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Germany's pioneer 'edible city' on the Rhine

September 2, 2022

Andernach's city center has fruit and vegetable gardens that anyone can harvest for free. By making edible plants a feature of public space, this town is trying to change the way locals think about their food.

Wildflowers and trees growing outside Andernach's castle ruins
The grounds of Andernach's castle ruins are filled with all types of fruit and vegetable plantsImage: Simon Schneider/Romantischer Rhein Tourismus GmbH

Beneath Andernach's medieval city walls, birds flit among apple, pear and peach trees. Strawberry plants and heads of lettuce sprout from the soil alongside patches of herbs and wildflowers.

Founded more than 2,000 years ago, this settlement in the Rhine River valley is one of the oldest towns in Germany. Its city walls have survived, along with the ruins of a moated castle dating back to the 12th century. It's also home to the highest cold-water geyser in the world, a big tourist draw. But today, visitors have another reason to come to Andernach its city gardens. 

"If you feel like picking something for dinner, feel free," said Anneli Karlsson, the project coordinator of the Edible Cities Network in Andernach. "That's our motto: Feel free to pick."

Two women eat fruit next to the castle wall in Andernach
Residents and visitors alike are encouraged to pick whatever they like from Andernach's gardensImage: Simon Schneider/Romantischer Rhein Tourismus GmbH

Andernach, with a population of around 30,000 people, is known as an "edible city." That means many of its public green spaces are used to grow food that anyone can harvest free of charge. 

The city's administration launched the project in 2010. The idea was to get locals more engaged in their community and raise awareness about how food is grown. 

"You don't feel such a relationship to a tulip or a rose, as you do to maybe a salad that you're going to pick tomorrow for your own dinner," said Karlsson.


Anneli Karlsson, a young woman wearing black-framed glasses, stands next to a small tree
Anneli Karlsson hopes other cities will follow Andernach's example by growing edible plants as wellImage: privat

From tomatoes to pomegranates and bananas 

In that first year, the city planted more than 100 varieties of tomatoes. It was so well-received that they decided to add more edible plants.  

How many? "Oh wow, that list is a long one," said Karlsson. 

To name a few, there's zucchini, grapes, Brussels sprouts, almonds, Swiss chard, potatoes, artichokes, pumpkin, kale and perhaps unusually for this part of Europe even bananas.

"It's just a very favorable climate in front of the city wall. It captures the sun's warmth," said Karlsson.

A house for chickens beneath Andernach's city castle ruins
The old castle moat is used to house chickens who produce eggs for a local produce shop Image: Neil King/DW

There are also bees, who make up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of honey a year, and chickens laying eggs products that are sold in a shop in the city center. 

"I often drop by to pick some herbs that I'm missing at home," said one resident passing through the garden. "Everything is easily accessible. There aren't any fences. You just take what you need. The only thing is you have to be quick once the fruits are ripe or they'll all be gone!"

No pesticides are used, so the produce is all organic. Nutrient-intensive crops such as potatoes and pumpkins are rotated in order to keep the plants and soils healthy. The gardeners also plant diverse species to boost biodiversity and create a habitat for birds, bees and other insects.  

Wild flowers growing in the garden
The gardens also boast big, bold blooms to attract insect life Image: Neil King/DW

Another local has come to pick some Greek mountain tea leaves. "The project is phenomenal, especially the workers and gardeners who tend these areas all year round," he said. "It's really great that you now have these opportunities centrally, in the city."  

The edible city has also become a draw for tourists who come to take guided tours of the gardens.  

Opportunities for the long-term unemployed 

But Andernach's gardens aren't just about food. Karlsson said the project is unique because it hires unemployed people to maintain the plant beds, alongside a team of gardeners.  

"It has changed my life," said Jörn Schamari, a former truck driver. He suffered burnout and was out of work when he came across the edible city initiative several years ago.  

"This project helped me bounce back. And from next year, I've been promised a permanent position as a gardener here. The project has also changed my relationship to plants. Before, I had absolutely no interest in them, but now I even plant fruits and vegetables at home." 

A plant sprouting through the soil with the label 'Stielmus,' in German, which translates to Rapini, in English
Labels aim to teach residents about different plant varieties and what it's possible to grow locallyImage: Neil King/DW

Growing focus on self-sufficiency 

According to Martina Artmann, who heads a research group on urban human-nature resonance at the Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development, many German cities are seeing an increasing interest in urban gardens and growing food in general.  

That trend is likely getting a push thanks to rising food prices and empty supermarket shelves resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and now the war in Ukraine. Some communities are looking to source produce closer to home to safeguard themselves from weaknesses in the global food system. 

Urban populations are expected to grow rapidly in the coming decades, only adding to food supply challenges. By 2050, nearly seven out of 10 people will live in cities, according to the World Bank. Artmann said there needs to be more awareness about just how dependent cities are on rural areas for their food. 

The city needs more gardens

"So there's really a need to put food self-sufficiency and also how and where food is produced and comes into the city onto the political agenda. And this is still lacking," she said. 

While the focus of Andernach's edible city project is not food security, Karlsson hopes it will "open people's eyes to how you can use one square meter of land and harvest enough for at least a couple of meals."

Inner-city gardens can also help mitigate the effects of climate change, for example by providing cool shady areas in summer or absorbing runoff from heavy rainfall. 

International partnerships 

Andernach has about 14 hectares (about 34 acres) of green space, including at least 2 hectares that are edible, according to Karlsson. But she wants to expand that and help other cities to follow suit.  

The town on the Rhine is part of the Edible Cities Network, an EU-funded project running from 2018 to 2023. It was set up so that members including major centers such as Montevideo, Rotterdam, Guangzhou, Havana and Oslo — could exchange experiences and lessons from their garden projects with each other.

Gardens and climbing plants in the town
The public gardens offer a variety of food and also a space to be immersed in natureImage: Romantischer Rhein Tourismus GmbH

"We're reaching out to South America, to Uruguay, we're reaching out to China, to Cuba, to countries in Africa, and of course countries within Europe. This is just a start," said Karlsson. 

By the end of 2023, Andernach plans to have a digitalized inventory of all its plants, how much water and nutrients they use, as well as "a catalog of what we've learned, what we've done well, what we can improve for others to use and implement in their cities." 

Karlsson said she often gets calls from other cities in Germany and beyond who want to copy the Andernach model. As far as she's concerned, that can only be a good thing.  

"We really hope that we can inspire people and reach other communities," she said. "We're really hoping we can make our mark."  

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

For more about Andernach's edible city project, listen to this episode of DW's environment podcast On the Green Fence.