Interview: Stefan von Bothmer on Organic Gardening, Permaculture, and Life in Sweden’s Koster Islands

Stefanohelena
Photo courtesy of Stefan von Bothmer

Stefan and Helena von Bothmer have lived in the Koster Islands, the westernmost inhabited islands in Sweden, for more than two decades. They run Kosters Trädgårdar (Koster Gardens), an organic garden, permaculture center, and restaurant on South Koster Island. Much of the Koster archipelago is part of Kosterhavet National Park, which was established in 2009. Here, Stefan talks about what life is like in the islands, as well as some of the human and natural history of the archipelago.

How did you end up moving to the Koster Islands?
I’m a biologist and Helena is an agronomist. We were living in Uppsala when we decided we wanted to do something different. We managed to get a grant from Heritage Interpretation International that allowed us to be away for a year doing research in Hawaii and Australia. That gave us time to think about where we wanted to be. The place is really important. We wanted somewhere that would give inspiration not only to us but also to others. Our first thought was to move to Tasmania, but that’s too far from family. Then we discovered Koster and decided it was the right place for us.

IMG_1609Tell me about Kosters Trädgårdar.
Kosters Trädgårdar is all about organic gardening and permaculture, with the food going straight into the restaurant. It’s slow food. Kosters Trådgårdar stands on many legs: gardening, food, music, and our annual festival. We’re open all summer, then weekends until Christmas. We’d like to be open all year, but we close for a while between Christmas and April.

Another thing is that I had a dream of working in a national park. Now the national park has come to me, and I’m working to help develop the guiding side of things.

What’s Koster like at different times of year?
In the winter, there’s silence. Your whole body settles in at a slower pace that I’d never experienced before. The ocean always freezes over for a few weeks. October and May are the best months for diving; the water is clear, with 30 meters’ visibility. In the summer it’s more opaque and you can only see for five meters. We have Sweden’s best diving opportunities.

The Koster Islands are part of the greater Kosterhavet National Park. What can you tell me about the park?
The islands themselves have been a nature reserve since 1989, and in 2009 the national park was established. Here in northern Bohuslän province we don’t have any industries or pollution, so the water is very clean. About 100 years ago the first national park was established in Sweden, but Kosterhavet is Sweden’s first marine national park and the first one where people are included. Small-scale fishing is permitted, and people are allowed to be part of the decisionmaking. Some hunting and farming are okay. The park covers 380 square kilometers including the ocean, or 800 square kilometers together with Ytre Hvaler National Park in Norway. To the east of the islands is the Koster Fjord, which is 400 meters deep, but elsewhere the waters are very shallow and totally different. So you have an extremely high number of ecological zones. We’ve got more than 6,000 species on land and an equal number beneath the ocean surface. This is Sweden’s most species-rich area, which is not common in island biogeography. There’s tremendous variation and a lot of deep sea species, including several that were not previously known to be found here. There are even a few places with coral reefs.


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What about human history?
The islands are known to have been occupied in prehistory – in fact, there’s an ancient Nordic word, kostirr, meaning food place, that may be the source of the name Koster. We’re talking 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. It would have been an easy place to collect eggs or hunt wild boar. In the 11- or 1200s or so there were seven villages on the islands, one on North Koster and six on South Koster. The islands belonged to Norway, and the people were mostly fishermen and farmers living a very sustainable life. The villages had – and still have – a very strong identity, and the total population was around 200 to 300 people. The islands later belonged to Denmark until the peace of 1538. It’s said that during the wars between Sweden and Denmark a Danish ship’s pilot refused to let the Danish navy into the archipelago because he liked the Koster people better. These days there are about 350 permanent residents. But there are about 1,500 to 2,000 people who spend significant time in the islands during the year, including a lot of Norwegians – and that’s not counting all the day visitors.

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Practical information: Kosters Trädgårdar is located about 400 meters (1/4 mile) from the boat dock at Långagärde on Sydkoster (South Koster Island). The website (only in Swedish) is kosterstradgardar.se. In addition to food and garden experiences, the von Bothmers offer guided hiking, kayaking, and cycling tours in the archipelago. For information and booking, contact Stefan von Bothmer by e-mail at info@kosterstradgardar.se or phone at 070-600 13 13. 

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