Young people are no longer spending their Sundays nursing hangovers in front of the TV. They head out to their private allotments to tend to their vegetables. So when did that most suburban of activities become so hip?
Residents keep their eyes peeled for anyone breaking the rules
Undeterred by the bracing easterly wind, Dirk Ziegler is deadheading his geraniums. "It's good to get outside at the weekend," exclaims the 35-year-old father-of-two as he surveys his modest kingdom. Raising his voice above the roar of a passing train, he shrugs off the obvious downsides of the urban garden. "Having an allotment in the center of town is perfect because it's so easy to reach -- and it's great for the kids to have somewhere to play," he says.
Dirk is part of a wider movement of 30-somethings who've tired of late nights in smoky clubs and want to get back to nature. Three years ago, he and his girlfriend leased a garden allotment in Prenzlauer Berg -- a district in central Berlin more commonly associated with fashionable bars and boutiques -- and they've never looked back.
"Allotments have become trendy", confirmed Jürgen Hurt, President of the Berlin Association for Gardeners in an interview with the daily Berliner Zeitung. According to a study conducted by the association, the average age of tenants has dropped from 56 to 46 in the last six years.
The "Schrebergarten" (allotment) phenomenon, born a century ago, was named after the Leipzig-based doctor Daniel Schreber -- a staunch believer in exercise in the great outdoors for pasty-faced city children. Plots of land leased from the state became increasingly popular with tenants seeking gardens for their young, plus an opportunity to stock up their pantries with home-grown garden produce.
Meet the weekend warriors
Today, pedestrians on the busy Bornholmer Bridge, which earned its place in history as the first border-crossing to be opened to East Germans back in 1989, can look down on the "garden colony" where Dirk and his family now spend most of their free time. Flanked by railway lines and shopping malls, it's a haven of tranquillity in an otherwise bleak urban landscape.
Rosy-cheeked garden gnomes preside over well-kept lawns, framed by rows of flourishing hollyhocks and crispy-looking lettuces. If it weren't for the not-so-distant hum of traffic, it would be a rural idyll.
But what's most striking is that few of the residents are lounging around with a beer and the sports section of the Sunday paper -- they're all getting their hands dirty.
"I put in at least ten hours of work a week," says Dirk, who's been digging in his flower-bed all day. His neighbor is busy putting up a trellis, while across the way, Mrs Sturmer is fixing her roof. She's part of the colony's elder generation, who can remember a time when allotments were about survival rather than leisure.
"My allotment has been in the family for three generations," she explained. "My grandfather leased it during the recession in the 1920s, when people in the city really needed their allotments. Back then, it was a necessity, because if you didn't grow your own vegetables, you didn't have any."
But times have changed, and these days, growing your own spinach is a lifestyle choice. Herbaceous borders are hipper than Prada pumps. In the UK , The Times has even dubbed gardening "the new sex." So if you think weeding, digging and planting is for frustrated housewives, think again.
For just a few hundred euros a year, some 4 million Germans enjoy the pastoral perks of an allotment garden, and waiting lists are long. Experts say this love affair with all things horticultural is a sign of the times.
"Allotments used to be seen as conventional and boring, but not anymore," said trend researcher Eike Wenzel. It's not even that vacations are a luxury few can afford when 5 million Germans are unemployed.
"It doesn't actually have anything to do with the country's financial difficulties," he said. "It's more about getting back to nature -- the satisfaction of doing things yourself and using your hands."
He would even go so far as to say it reflects a slow shift in values. "It ties in with a return to tradition and a desire for a slower pace of life. The 1990s were a very stormy decade of accelerated technology, modernization and digitalization," he explained. "But people now feel that they've been disappointed by these developments and what they really want is a grounded family life and old-fashioned values. Bonding with nature is a key factor in that shift."
Most of Berlin's 840 garden colonies are made up of 20 to 100 plots, each roughly 300 meters square, overseen by a highly authoritative residents' association. Its job is to make sure everyone sticks to the rules, which range from keeping the noise down between midday and 3 p.m. to making sure trees never grow beyond a prescribed height and using at least one third of the garden as a vegetable patch.
"You have to fit in, and if you don't like it, you shouldn't bother coming here," says Frau Sturmer in no uncertain terms. "Young families have to adjust to the rules like everyone else."
And most of them do. An allotment garden is a coveted commodity, and not even the younger generation is prepared to risk being banished for bad behavior. According to Wenzel, Germany's new outdoor types are a conscientious bunch. They have consumer clout, believe in buying organic, and -- reflecting the trend to domestic tourism -- they're more likely to go on an eco-friendly holiday to Germany's Baltic Coast than a package tour to Thailand.
"In advertising, there's a lot of talk of what's called LOHAS - Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability," he explained. "We predict that in future, more and more Germans will be living in a way that's environmentally responsible -- but enjoying themselves in the process. The healthy hedonists are idealistic and political correct, but they're also pleasure-seeking."
But while the healthy hedonists draw spiritual satisfaction from watching their carrots grow, the old-school allotment residents appreciate their leafy retreats for more prosaic reasons. "Tempers can fray when you're both retired," admits 65-year-old Herr Mittelstadt. "It's nice to know there's always somewhere to escape to."