Every city has them. Little gnome-rich garden kingdoms in the suburbs where nature is given licence to prosper – as well as a short back and sides.
Schrebergarten colonies are an unmistakable feature of German suburbia, particularly if you travel anywhere by train. Ordered, trimmed, enclosed, ornamental, each strip has some kind of glorified shed that thinks it’s a Shangri-la. Floral and vegetal displays compete, and tableaux of garden gnomes gather around plastic windmills to compare fishing rods. As for people, they’re only temporary visitors, because however fabulous the summerhouse/cottage/shed – and some are very fancy –one of the many hundreds of rules is that a Schrebergarten is non-residential, and rules are there to be obeyed. These enclosures are the garden equivalent of white bread: nature with the wildness extracted – and with more fertilizer per square metre than any farmer would dare to use.
The gardens have their roots in good socialist principles. Dr. Daniel Schreber, a 19th century naturopath, wanted to create more athletic fields for children in his home city of Leipzig. Fiercely opposed to masturbation, he initiated the creation of small vegetable plots to initiate young people into other ways of getting their fingers dirty. The idea quickly took off, but it was during World War I and World War II that the gardens rapidly rose in importance as sources of otherwise hard-to-get fresh fruit and vegetables. Pressure on housing after the end of World War II sparked the building of temporary residences, but although some city dwellers still decamp to their Schrebergarten in the summer time, they’re not officially residential properties.
The garden equivalent of white bread: nature with all the wildness extracted
Although the movement started in Leipzig, Berlin is where it is at its most visible. Here, at the end of the 19th century, workers snatched – or were granted access to – land along railway lines to plant potato patches. These days the Berlin association represents some 500,000 gardening members, their rights to their plots having been passed from one generation to the next. Waiting lists for particularly popular city centre gardens can be several years long.
As with all land issues, there’s always a battle being fought between developers and conservationists over these garden kingdoms, but the current mood is in favour of the ‘Schrebergartenistas’, who can point to their vegetable growing and the inherent lack of food miles, and the fact that many of them have chosen to take their holidays in Bad Meingarten (geddit?), rather than Mallorca or Gran Canaria, thus very much saving the planet. In fact, there’s a move afoot to take over the vast acreage of the now-decommissioned Tempelhof Airport, and turn that too into gartenista territory. So in the future, they could be heading for the airport for their holidays, but not even the gnomes would be taking off.
There’s a Schrebergärten Museum in Leipzig.