If the bar is the heart of the hotel for our guests, then the vegetable garden is the meeting point for members of the Awasi Iguazu team.

Spending time outdoors is well-known for its benefits, but gardening goes one step further. Mary O’Brien, an oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, published a paper following research saying that there is a microbiome in garden mud that serves as a natural antidepressant. Yes, that’s right, spending time digging in the garden stimulates serotonin production.

“The Awasi Iguazu kitchen garden is a meeting place, a place of hope,” says Paula Bertotto, Operations Assistant Manager at our Relais & Chateaux lodge in Northern Argentina.

As well as playing an important role in the mental and physical wellbeing of our team, there is nothing more satisfying than being able to serve homegrown organic produce in our restaurant. 

“Before the abrupt change in our routines caused by the pandemic, we came to the hotel every day, and shared the joy of working side by side with our colleagues in a place we love” says Paula. “The confinement forced us to stay at home. Then, with less people travelling, we were not always needed at work. We missed being together, sharing the joy of being a team that celebrates its achievements every day.”

Open, outdoor spaces

“The first ones to start coming to the hotel even when not needed for work, were the chef with his kitchen staff. They began to meet to work in the vegetable garden. They gathered organic matter from the forest – using the Awasi vehicles, they foraged in the forest for broken-down tree trunks to improve the vegetable patch. They planted tomatoes of different varieties, pumpkins, green leaves. We saw them so excited that little by little several other members of staff began to join in.”

“It may sound unusual coming to the hotel to cultivate produce without any guests to feed” says Paula with a smile. “But we discovered that what we were experiencing was an opportunity to share, to keep our professional ties alive, and to witness plants grow became a kind of sign of hope, something that kept moving and evolving at a time when our lives seemed to have stopped by the pandemic.”

Four at a time

Paula and the Awasi Iguazu team came up with the idea of setting up a group of volunteers to take turns to work in the kitchen garden in groups of four at a time. The list of those interested grew as fast as the lettuces! Soon there were members of the housekeeping team, masseuses, waiters, chefs, members of the administration team, maintenance guys and guides all keen to take part, roll up their sleeves and start digging.

“Many of us come from rural families and spent our childhood on farms that are virtually self-sustaining, says Paula. “Others live in casitas with a patio, where we they might have a mini orchard. And of course some have spent their lives in cities and this was a completely new experience. Everyone brought something unique.”

Choosing what to grow

The chef and maitre are in charge of deciding which plants to grow based on what they need for their dishes or drinks, above all taking into account which herbs are needed very fresh when cooking and which ones can be dried and stored. Among the chef’s favourites are fresh salad leaves, sprouts, beet, chard, parsley, coriander and edible flowers. 

Meanwhile for the barmen, the aromatic herbs are very popular: they like to grow mint, peppermint, lemongrass and other local endemic species. 

“Every day, we see members of the Awasi culinary team leaving the orchard with fresh herbs to use in their preparations,” enthuses Paula. “We also see them enter with organic compost from the kitchen and bar. The worms take care of decomposing the vegetable remains and converting them into compost that we use in the orchard.”

Beyond the patch

The local produce doesn’t stop with the vegetable garden. There’s a whole “edible forest” surrounding the lodge consisting mainly of fruit trees and shrubs. “We have – ordered according to their need for light and their height – various trees including yacaratiá, papaya, bananas, citrus, palmito, ubajay, guayabas, maracuya, jaboticaba and sugar cane,” says Paula.

The team is enjoying experimenting with different methods of growing. For example, in one corner, some of the guides – with the help of the maintenance team – have mounted a dome containing logs to which they are growing different types of mushrooms which thrive in a dark and humid environment.

Bountiful and beautiful

“Not only do we want the vegetable garden to be prolific,” says Paula “but we also want it to be beautiful. And to add surprises to our eyes, around the garden we plant species that host butterflies, and others with flowers that attract hummingbirds. In our breaks, we sit down to contemplate the frenetic activity of the hummingbirds enjoying taking a drink from the bird drinker that we prepare each day especially for them.

Guests also enjoy visiting

Although the vegetable garden began as a way of producing organic, fresh produce to cook in our Relais & Chateaux kitchen, as we have heard from Paula it now plays an important role in the daily lives and wellbeing of our team. “We also love sharing it with our guests,” says Paula “we bring them to wander through the garden and learn where some of the ingredients that are served at their tables come from.”

Awasi Iguazu is a 14-room Relais & Chateaux hotel with individual villas spaced out in the Atlantic Rainforest, just 20 minutes from the famous Iguazu Falls. As well as delivering a high level of service, gastronomy and accommodation, the one thing that truly sets all three Awasi hotels apart is that each room is given a private guide and 4×4 vehicle for the duration of their stay.