language or know much about the country and the area that you were moving to?
Camilla Dugonjic: Before moving to Slovenia, my husband had been coming here to train for 3-4 months at a time, a couple of times a year. After almost 4 years, the distance began taking its toll on our marriage so I decided to take a leap of faith (and love) and prioritise my marriage above all else by packing up 8 suitcases and my sweet Icelandic sheepdog Odin and moving to a tiny cabin in the middle of the woods. I’d visited several times before, but still it was a bit of a transition coming from the Bay Area to the Slovenian countryside. I didn’t speak the language but I understood some of it — in fact the language has been one of the biggest challenge for me, since there are many different dialects in this country and much of Damir’s family speaks a different language. I’ve been learning two similar yet vastly different languages during my time here, and it gets rather confusing.
TTD: What did you dream of for your life there and the garden that you wanted to create?
CD: My thoughts when I decided to move (and press pause on my career) were that I was finally going to get the chance to live out one of my dreams — to live sustainably, to be as self-sufficient as possible, to have peace and quiet, and to grow a killer garden. Slovenian gardens have always captured my interest from the first time I came here. Each garden looks like it’s out of a storybook, and almost everyone I know has a plot, whether in a community garden, on their balcony, or in a backyard. It’s a part of the culture here during the spring and summertime, along with foraging for wild blueberries and mushrooms, and I very much wanted to be a part of that.
TTD: What did your garden look like when you first arrived? Did you feel intimidated by how much work you were facing? How did you get started?
CD: When I first saw the little home we bought with the very grassy south-facing hill, I knew we had our work cut out for us. Shortly after we arrived everything froze and was covered in snow, so I started my seedlings indoors while waiting for the ground to thaw. I knew from the start that I wanted specific planting areas around the garden — an area for greens, a three sisters garden, a spring veg garden, a potato patch, a strawberry patch, and so on. I also wanted a small greenhouse to grow some stuff throughout the colder months. Luckily, our one neighbor happens to be a farmer and he had all the necessary tools and know-how to help us prepare the land. That, and my mother-in-law has some serious gardening experience, having grown up in the countryside of Bosnia. It was hard, humbling, back-breaking work that took several weeks, just to lay manure and turn the soil. After that we had to break up the soil and remove as much of the grass as possible (which was the most tedious and frustrating part because there was so much grass). We used the power of our neighbor’s tractor with some very old tools that looked like the belonged dragging behind a horse. At times it felt surreal that I was covered in mud and dirt, living out my dream. I went to bed each night exhausted but completely satisfied.
TTD: How does it feel knowing that you are leaving this garden soon?
CD: There are a lot of reasons I’m excited to go back to the States: being closer to my family, building a home on our land over there, being able to work and contribute more financially, but the thought of leaving this garden really guts me. I found so much joy all last spring and summer pouring my morning coffee and touring the garden as the sun rose to see what was new. We had a very, very successful first year garden. We were able to completely fill our freezer and root cellar for the winter months and eat the freshest, most delicious meals all summer long. It’s going to be a very challenging transition to leave that and do things like go to the grocery store to buy parsley when I need it until we create another garden. The garden was a group effort, if I’m being honest. Damir and I allocated some plots for his mom and aunt to grow some vegetables they specifically wanted because the soil was so fertile and rich. So many weekend days were spent with the whole family drinking cold beers and working in the dirt, followed by evening barbecues. I have very fond memories and it breaks my heart to leave them behind. But life must go on and more gardens must be created!
TTD: What do you dream of for your life back in the States and the garden that you want to create there?
CD: Back in the Bay Area, I had a small garden under a bunch of eucalyptus trees. I never had much success there, as hard as I tried. The soil wasn’t great, and I didn’t have the time to dedicate to evolving it. I considered it practice for my future gardens as I learned. We were able to grow good lettuce, radishes, herbs, blueberries, and citrus trees, but that was about it. I found it very disheartening and tried to remind myself that greater, yummier things were in store for me.
As for our future garden in the States, I dream of something similar to what we’ve created here in Slovenia. I know it will be a very different climate, but I believe that with a simple greenhouse and some raised beds we can do pretty great things. I dream of a fenced plot with designated boxes for companion planting and to keep things as orderly as I can (things got away from me here in Slovenia and it was a wild, wild garden). I want to raise chickens once again to have a source of good manure for the garden, and to do away with my kitchen scraps (and for good eggs of course). I want lots of fruit trees and a very diverse herb garden — ideally to use for home remedies and such. I have big dreams! I can’t wait to see them through.
TTD: Who inspires you in gardening or life? Are there any gardens or gardeners in particular that you admire, or any books that you return to again and again for inspiration?
One of my favorite books of all time is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve read it several times and I get completely fired up to follow my instincts about growing and making as much of my own food as possible. But the truth is, my grandmother has always been my biggest source of inspiration for my garden. She had a magnificent backyard garden, even though at the time it wasn’t very trendy to grow food. I spent many days as a young child combing through her raised beds, grabbing cucumbers for dinner, trying to reach tangerines to snack on, and helping her pick the biggest leaves of chard. I didn’t realize what a huge impact it all had on me until I grew up. When I’m in my garden I feel like I’m channeling her spirit and I know she’s smiling.
A huge thank you to Camilla for sharing her beautiful Slovenian hillside garden on The Tree Diaries. I hope you have been as inspired as I have reading her words, showing what can be created with old school methods and machinery and a whole lot of hard work!