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Berlin's rooftop gardens

Jenny Hoff, BerlinDecember 9, 2013

Community gardens are springing up across Berlin, where city dwellers are hungry for home-grown food. Hannah Cleaver helps Berliners learn how to grow their own, one terrace and rooftop at a time.

Gardener Hannah Cleaver with Nokia's Christian Ullrich in the garden at Nokia Berlin (photo: J. Hoff)
Image: DW/J. Hoff

When you visit Hannah Cleaver's home, like a good host she offers tea. Except instead of rifling through bags, she takes you outside on her terrace to choose which leaf smells most tempting for brewing. With mint nestled among dozens of other herbs, vegetables, and fruits, Cleaver's home fully embodies the mission of her one-woman business, Eat Your Roof.

"I come out here in my pajamas, I pick an apple and I look over here and have a view of the city," she told DW. "I have a fresh apple in my hand that is an arm length's old; I pick, eat it and I'm the happiest person you can find."

A journalist by trade, the 41-year-old Brit started building her garden three years ago. As a lover of nature, she wanted to fill a gray, empty terrace that faced a road into something of a green haven and a source of real, organic food. She now has dozens of edible plants filling up her terrace, sneaking into her house and spilling out of her window sills.

"I've been eating my purple kale leaf by leaf, but I am trying to leave little bits so it keeps growing," she said, showing her variety of vegetables. "You've got bits of broccoli that you can eat either raw, cooked or throw it in a stir fry. It's practically still alive, so you have to eat it quick!"

Growing your own edible garden

Cleaver insists that growing food isn't as hard as it seems. She started out with a compost bin, where she throws all the remnants from her kitchen.

"It has got a really thick body to it with air in the middle so it's warm. And, it's full of worms that are eating everything I put in and producing compost."

Since Cleaver's apartment is on an upper level, she had to go to a fish store to purchase the worms first. But, since her first batch, they have been left on their own to help produce the perfect compost for her plants. She moved some of her pots to the side to demonstrate the health of the garden, as evidenced by worms found underneath.

Hannah Cleaver (photo: J. Hoff)
Even tomatoes grow in Cleaver's city gardenImage: DW/J. Hoff

Cleaver said the next step in building a roof or terrace garden is to pick up some big pots. Aspiring growers can buy them at a store or do as Cleaver did, and look for pots that were being thrown out and no longer used. Once she lugged the new homes for her plants to her terrace, she drilled a few holes in the bottom and filled them with compost and seedlings. With that, her first green piece of paradise was born.

For the winter months, Cleaver has built a little protective home for some of her lettuces and other vegetables she hopes will survive the cold. Using a large piece of glass she found near a garbage bin and putting Styrofoam on the sides to keep the chill out, Cleaver hopes her chard and other greens will still be able to provide some nourishment until spring.

"People think it is really hard work to grow a garden and in some ways it is, but only in the beginning," Cleaver explained. "Once you drill the holes and fill the pots with whatever you want to grow, it really just takes a little bit of attention everyday and water. People are very intimidated by growing something to eat. But, it's not difficult if you have a basic understanding and a little bit of confidence."

Berlin's growing trend

Within the last year, Cleaver realized that she could be a provider of that understanding and confidence. Through her company, Eat Your Roof, customers - private individuals and businesses - hire Cleaver to come build a garden on their terrace or roof and learn from her how to maintain it.

One of her corporate customers is telecommunications giant Nokia. Wanting to get WWF or "EU Green Office" certification for its Berlin building, the company hired Cleaver to turn a huge, empty terrace into a living oasis.

"To achieve this certification it needs different steps to get there. One is to enhance the environmental thinking of the people," Nokia Facilities Manager for Northern Europe, Christian Ullrich told DW.

Crossing a road filled with construction to enter the building, it's hard to imagine that just above, there is a bounty of organic food growing - broccoli, cauliflower, rosemary, raspberries and a dozen other edible plants.

Ullrich said it has not only been a treat for employees, but also for visitors. "Every time we get visitors here, this is a place we show people and they are happy to see it."

Nokia's green business project isn't just about public relations though - it's part of a growing trend in Germany's capital. Berliners seem to want to get closer to their food. Whereas previously, community vegetable patches were stuck on the city limits, now spare plots of land are also being utilized in central districts, like in the Prinzessinengarten in Kreuzberg. The urban garden has gained international attention for turning a once industrial site into a green haven and for educating the public about growing their own food.

Plants in Cleaver's garden (photo: J. Hoff)
Cauliflower grows in the Nokia headquarters in BerlinImage: DW/J. Hoff

"We as consumers know too little about where food comes from: how does it grow, what does it mean?" Robert Shaw, one of the garden's founders explained. "So it has become the main purpose of the garden, to be a place of education," he told DW.

At Prinzessinengarten, anybody can come in and offer to help out for a day, a week, or months if they want to. With no one responsible for any one plant, Shaw and his team organize the garden and allow people to help out where they are most needed. The harvest can then be purchased and brought home to eat.

"If you got a chance to see the carrot yourself and that it takes six months before it can be harvested, you can get an impression of the value of that food and how much work is put in to one single plant," Shaw said. "Second, you know when it's ready to harvest and won't forget the taste of it because it tastes nice the way we produce food here."

Back to basics

Shaw believes that although there is no food shortage in Germany, the financial crisis has spurred on an attitude of wanting to get back to basics and encouraged many people to learn new skills, like growing their own food. Hannah Cleaver agrees.

"Each leaf becomes much more valuable when you have grown it yourself. I eat half as much and feel really good about it," she said.

For aspiring growers, the first step can be a small one, like a tomato plant: a small act that is part of a much bigger picture, Cleaver said.

"Not only am I growing stuff for myself and my friends, but there is a little of becoming part of that Berlin ecosystem. The bees come here, the bats come here to get the insects and the birds come and fertilize my soil and I love that," she said, as birds chirped behind her. Pointing to a noisy road that runs in front of her apartment, she added "And, you can see I am in a very urban setting."

If Cleaver has her way, Berlin's austere city buildings will one day take on, literally, a life of their own.