When Berliners get fed up with asphalt and traffic, they find refuge in their urban gardens. DW's Tam Eastley doesn't forget about her garden when the soil is frozen solid in winter. Instead, she's busy planning.
One day recently, it was a pleasantly surprising 10 degrees Celsius and I thought I saw a bud on a bare tree outside my Berlin apartment. Spring is coming, I told myself a little too enthusiastically, which means it's time to start planting. So I decided to return to the urban garden I had bought with some friends in September 2012.
Urban community gardens, known as Kleingärten or Schrebergärten in German, have a long history in Berlin. During World War I and II, the gardens helped the city survive food shortages, and also served as dwellings for many of Berlin's new homeless. Originally intended to help the poor grow their own food, these patches of urban greenery are increasingly desirable, but also hard to come by.
When I returned to my small garden community, nestled next to a train bridge in the district of Neukölln, the temperatures had already dipped back down to a more seasonable level. The sky was grey and the plants brown and dry. It was perfectly quiet except for the occasional roar of the train and some scurrying from within the bushes.
The neighbor's pond was frozen. White metal lawn chairs left out over the winter were turning a rusty red, empty hanging baskets lay strewn on the ground, and the garden gnomes, normally hidden among flourishing bushes and flower beds, seemed strangely exposed. The colony - usually bustling with activity in the summer - was abandoned.
Our plot was no better. Rotten apples were everywhere, and I rolled my ankle with every slippery step. The shed had been broken into, and the door around the back was wide open. I closed the door and pulled a heavy piece of wood in front of it. The lock, which someone must have knocked off, lay broken on the ground.
The patience test
Despite the freezing temperatures, I wanted to get started right away. I thought that if I dug up the frozen earth and threw in some seeds, spring would soon follow. Not knowing what to do first, and with little gardening experience, I turned to other garden owners.
Natalie and Andy Shaw, a German-British couple, own the space next door, and over the past two years have turned a plot filled with garbage into a beautiful DIY organic garden. But as we sipped caramel tea in front of a roaring fire in the Shaw's Schrebergarten, they told me it was too soon to get much done and I'd have to be patient.
"Once it's been above zero degrees for a while, we'll open up the water bins," Andy Shaw told me. The meter-high green buckets collect rainwater, which can then be used for watering plants and for general sprucing up. "But we can't do that for about six more weeks," he said.
Hilda Hoy, a Canadian journalist in the city has been the proud owner of a garden on the border of the Treptow district for two years. Her first task is pruning her apple and peach trees and cutting back grape vines. "Ideally, this should be done in the dead of winter," she tells me. "But we can never motivate ourselves to go out there in the freezing cold."
By the middle of March, the flower beds can be dug up to distribute important nutrients and to destroy slug habitat (a common garden nuisance), and fertilizers such as manure can be spread. Then two weeks later, the planting can begin.
Find a strategy
But in the meantime, other, more imaginative steps can be taken. Garden owners have to think about what kind of a garden they want to have, and buying seeds is an important first step. As can be seen from the windows of Berlin's snaking trams, many people opt simply for a decorative flower garden that is more backyard than farm. But with many colonies declaring that a percentage of the space must be used for crops, putting some thought into produce is a must.
"You have to think about what you want, if it's worth growing, and if you're going to be around to harvest it," explained Natalie Shaw. The couple doesn't grow potatoes or carrots because they're cheap to buy, but instead focuses their labor on other plants that cost a bit more, like berries, herbs, and lettuce.
To organize their growing season, the Shaws have a seed box - a simple cardboard box filled with ziplock bags. In the front, a bag labeled "March/April" contains onion, beet, spinach, and Brussels sprout seeds. More organized bags follow, each marked with a planting month and filled with all kinds of exciting vegetables like rhubarb, pumpkins, zucchini, and green beans.
A different approach is to start growing seedlings at home. Fellow garden enthusiast Nick Simpson normally grows tomatoes, herbs, and lettuce on his windowsill and balcony before transporting them to the garden. Come springtime, he'll be able to drop the budding seeds into the freshly fertilized soil, which speeds up the amount of time it will take until the food hits the plate. But the technique doesn't work for everyone.
Hoy started beet, chard, and squash seedlings on her windowsill last year, but they ended up doing worse than the seeds just thrown in the ground. Both Simpson and Hoy admit that transportation is also a problem. "There are few things more annoying than trying to bike to your garden while balancing several trays of very delicate baby plants in your bike basket," Hoy states in true Berlin fashion.
The garden in your head
This year, Simpson is also thinking of trying the "Three Sisters" technique, which is also known as companion planting. Squash, corn, and beans are planted close together, with each plant providing the other with important nutrients, protection, and space for growth. "I'm not fussed to grow corn," he tells me, "But I will happily eat it if it works!"
My initial enthusiasm for digging up frozen soil started to recede as the mid-afternoon sun dipped behind the elevated train tracks and my legs turned numb. No longer worried about when and how I'd be able to start, my thoughts had turned to choosing seeds, deciding where and when to plant them, and to the mouth-watering harvest that would result.
I discovered that for garden owners, winter is a time for planning, visualization, and for letting your imagination run wild.