Gardening in Berlin

Spring inspiring you to get green fingered? Sanna Akehurst shows us how to get our garden on…

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 telly, 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?

The simple answer is, even for those of us without a balcony, you can always find some way of getting green fingered, even if its just putting your herbs into bigger pots in the kitchen window. (They’re always to hand for tasty recipes then too of course).

Tomato plants need regular attention and aren’t necessarily hard so you can put them in grow bags and put 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 – basil, parsley etc. But a quick online check will reveal which plants like to be with who (companion planting). For balconies there are window boxes and depending on which direction your balcony faces various options including growing pumpkins and nasturtium and radishes and even potatoes.

Yep: potatoes. Take a bucket and put about a two inch layer on the bottom chuck in a few of your last potatoes from the bag. You can even cut them as long as each part has an eye on it (where the shoot is sprouting 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 also. 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. Already been adopted? My mate noticed that the flower tubs on Hermann Platz were just 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. Slow Travel Berlin have already covered the fantastic Prinzessinengarten project in Kreuzberg, You can also volunteer to care for plots which 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 get 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 down side that I can see 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. Still (and here it pays to inform yourself about the area – Brandenburg is not known as Germany’s biggest sand pit for nothing) the area where my plot has a very high water table so hardy plants don’t need so much watering and 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 – unless of course you live in a house with its own garden – there’s the Schreber Garten. The Brits have the allotment, in Russia there was the Datcha. Einstein had one in Spandau in the twenties. Purchasing an allotment means you can have 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 areorganised into little Vereins (Associations) and they have very strict regulations which are stringently checked up on.

It’s not for nothing that the Germans have nicknamed them “Strebergartens“ (know-it-all gardens) there are regulations 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. I could never in a million years manage to understand this. Also it is a 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 so there is a reassuring excuse that we can’t stop the weather and there is always next year.

And last but not least, you’re doing your bit to keep Berlin green.