How to garden in Berlin

Sanna Akehurst shows us how to get green-fingered in the city…

Ahh the sun is shining and it’s time for me to plan my garden for this year. I scrounge seeds from anyone, and even keep seeds from fruit and herbs that I grew the year before.

I’ve been saving loo-roll centers all winter: cut them in half, stand them next to each other in a cat litter tray; fill them with potting compost and sow seeds according to desired effect. Set them on the windowsill and water and by April…hey presto! Ready to plant out.

Without wanting to sound like someone from daytime TV, times are hard and self sufficiency is a good idea—but it’s not only about that. A friend recently told me “In Islam, it says that if you become unwell or irritable or are not coping with life then you should spend four weeks in a garden.“ The question is: what if you don’t have one?

One answer is, even for those of us without a balcony, there is always some way of getting green-fingered, even if it’s just putting your herbs into bigger pots in the kitchen window.

Tomato plants need regular attention and aren’t necessarily hard so you can put them in grow bags and place them in direct sunlight, either inside or on your balcony. I found Ikea bags make very good indoor containers; they’re reasonably waterproof (place them on a plastic sheet to be sure) and can be used for deep rooting plants.

Last year I had tomato plants together with the things they taste good with; basil, parsley etc. But a quick online check will reveal which plants like to be with each other (it’s called “companion planting”). For balconies there are window boxes and, depending on which direction your balcony faces, various options include growing pumpkins, nasturtium, radishes and even potatoes.

Yep: potatoes. Take a bucket and put about a two-inch layer on the bottom, then chuck in a few of the last potatoes in your bag. You can even cut them as long as each part has an eye on it (from which the shoot sprouts out). Then cover with soil and plant another layer about three inches higher and so on until you have filled the bucket. Keep well-watered whilst ensuring good drainage—either drill holes in the bottom or be very cautious not to over-water.

If you want to go further than the balcony, there are other options. A friend of mine is into guerilla gardening. In essence, it’s a question of location scouting, using your imagination and also respecting other gardeners’ endeavours.

Look around the streets for that patch of earth surrounding the tree in front of your house. My mate noticed that the flower tubs on Hermannplatz were full of weeds so he planted potatoes in them. This is great because it’s free and most people aren’t offended by random plots being used for a purpose, but it is still rather unreliable partly due to its clandestine nature and also the possibility that just at the point when you efforts come to fruition someone else might sieze on the opportunity to harvest.

Prinzessinnengärten. Image by Peggy Schatz

There are different community initiatives too such as the fantastic Prinzessinengarten project You can also volunteer to care for plots that don’t seem to be looked after; last year there was a one-year art project called MMX where my friend and I volunteered to care for the garden. What a little oasis in Mitte that turned out to be!

Then there are projects like Bauern Garten, where you can work a plot that belongs to a university but which you can plant in however you see fit. Going on holiday? No problem. Tell the admin people and they’ll organise someone to tend to it for you.

The only downside is that it’s a fair trek out of town for some, but I have been reliably informed that there’s no need to buy veggies in the summer and autumn if you manage to get such a plot.

I personally have a piece of land that I rent from the railway company Niederbarnimereisenbahn, who rent out plots on the sides of old disused railway lines. I’ve had my plot for six years now and it is a lot of work to get started. You need some good friends and preferably someone who rents it with you and has a vested interest. I love being able to have barbecues there and I lucked out on having two established fruit trees on the site (cherry and damson) not to mention some great neighbours.

I don’t have any power or water supply and digging a well has been too expensive a consideration for me up until now. Brandenburg is not known as Germany’s biggest sand pit for nothing but the area where my plot has a very high water table so hardy plants don’t need so much watering; that said. a water barrel is a good investment.

I have had most success with beans, potatoes, carrots, pumpkins and roses. All my dreams about cabbages and beetroots have more or less been squished due to the high numbers of snails and slugs that frequent my garden. Still, challenges are fun. I also have varying success with fruit bushes. But that’s my plot and I don’t want to bore you with it.

Finally, there’s the Schreber Garten. Einstein had one in Spandau in the twenties—an allotment that can be your own little sanctuary, with maybe a summer house and…well, more or less whatever takes you fancy. So why don’t I have one of these?

Image by Sanna Akehurst

Don’t get me wrong I have huge respect for all gardeners, but these are organised into little Vereins (Associations) and they have very strict regulations that are stringently checked up on. It’s not for nothing that the Germans have nicknamed them “Strebergartens“ (know-it-all gardens)—there are rules about how many of each sort of plant, be it practical or decorative, you have and just exactly what do you use your summer house for, and are you in fact taking more water than you should, and so on and so on. Also it is an expensive inital investment; most people I know inherited theirs from another generation.

The main thing though is to get out there! Gardening is fabulous on so many levels. It is sociable, very good physical exercise, it cheers the heart and nourishes the soul. The time frame cannot be dictated by you or anyone else. And last but not least, you’re doing your bit to keep Berlin green.