I first saw European allotment gardens in Switzerland in 2003, on a family holiday. I noticed them as I looked out of the train window on our way to Zurich. Pointing excitedly, I exclaimed to my father, “Look at those weird and cute little gardens! Why are they all clustered together like that?”. In South Africa it is pretty normal to live in a stand-alone house with both a front garden and a back yard, and so these houseless mini gardens intrigued me. I was delighted when I saw them again, all over Germany and Austria.
One of my absolute favourite things about Germany is the abundance of allotment gardens, even in the middle of huge cities. Allotment gardens are small pieces of open land used for leisure and gardening. They often have a small wooden shed at one end, lush flower beds, fruit trees, and garden decorations on display.
These beautiful and lovingly tended gardens came from humble beginnings, starting off as sub-divided open spaces provided by the local authorities for the growing of fruit and vegetables. Inner city vegetable gardens were a vital source of sustenance for poor families that had moved from rural areas into the cities looking for work in factories during the industrial revolution.
At first, these small pieces of land were known as the “gardens of the poor”, but over time they took on extra importance as safe and healthy places for children to play in nature. This was part of the “Schreber Movement”, led by German university teacher and sanatorium director Moritz Schreber. He was an advocate of public health and well-being during the industrial revolution, and he emphasized the benefits of physical exercise outdoors.
It was only after his death, in 1864, that the first “Schrebergarten” was officially leased for the physical exercise of children.
During World Wars I and II, these inner city gardens were essential for food security and self-sustainable food production as rations became scarce. People were able to grow their own food when it became difficult to bring food in from rural areas, and in many ways the Schrebergärten became vital to the survival of inner city dwellers during war times.
These days, the gardens are wonderful little oases in rapidly developing cities. When the noise and bustle of the city gets too much, it’s incredibly refreshing to take a walk in one of the Schrebergarten complexes.
On most weekends, the gardens are bustling with activity. The owners can be seen weeding, planting, pruning, raking, and enjoying their little green spaces. Each garden has a personality of its own. Some are lush and wild, with hidden nooks and lattices overgrown with ivy. Others are pristine, with radiantly beautiful flowers and manicured lawns. Still others are places to gather with family and have a barbecue, with the children playing in the garden.
Some of the allotments are completely neglected and overgrown – we walked past a particularly messy garden and stopped to peer into it, and an elderly couple walked past and informed us that is was for sale.
Having seen their (the old couple’s) beautiful, cosy garden (directly below), I could imagine buying that little plot of land and working on it every weekend – planting veggies and fruit trees, building a little shed, spending time there in the summer.
Walking through these gardens is incredibly healing – like feeling the pulse of Mother nature – and I loved strolling past them with my love.