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Gardening in the city

Jennifer Collins
July 28, 2017

City apartment dwellers often have to make do without a garden. But Berliners are adept at transforming everything from balconies to sidewalks into urban oases. DW's Jennifer Collins was inspired.

Humblebee on flower
Image: L. Purfürst

When I was about eight or nine years old I had my own little flower patch in a friend's garden. My parent's house - a cut and paste semi-detached on a suburban Dublin housing estate - had a garden too, of course. But my friend's place was special. 

Firstly, it was huge and magical, at least to my child's eye. And it was filled with geese, ducks, rabbits and a dog. I felt like an explorer searching the garden's many secret nooks and crannies, surrounded by my cohort of animals. Luckily, if the adventurer ever got thirsty or hungry, my friend's kind mother and an aunt, who lived with them, were always on hand with a supply of sweet treats and drinks.

As an adult, I've invariably lived in apartments in cities. Gardens - magical or otherwise - are a thing of the past. And I usually haven't really missed having one. That changed recently when I was sitting on my sad, empty balcony in Berlin's Neukölln district and looked out at the surrounding buildings. The neighboring balcony's were all overflowing with bright, colorful flowers. 

Example of urban gardening in Berlin
A patch of soil on the sidewalk? Turn it into a garden! Image: DW/J. Collins

Berliners, it seems, are great at planting makeshift gardens - and not just on balconies. In summer, mini gardens with plants and decorated with everything from socks to children's toys spring up on city sidewalks and in former airports. They're usually accompanied by a sign asking passers-by not to toss their rubbish there (Berliners are great at littering, too). 

Back in May, I passed by another sign in a green patch beside the city's Landwehr Canal. This one appealed to people to plant their old flower bulbs there for next spring. Waste not, want not. 

Balcony in Berlin with meadow flowers
A splash of color on my balcony. The seedlings are meadow flowers and supposed to attract pollinators such as bees Image: DW/J. Collins

Allotments on trend

Others - not content with a balcony or small patch on the sidewalk - are lucky enough to have an allotment in a "garden colony." Garden colonies - usually located beside train tracks - are a Germany-wide phenomenon. Available to rent for a modest price, each patch usually comes with a small hut that you're not supposed to live in, although, some garden owners ignore that particular rule.

The idea for allotments took root in the 19th century so working-class people could have access to nature during Germany's rapid industrialization. Once thought to be bourgeois and square, they've become so popular among young and hip Berliners, there are now waiting lists to get one. So, some of us will have to be happy with just a balcony for now.

My own balcony is looking a bit brighter these days. A few weeks ago, I planted herbs and some flowers, intended to help out pollinators. The little guys are having a hard time finding food in the city as meadows and green spaces disappear. And as I watered my plants the other day, I remembered the little flower patch of my childhood in my friend's garden. Today I might not have the company of ducks, but bumble bees and butterflies are fine too.