Hipster horticulture

Schrebergarten culture's gnomes make way for Zen gardens

garden, berlin, german, schrebergarten, hipster
A German's private paradise. Source: dpa

It is a typical, even quintessential, German scene, but with a modern, cosmopolitan twist: At 1 pm sharp on this Saturday, the lawn mower’s buzz stutters to a halt. It’s time for ruhezeit, quiet time, on a garden colony just outside Berlin.

A young family of four retreats into its tiny hut. The guy next door with a well-groomed beard starts setting up the cooking grate. Soon smoke is wafting around motley shrubberies stretching from plat to plat. Over here, strawberries and wispy fennel fronds. Over there, raspberry and rhubarb plants procured on a Swedish holiday. A bit further, little pears destined to one day become the starlets of an Indian curry.

Witness schrebergarten 2.0, as hipsters German and foreign alike move in on what used to be the stereotypical preserve of Germany’s lower and middle classes. Where dad once mowed around the garden gnome in his sandals and white socks, happy beer belly bulging over Adidas shorts and neck peeling in the sun, there are now startup and creative types in streetwear pruning organic herbs and firing up high-tech grills. Foodies and eco-warriors plant veggies and herbs creating their own tiny sustainable Edens.

And they include ever more foreigners. “When we got the garden, I was thinking, ‘Oh maybe I’ll be the first Indian in this whole colony,” says Binayak Das, an international development worker married to a German. “But the garden next to us belongs to a family from Afghanistan and the next to a Polish family. For me, having grown up near mountains, it’s really satisfying to get away from urban chaos. I’ve even picked up something there which I’ve never done before in my life: carpentry work.”

Rx Doctor Schreber

People like to tend gardens in many places, but the schrebergarten tradition is unique to Germany. The name comes from Moritz Schreber, a Leipzig doctor in the 19th century. Germany was in the throes of the industrial revolution, and people were moving from rural farms to manufacturing centers. Many became poor, malnourished, and alienated. Schreber prescribed exercise and activity in the countryside, or whatever bit of land could pass for it. “The garden is a poor man’s apothecary,” says an old German proverb.

This led to “paupers’ gardens” springing up around, and within, the new urban areas. The phenomenon outlasted the industrial revolution and entered German culture. Many families relied on the food in their micro-plots to get through two World Wars. And when West Germany entered its postwar economic boom, they relied on their schrebergarten for their weekend sanity.

In Communist East Germany, meanwhile, the schrebergarten culture blended with a similar Russian tradition and became known by the Germanized Russian name, datsche. These datsche were beloved havens from cramped Soviet-style living quarters and food rations. It’s estimated that there were about 3.4 million datsches in East Germany.

garden, berlin, german, schrebergarten, hipster
Gnomic wisdom. Source: DPA

“It’s no coincidence that we planted so many fruits and veggies back then, because there was an authority for allotment gardens,” a Berlin grandmother who raised her kids in East Berlin told us. “We were given instructions on how much to plant and it was very much monitored whether we followed these instructions.”

Even prominent East Germans such as Erich Honecker, the Communist leader when the Berlin Wall fell, and Erwin Strittmatter, a writer, were proud datsche keepers. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the former East, is said to keep a plot in Brandenburg even today, close to where she spent her childhood. Her busy schedule permitting, she imaginably goes there to tend her favorite flowers, larkspur, poppies and lupines.

Schrebergarten have blossomed in German culture in part thanks to a unique German law on allotment gardens which protects both tenants and the land. For tenants, it keeps rents ridiculously low, at an average of €1 per day. For the land, it stipulates that tracts may only be used for non-commercial use and that at least one-third of the area must be planted. Houses can’t be bigger than 24 square meters including the terrace. Land allotments can’t be larger than 400 square meters.

Each garden colony also has its own rules. “Planting fruit-bearing trees and bushes is preferred. Tall-growing and particularly expansive trees – including walnut trees – are not allowed, only ornamental trees and shrubs that … do not reach a height of over four meters,” dictates a contract that Handelsblatt Global got its hands on.

From gnome to downward dog

What’s new is that young Germans, and those with higher incomes and education, are flocking to the schrebergarten, mingling with or gradually replacing the older and relatively poorer stalwarts. Every third schrebergarten leased since 2000 in Germany was to someone under the age of 45.

The Federal Association for German Gardening, which has regulated schrebergarten activity since 1921, couldn’t be more pleased at this new green-thumb era. “For us it’s very clear there is a balance in the succession,” says director Stefan Grundei. “There is integration not only between Germans and immigrants, but old and young.”

garden plot holder
Schrebergarten 2.0 Source: Getty Images

Naturally, this changes the look and feel of the colonies. In quickly gentrifying Berlin, they are beginning to resemble Zen gardens, where techies or designers go on the weekend. Inevitably, there is now even a schrebergarten app called IPGarten.

Schrebergarten have in fact become so cool that demand for them far outstrips supply. In cities such as Hamburg and Leipzig, waiting lists for plots range from a few months to a few years. In 2016, around 4,000 people in Hamburg were in line and not much has changed since. A study found that some were even willing to pay a €10,000 “reimbursement” to tenants for taking over their plot. Offset against the likely savings at organic food stores and shrinks, that’s probably a steal.

Barbara Woolsey is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Handelsblatt’s Chelsea Spieker also contributed to this article. To contact the authors: b.woolsey@extern.handelsblattgroup.com, c.spieker@handelsblattgroup.com

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