Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Saturday, 7 August 2010 12:03 UK

The battle for Berlin's gardens

Garden in Berlin

By Joanna Robertson

Having sustained the inhabitants for more than 100 years, Berlin's urban gardens are struggling to survive the property developers.

As you walk along the street, there is a door in the wall - half hidden by ivy, covered with graffiti.

Its lock is stiff. Open it and there is an alleyway behind, dustbins, a smell of leaf-mould in the gloom.

Beyond, a flight of concrete steps leads up into the sun of a hot summer morning.

The S-Bahn is close by and a train rushes past, shaking the scarlet roses which spill over the line.

Ahead - leading in all directions between tall hedges of beech and yew - neat green pathways stretch away into the distance, a fragrant labyrinth of trees and shrubs, flowers, fruits and vegetables.

Garden colony

Between the railway lines and the central axis of Berlin's western motorway system lie hundreds of gardens, each with its own small summerhouse.

Here you can find lavender, peonies, cornflowers, tomatoes, cherries, strawberries, as well as children's paddling pools, garden swings, barbecues and flagpoles.

Flats with gardens in front
The gardens are an oasis for flat-dwellers without their own plot

There are German flags everywhere.

When we first moved to Berlin, we lived near some allotments - a garden colony, it was called.

Just at the end of our street, near the Kurfuerstendamm (old West Berlin's main shopping area), it was like finding little fruit-and-vegetable gardens planted off London's Oxford Street or the Champs Elysees in Paris.

On late summer evenings, I would take the children to peep through hedges at the pretty flowers and vegetable patches within, where gardening families were ending their day in a haze of fragrant, blue barbecue smoke with roast bratwurst sausage, fizzy pop and cool beer.


When the first snows came, the children found that the path between the allotments made a perfect toboggan-run, and there was plenty of room to build snowmen.

The gardens, with their bright berries and abundant wildlife, kept us happy through that endless winter, even though we did not have a patch of ground of our own.

With the beginning of spring, small gardens started to appear around the foot of each tree along our street.

The chemist shop planted medicinal herbs, the flower shop a bevy of spring blooms.

Berliners pull carts through bombed streets in 1945
During two world wars, the garden colonies provided Berliners with vital food and shelter

Further down, someone cleared the ground between the pavement and a sycamore, ready for summer tomato plants.

In the garden allotments, there was early blossom and buds were appearing.

One afternoon, coming home, I felt the light had changed. I could not understand it. I looked up at the sky - grey, as usual.

But then I looked around at the corner where the gardens usually were. They were gone. Flattened.

Four bulldozers were parked in the middle of desolate earth.

Exactly five trees were left, exposed.

Everything else had vanished.

The garden colony, planted over 100 years ago on what had become valuable real estate land in "prime location West Berlin", had lost out to property developers.

"Gott, schuetze uns vor Not und Feuer

Vor der Stadtplanung und der Steuer!"

(God, save us, please, from adversity and fire,

From city planners and the taxman!)

So runs a rhyme amongst the allotment holders of Berlin.

It is almost as old as the plots themselves, which date back to the mid-19th Century paupers' gardens, given to the needy to grow food.


The gardens are grouped into so-called colonies, each with its own clubhouse and social scene.

During two world wars, the garden colonies provided Berliners with vital food and shelter.

In high summer, the garden parties are beginning - homemade jams, freshly pressed apple juice, music, dancing and serious horticulture

In 1941, in the summerhouse of just such a garden, Peter Ehrenberg was born.

Sixty-nine years later, he nurtures and protects 72,000 of them as director of Berlin's Small Gardens' Association.

His genial face, rosy from summer gardening, is absolutely determined as he describes the battle faced by thousands of people fighting to hold on to their land.

With the city of Berlin 60bn euros (£50bn, $80bn) in debt and many of these plots in temptingly lucrative, now-fashionable, central locations, the pressure is on from property developers.


But meanwhile, in high summer, the garden parties are beginning - homemade jams, freshly pressed apple juice, music, dancing and serious horticulture.

In the Kissingen colony the other evening, all along Claire Waldoff path, gardeners were perfecting their blooms and tending their fruits.

The path is named after a famous Berlin cabaret star from the years of the Weimar Republic.

She was an avid urban gardener and her allotment was right here.

In long strings of pearls, her luxuriant hair wreathed with paper flowers, or in a cheeky cap and suit, Claire Waldoff would sing in a Berlin slang as rich and gravelly as the city's soil:

"Was braucht der Berliner, um gluecklich zu sein?"

" 'ne Laube, n'Zaun und n'Beet!"

What does it take to make a Berliner happy?

An arbour, a fence and a flowerbed!

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