Germans Use Their Green Thumbs to Cultivate the Cities

Perhaps Barbara Sauer wasn't different from any other city dweller who dreams of having a garden and a little house. But Mrs. Sauer's dream came true five years ago, when she and her husband obtained a parcel in a so-called "garden colony" only minutes away from their apartment in the German capital.

Sauer is one of 84,000 Berlin gardeners who spend the summer months cultivating her garden and relaxing in a wooden cottage, equipped with a modern kitchen, bathroom, and sleeping loft. Typical for many European cities, the topography of Germany's metropolis is dotted with more than 800 such garden colonies.

Kolonie Oeynhausen, where the Sauers lease their plot for about $600 a year, is a green oasis squeezed between residential and industrial areas in western Berlin. Gravel paths lead past neatly fenced-in gardens bearing the blossoms of late summer. The colony has been in continuous use since 1904.

"Urban gardening originated in the workers movement," says Jergen Hurt, president of the Berlin Garden Friends, the city branch of a national organization numbering more than 1 million members. In the mid-19th century, Mr. Hurt says, "city fathers asked themselves how they could control the revolutionary tendencies of workers." Small garden plots were the answer, not only in Berlin but also Paris, Brussels, and Vienna.

For Harri Wuttke, chairman of the association that oversees Kolonie Oeynhausen, German garden culture has played a central role in his life.

Although both his parents worked, they couldn't afford the rent for an apartment. Instead they lived in a cottage on a small garden plot in southern Berlin where Mr. Wuttke was born. In the lean years after World War II, many urban dwellers relied on their gardens for food.

Now the gardens are primarily a source of recreation. The colonies are open to all Berliners, though applicants for a plot may have to wait as many as four years.

Strict rules govern the garden colonies: The cottages are not to be used for permanent residence, and at least one third of the plot, or an average of 120 square yards, must be devoted to the planting of vegetables, fruits, or flowers. "We talk to those people who only cultivate their lawns," Wuttke says with a smile.

In an urban environment where gray anonymity determines daily life, the gardens also play an important social function. Kolonie Oeynhausen offers gardening courses to its 436 members and has its own restaurant, club rooms, and playground. "The gardens are open to the public day and night," says Wuttke. "We want to be part of the public green spaces."

Inevitably this desire has clashed with the interests of land developers, who have pushed for rezoning in the highly speculative Berlin real estate market. A few years ago, 35,000 gardeners demonstrated against new city building plans with considerable success: four-fifths of existing garden spaces were secured.

A unique federal law guarantees the rights of urban gardeners, and the Berlin Garden Friends are well aware of their political clout. In the recent local elections, the organization even considered putting up candidates. "We want to stay a specialized movement," says Wuttke about the final decision to stay out of the daily wrangling in city hall. "But we're always in a position to make protest marches."

Berlin's gardeners only take to the streets when they have to. After all, the purpose of the green sanctuaries is to escape the hectic pace of urban life. On weekends, a pastoral calm hangs over Kolonie Oeynhausen. Children ride their bikes on paths and gardeners hack away at weeds. The only sign of the colony's location is the smokestacks looming over the hedges.

As Wuttke strolls through the colony, he greets the gardeners by name. He stops in front of one old cottage and says: "This is where my first sweetheart lived, back in 1948." Walking on, he meets Sauer working in her garden.

She wastes little time getting to the point. Apparently the neighbors have installed a high-tech sprinkling system and are watering day and night, rain or shine. "Mushrooms must be growing on the trees by now," Sauer tells chairman Wuttke.

"They could start cultivating rice," Wuttke says, taking judicious note of the complaint. Sauer's father looks up from his coffee. "This is just the way it used to be in our village," he says.

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