Germany's garden owners -- content with their lots

A characteristic feature of German landscape -- whether you cruise down the Rhine or drive around Berlin or take the train through Bavaria -- is the sight of neat garden plots with rows of sunflowers, or cabbage, or asparagus, perhaps.

They will be watched over by tidy little sheds, or maybe even houses. And if it's a weekend or a summer evening when you pass, there will probably be a car around and a paterfamilias pottering in the earth.

These are the Schreber gardens, dreamed up a century and a half ago by Moritz Schreber, a Leipzig pedagogue, to humanize the lives of country folk forced to live in inhospitable cities for the first time as industrialization shifted whole populations.

Originally the "small gardens," as they are also called, were within walking distance of people's homes and provided not only an economical way to feed the family some greens, but also one of the few diversions available to poor workingmen. (Small gardens let "factory-gray faces blossom," as one of the turn-of-the-century phrases for allotments had it.)

Even today, in the affluent automobile and TV age, the "arbor colonies" -- yet another name for this venerable institution -- have not lost their popularity. Some 200,000 hopefuls are on waiting lists to get their own plots.

Joseph Eller is one of the happy ones. He already has a small garden with a house in a Munich suburb, where newcomers have to wait for 10 years for a plot to become available. His allotment will stay in his family (and his descendants' families) for as long as they care to keep it. He is so attached to it that he comes out even in the middle of snowy winter to feed the birds and just keep an eye on the place.

Mr. Eller is not a fanatic; he doesn't take any of the courses sponsored by the communal Schreber garden organization. (Among the courses posted on the communal bulletin board are "Fertilization," "Bonsai," and "Bees in Small Garden Areas: Their Significance and Acclimatization to Small Gardens.") Nor does he participate in the field trips available to Basel, over the Swiss border, to observe early fruit and vegetable cultivation.

He just enjoys having a patch of grass and growing a few currants and gooseberries on the side. And occasionally he might drop in on the Schreber garden community's corner pub, "At the Diligent Little Gardener's."

Mr. Eller's cottage, as is usual in bower colonies, has outside running water , a dry toilet, gas heat, and no electricity. His plot is about 300 square meters in area, the equivalent of a 90-by-30-foot lot. The house is his own property. The land belongs to the city, and Mr. Eller pays a nominal rent for his perpetual lease of it. Just how much, he's not sure; the whole package of water supply (the main cost), fire insurance, and rent costs only 160 deutsche marks ($80) a year.

In the Rhineland, small gardens are often devoted to real vegetable growing -- and the resulting glut of beans, peas, and cucumbers has induced more than one set of friends to establish an iron rule that on visits neither party will give gifts of produce to the other.

In East Germany the 630,000 gardens are usually devoted to even more serious food growing; they account for an astonishing 10 percent of all the nation's vegetables, a third of its fruit.

Not all is sweetness and light with the Schreber gardens, however. Small gardens, like everything else in Germany, are highly regulated, and woe betide the gardener who defies the prescribed height of trees, or neatness of grass. A Frankfurt retiree, Franz Meinzinger, got his precious plot taken away from him by his peers because he refused to trim a pine that had grown over the decreed maximum of three meters (about nine feet). He had to take his case to court to get his plot back.

Despite such vicissitudes, West Germany's 650,000 Schreber garden owners seem very content with their lots -- as any summer traveler quickly concludes from all the well-used apple trees, hammocks, and picnic table s he sees from one end of Germany to the other.

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