When Swiss-born Jessica Sbaraglia moved to Monaco in 2010, it was with a pencil in her hand rather than the spade she holds today. Her work was creative – the 29-year-old was employed at a yacht design company – but wasn’t fulfilling.
“A few years ago, I went through a phase of asking myself deep and probing questions, and realised something was missing from my life,” she explains from a 400sqm vegetable plot at the base of the principality’s tallest skyscraper, the Tour Odéon.
Her mind was cast back to the small vegetable patch – a potager – that her parents had kept on the balcony of the family home in Switzerland and she began to see her surroundings with new eyes: “I realised that Monaco wasn’t optimising itself in terms of green space. The industrial zone around Fontvieille Port, for example, has so much free room!”
An urban gardening concept was forming, but with no real experience in agriculture and just childhood memories of growing vegetables, Jessica decided to embark on two and a half years of learning and apprenticeships to gain professional certificates in the industry as well as the confidence to take her green dream further. She travelled across France, spending time working at organic farms the Mecca of permaculturists, Ferme du Bec-Hellouin, near Rouen in the north of the country.
Permaculture, a word that comes up often during our tour of the garden, refers to the development of an agricultural ecosystem that is designed to be ‘sustainable and self-sufficient’.
Once back in Monaco, Jessica was ready to get her hands dirty. She launched a campaign through Crowdfunding Monaco with the aim of raising the 25,000€ needed to get Terre de Monaco off the ground and was pleasantly surprised when the investment community showed an interest in the concept.
“I beat my target,” she says proudly, “which was very encouraging and showed me that people did believe in the idea of urban gardening in Monaco.”
Jessica’s company came to fruition in June 2016 and her first plot – a 30sqm space – came free-of-charge thanks to the Prince Albert II Foundation, which is also the location of the vegetable patch. The fresh produce she grows there feeds employees of the charity association.
Elsewhere, Jessica maintains 1,400sqm of land across the principality, among them: the Princess Grace Hospital (250sqm of vegetables, and 100sqm of strawberries and blackcurrants), the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel (Terre de Monaco vegetables from the 400sqm plot are almost always on the menu), and the site we climb 150 steps to visit from the luxurious entrance of the Tour Odéon. Jessica worked closely with the tower’s landscapers and architects to create the perfect space in which to cultivate a diverse range of produce. When we visit in early winter, the garden is thriving, but not all of the fruit and vegetables are easy to identify. “I’ve tried to introduce ancient and heirloom vegetables to the principality,” she explains, gesturing at the graffiti aubergines that have caught our eyes. We sample some unusual flavours, like the chocolate mint, peppery nasturtiums in orange and red, and an oyster-tasting herb called mertensia maritima. “This plot is also home to Monaco’s only commercial chickens!”
Along with an ‘insect hotel’ and four thriving beehives, the Tour Odéon’s resident vegetable patch houses a chicken coop occupied by eight ornate hens. They can’t claim to be Monaco’s exclusive chicken community –the zoo is home to two other hens – but they are the only egg-layers and certainly seem content in their sunlit coop.
We’ve reached the strawberry patch, which is immediately recognisable by the leaves, but there are no berries to be seen: “The residents in the Tour Odéon can come in and visit the gardens. I expect the children have been enjoying them!” she laughs.
Aside from the four main plots, Jessica also works with homeowners who have a roof terrace or balcony and would like to develop an urban garden. For a fee, Terre de Monaco constructs and maintains a space to grow organic vegetables, harvesting them for the owner or for sale.
“The demand is greater than the supply,” she says of the welcomingly popular concept, “I hope to employ a second gardener this year!” She currently has one dedicated gardener and splits her own day 50:50; tending the plots in the mornings and doing administrative tasks in the afternoon.
She’s met us shortly after an off-site visit and arrived in her electric-powered van. Embracing a more ‘earthy’ and environmentally-friendly lifestyle has clearly benefited Jessica, who says, “Growing plants and working the soil has a calming effect on me. It has become something like meditation. This sense of well-being is something I have tried to extend with Terre de Monaco. At the hospital, I run classes for patients with behavioural disorders or anorexia, for example. I also worked with pupils from five of Monaco’s schools last year it was five; the children love getting their hands dirty!”
Overall, Terre de Monaco has harvested nearly 12,000kg of fruit and vegetables in its one and a half years of activity. Her glamourous hens have lain almost 500 eggs. Jessica has developed further her company to offer a variety of services – such as aromatic herb and edible flower ‘towers’ for restaurants, and the installation of beehives on private properties – and won a prix for her eco-friendly company at the Monaco Green awards in late 2017. She jokes that she’s broken more than a dozen nails in the process.