Ich Bin Ein Gardener: Berlin’s Urban Gardens

A couple of years ago, I came across a really cool development: Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, the site of the Berlin airlift in the late 40s, was being turned into an urban gardening hotspot. German gardeners were reaching back to the Middle Ages for systems of dividing up land for cultivation by urbanites wanting to get their hands dirty.

It turns out this desire wasn’t limited to out-of-service airports: Berliners are taking over all sorts of city spaces, from apartment balconies to supermarket roofs, and turning them into gardens. The article below from AFP digs into this phenomenon, and the methods Germans are using to bring fresh food to city neighborhoods.

Have you seen or otherwise experienced community gardening in Berlin? What about other parts of Europe? Share your stories with us in the comments.

Urban gardens greening Berlin rooftops, airfield (via AFP)

Tomatoes, veggies and herbs are sprouting from Berlin parks, a shopping mall rooftop and even a former airfield in community gardens that pioneer farmers say add green spice to urban life. Perhaps the best-known city gardens are on the former Tempelhof…

  1. Celestial Green Ventures

    No doubt, this is a very good initiative to make the city look greener. Last time in Berlin, I visited a friend who had a small garden in the back of her house. She planted mostly herbs for cooking, and they seemed to be very fresh. The only problem she had was that she could not keep the garden during the winter due to the cold, cold weather.

      1. Vivi

        Ah, it’s not so bad. This year, we’ve had all of 2 weeks of frost, and we usually have the coldest weather in Germany, because we’re too far from the sea and are just on the edge between continental and maritime climate zones. So whenever the Gulf Stream is weak and the zone edge shifts a little to the west, we get Russian winters. But the US polar vortex pushed a lot of south-western winds from the Atlantic to us this year, so it’s been ridiculously mild. Though it can be a lot worse – last year, the snow stayed on the ground from January till April. Oddly enough, that resulted in the best peach and walnut crop we’ve ever had in our garden, while the apple harvest was so bad throughout the country that the prices are still up.

        But you can do a lot with even unheated greenhouses – in my town, the 17th century castle features an orangery, and there’s another Orangery Palace in Potsdam (southwest of Berlin). And the frost does kill off a lot of pests, so it has some benefit, too. The problem is more the low sunlight hours in the winter months, due to the early sunset (around 4 PM) and the dismal, cloudy weather. I’ve tried raising salad seedlings in the house (under a southeast-facing roof window) in January, but they always die from lack of light. Peppers don’t get ripe without a greenhouse, because the growth period is too short. Tomatoes barely make it – you’ve got about two months of production but they usually die from fungal diseases in September, when the weather gets wet and cool.

        But, you know, sustainability is also about choosing what’s appropriate for your climate. Bush beans love the cool / wet autumn weather, and carrots, onions and brokkoli can survive mild frost. Perennial berry bushes and fruit / nut trees often do very well, too. Some of them even need the frost to sprout properly. I’ve read that the rising temperatures we can expect mean that we won’t be able to grow the traditional apples and pears anymore. On the other hand, climate change occasionally will still give us winter frosts below -20Β°C / 0Β°F (because of the weakening Gulf Stream), so we can’t simply start growing mediterranean fruit either.

  2. Vivi

    As usual, reporters myopically concentrate on the Western part of Berlin, ignoring East German traditions. After all, who cares about the poor relations who have actual experience with peak oil and scarcity, right?

    You make this sound like it’s a new thing. Berlin (at least East Berlin – don’t know about the West) always had a lot of allotment gardens, in the old Schrebergarten style (i.e. life-time leases of small lots for relatively cheap rates, with rules attached that you have to grow a certain percentage of edible plants). This goes back to the industrial revolution and the need to help the urban worker families to get some sunlight and fresh produce. As far as I know, the law protecting these areas from developers and setting the now cheap lease rate (compared to normal prices) never has been abolished here like it did in other Western European countries.Other allotment garden communities were founded during a middle class back-to-nature / weekend gardening / nudist movement in the 1920s, though that was more in the suburbs. Add to that the dire famine right after WW2, and the need for people to grow themselves what they couldn’t buy in the GDR’s planned economy (Especially in the end, when Soviet oil stopped being sold at subsidised prices to the East Bloc states, you couldn’t really buy anything fresh but potatoes, cabbages, carrots and onions because the state was putting agricultural priority on calorie crops and staples that didn’t need cooling.) and you have a people who have kept their awareness of the importance of kitchen gardening. If anything, this has diminished since the Reunification – I live in the northern suburbs of Berlin, and most people here felled their fruit trees and planted low maintenance conifers instead as soon as you could buy anything you wanted in the supermarkets.
    Though thankfully the allotment gardens with their legal requirements for food production still exist, and there has been a resurgence of interest in them. 10-20 years ago, they were falling out of use as the renters became elderly, but apparently now young families have developed such a huge interest that there are long waiting lists. That’s part of the reason for the new community gardens – the old city allotment gardens that you can see along the rail lines simply aren’t enough anymore. (The other reason is that allotment garden communities usually have a lot of internal rules – they’re practically a byword for over-reglementation and officials nosing around in your business, telling you exactly how high the hedge is supposed to be, and things like that.) The suburbs that are close enought to be included in the Berlin railway system also have had a large influx of families who are now building permanent homes on what originally were larger, actually owned weekend gardens for Berlin urbanites. (The rest of the Brandenburg countryside is rapidly depopulating, so it’s really noticeable if your little town suddenly needs a second elementary school class.)

    By the way, the reason for the empty spaces in Berlin is not really the Wall – that was prime developing land, which is why the wall is almost completely gone without even a short stretch of the full death strip intact as a memorial. The reason for the empty spaces is that Berlin still hasn’t fully rebuilt from the war, especially in the poorer parts of the town, so you often find an empty lot in a row of townhouses, like a gap in a row of teeth, from where a house was bombed out too badly to salvage. Also, there are a lot of legal issues partly dating back to the forced dispossession of the jews, but mostly regarding plots originally owned by people who fled the GDR and whose property subsequently was sold or rented out by the state to new owners. Finding the original owners has been a long and slow process, and there also have been legal battles. And as long as the ownership isn’t settled, the site often falls into a derelict state because no-one really feels responsible. Plus, the owners now often live deep in Western Germany and don’t have the funds to actually do anything with their property, so they just hold it to sell at some later point when a developer makes them a good offer. The people actually living around the derelict plot sometimes start using it illegally out of frustration at the unused space and the eyesore / security risk (think drug addicts leaving needles where kids may play). Occupation of derelict houses by people in the counterculture has a decades-long tradition in (West) Berlin. Add to this that a lot of East Berlin industry went bankrupt or was intentionally closed down by the West German government after the Reunification (this is also the reason why Berlin struggles with dangerously rising water tables – not enough heavy use industry pumping it up anymore), and you get a lot of unused space.
    And lastly, Berlin despite being the capital is actually very poor as German cities go, thanks to long mismanagement and a lot of redundant infrastructure (double universities, museums, theatres etc.), with the city state government lacking funds to clean up sites that aren’t privately owned. So you get urban blight just like in US rust belt cities.

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