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What meets the eye

June 3, 2011

You might have walked past Berlin's allotment gardens and wondered what dark mischief goes on behind those sinister rows of hedges. Not to worry - it's just a part of Berlin's rich pageant.

Image: DW

If you take a walk through one of Berlin's serene, patchwork colonies of allotment gardens, it's hard not to think about murder. For one thing, there is something terrifying in the way the bright summer sun glints off the shiny red caps of the garden gnomes. You can't miss the evil in the eyes of those little plastic fellows ... why do they always glance slyly off to the side while they're pretending to fish?

Garden gnome
Pure evilImage: Fotolia/Tobias Schulz-Hess

Then consider the immaculate lawns, or the garden furniture with the too-precise symmetry or - in the more elaborate gardens - the dinky train sets that weave among the flower beds, and tell me there aren't some dark, dark secrets hiding in the tool sheds. This is the universe of Berlin's Laubenpieper, as allotment-owners are known colloquially. It is a world of slightly addled, deeply paranoid, extremely conservative old people.

Or is it? Obviously, my paranoid fantasies are a gross slur on this rich and diverse Berlin subculture. After all, the 2009 case of the homemade booby trap in a shed that almost blinded a youth happened in a colony in the state of Hesse. And the 66-year-old who clubbed three people to death for improperly disposing of garden waste lived in Hildesheim in Lower Saxony. Both are miles away from Berlin.

New Berlin, new gardens

But I'm being flippant. In fact, allotment gardens really do represent a rich and diverse Berlin subculture, and as the city's trendy areas swell with young families, these gardens - little patches of green, usually strung out in the shadow of train tracks or in other hard-to-utilise urban areas - are becoming ever more popular.

The waiting lists for lots in the more central colonies can easily stretch through many seasons, partly because, of course, a garden is a long-term commitment. Mostly it's only death that breaks the deep bond that develops between a garden's owner and his little patch of earth.

Wild boars in an allotment
You never really know what goes on behind the shed doorImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But turnover is happening - and it means the natural conservatism of Berlin's allotment culture is slowly breaking up. Along with the trendy couples and their firstborn, more and more Berliners of immigrant backgrounds are taking on lots, so the colonies are beginning to reflect the city's demography more accurately. Even Wladimir Kaminer, author of the massively successful book "Russendisko," and therefore possibly Berlin's most famous Russian immigrant, has an allotment now. He wrote a book all about it.

Berlin's special love

Berlin has a special affinity with its allotments. For a start, it has so many - according to the latest official stats, 74,526 lots averaging 250 square meters each, in 934 colonies. That equates to 3.5 percent of the area of the entire city. "No other comparable metropolis has such a large proportion of privately used gardens with direct access to the inner city," the city council's website boasts.

Aerial shot of allotments
Allotment gardens are a city's parallel universeImage: picture-alliance/akg-images/Reimer Wulf

And then there's another reason why Berlin is so attached to its allotments: the city once lived off them. The garden colonies fed and sheltered Berliners who lost their homes in the aftermath of World War II, and they provided a vital source of food to West Berlin during the Soviet blockade of 1948 and 1949.

Although most gardens are outfitted with little sheds, and sometimes toilets, nowadays you're not allowed to live on your allotment. Or indeed install any facilities that make it permanently habitable. That is part of the Bundeskleingartengesetz, or Federal Allotment Garden Law, which defines and regulates what an allotment is and what it is to be used for.

And the colony committees love their rules. You don't get to keep your garden unless you subject yourself. The "30-30-30" rule, for instance, stipulates that at least 30 percent of the garden must be used to grow fruit or vegetables, 30 percent may be built on and a maximum of 30 percent may be used for "recreation." Hedges at the front of your garden are obligatory, but must be grown to a regulation height, usually between 50 centimeters and 1.25 meters. The committee members will come round.

You might think this sort of bureaucracy would put young, carefree Berliners off, but in fact, after a tranquil afternoon in a Schrebergarten, even they start to think a little discipline never did a scruffy anarchist any harm. Besides, you need those committee members to keep an eye on those evil gnomes.

Ben Knight hates the countryside, but loves gardens.
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn