Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Every time I visit my family in Lausanne, Switzerland, I resupply on body care from Jardin des Monts, a Swiss organic herbal company. Their products are my small indulgence and as anything Swiss, cost an arm and a leg. However, the packaging is beautiful, with traditional woodcut illustrated labels, and their products use mountain flowers and medicinal plants grown organically in the mountains. Not only do their creams and oils smell delicious, they are very efficient too. When I learned that their garden in the mountains was open for visits, I arranged to take my girls on a day trip from Lausanne.
The Jardin des Monts (literally, garden in the mountains in French) is only accessible on foot via mountain trails, so we packed our hiking shoes and waterproofs, as the weather forecast was isolated showers. Leaving the shores of Lake Geneva behind, we drove through verdant valleys to reach a small village where we made a sharp left to go up the mountain. It was one of these tiny mountain roads that’s initially peppered left and right with quaint wooden chalets, but they become less frequent the further you drive, until they completely disappear and poof, you’re by yourself surrounded by remote farms.
Eventually, we thought we found the start of the hike to the Jardin des Monts. We parked, started to hike and only realized that we were lost when a couple of Dutch hikers (bless them, they had a map) pointed us in the right direction. Twenty minutes later, we were back on track and ready to find the Jardin des Monts.
Starting next to a barn, the trail picked up through a grassy slope and continued as a narrow rocky trail in the forest. Some stairs were carved in the mountain to make the going easier and soon, we spotted a small narrow-gage farm train. Twenty minutes later, we caught sight of the beautiful mountain house that’s Jardin des Monts HQ in the wild. Cue blissful yodelling. What a welcome sight. Rain was just about to fall hard on us.
The massive shape of the chalet cut a sharp contrast against the milky clouds surrounding it. Rising from the valley floor, mist was about to engulf the whole mountainside. André, landscape horticulturalist at Jardin des Monts, welcomed us to the farm with a firm handshake and a selection of herbal syrups. My girls were so thirsty from the climb that they literally guzzled the first glass without even considering their options.
And my, were there options in the drinks department–lemon nepeta, peppermint, wild thyme, lemon thyme and Moroccan mint. Which one to pick? I tried them all–my favorite was lemon thyme–listening to André discussing the history of the house. Apparently, this Swiss mountain chalet was built in 1845 and used as a farm until the 1950s, when it was abandoned and fell into decay.
I tried to imagine the life of the former chalet owners, about my grand-parents’ generation, living in their time bubble in the mountains, baking bread in the bread oven in the early morning for the day, chopping wood in the forest for winter, storing grain in the barn for cattle, and walking down a steep rocky trail to run errands at the village.
It was surreal and couldn’t last forever. Civilization caught up and the chalet didn’t fit modern living standards anymore. Then in 2004, the building was saved from ruin, lovingly restored and became a pilot project aiming at preventing the abandonment of medium-altitude mountain pastures. Hence the herbal and medicinal plants operation we were visiting.
I was gobsmacked. What a cool story–preserving architectural heritage while creating jobs, all in a protected nature area. It must have been harrowing for the Jardin des Monts team to reclaim the land after several decades without crops, to rebuild the terraces and plant native plants. Apparently, their motivation went in hyperdrive and initially, they planted no less tan 60 different varietals to see what worked. Today, they grow 27 plants and forage another 6 on the mountainside. As a bonus, the biodiversity of the garden attracts birds and pollinators.
We moved on to the garden, learning about organic farming methods. From stinging nettles used as fertilizer to chives used to repel cicadas or absinthe to attract beneficial insects, the whole philosophy of the garden was very much in tune with the best Californian organic farming methods I’d seen. Even lizards played their part and lived under strategically located stones, feeding on insects.
When the rain stopped, we walked past beds of wet chamomile, roses and bergamot, and looked at all the labels, marvelling at the impact of seasons on the garden activity. While I thought that wintertime would be a dull season, it turned out that it was actually very busy despite heavy snowfalls. Winter is when the team at Jardin des Monts makes their teas and when they create new products for the next season. In 2016, they introduced an edelweiss lip balm and a mountain flower hand cream. I was quite excited about the edelweiss lip balm and sure enough, purchased a couple to take home, as well as mints for my girls and two bottles of syrup.
By the time we walked down the mountain, I looked at the forest of spruce trees and trailside yarrow with a different eye. Obviously, some of these would be foraged and end up in a pretty bottle this winter. What a lovely way to bring the mountain home, I couldn’t wait for winter to come so I could use the edelweiss lip balm.
My girls were charmed by the garden and that evening, read a few chapters of Heidi in bed to try to capture some of the Swiss mountain atmosphere we had soaked in all afternoon. It was really nice and the fact that the Jardin des Monts was more a garden than a shopping experience made it all the more attractive. Of course, we ended up buying products but there was no pressure, at any moment, to do so. I highly recommend it as a day trip forfamilies in the area of Chateau d’Oex.
From Lausanne, the drive to Rossinière takes roughly an hour. From the village, follow wooden signs with a cook up the mountain during 15 minutes until you reach the trailhead. Park by the wood pile and walk the rest of the trail, 20 to 25 minutes, roughly following the narrow-gage train track, until you find the chalet.
Enjoy your Swiss garden experience!