A brief guide to German garden colonies

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

Typically German

People visiting Germany for the first time might wonder why so many well-kept "slums" appear to be scattered all over the country. Such sites are actually allotment gardens, a phenomenon known under various names in German, such as a "Schrebergarten," "Kleingartenanlage" or "Gartenkolonie." Each small plot ("Parzelle") has its own hut, and people can rent these spaces to do their gardening.

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

Inspired by Dr. Schreber

In reaction to rapid urbanization in the 19th century, a Leipzig doctor and teacher called Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber started promoting the benefits of outdoor activities for urban youth. In 1864, four years after his death, his name was given to an association, the "Schreberverein," which organized fields where families could play. The gardens came later.

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

Gardens for the poor

Even before the Schreber movement was established, lords, factory owners, city administrations and charity organizations started allocating plots to allow impoverished families to garden, known in German as "Armengärten," or gardens for the poor. By 1826, such gardens existed in 19 cities. This illustration by Berlin artist Heinrich Zille goes back to 1909.

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

A place to take a break

Beyond working in the allotment to put fresh food on the table, Germans also went out to relax in their gardens, as this picture from 1906 shows. The men are seen playing skat, a popular German card game.

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

Essential for survival

The allotment gardens allowed many people to survive during the wars, when agricultural products could not always reach the city markets. A year after the end of World War I, Germany passed a law protecting the small gardens, allowing the leasing fees to remain reasonable. This post-WWII picture from 1949 is of a garden on Hermannplatz, now a busy square in Berlin's district of Neukölln.

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

Keeping it green wherever it's grey

The allotment gardens were usually set up in areas where no one wanted to live, for example near railways. Many colonies were located on both sides of the Berlin Wall. This 1982 photo shows a West Berlin allotment. The East German authorities initially tried to collectivize them in the 1950s, but they soon encouraged the traditional gardens as a much needed source of fresh produce.

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

National regulations

With the growing popularity of urban gardening, more and more young people are renting their own lot. They should know that these sites are regulated by the "Bundeskleingartengesetz," or national law on allotment gardens, which states that garden huts may not be used as a residence nor exceed a certain size. At least one-third of the plot must be used to grow fruits and vegetables.

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

Community rules

If you're considering renting such a garden, friends might discourage you by saying they're "spiessig" – a very German term for square and bourgeois. In addition to national regulations, each colony has its own set of rules. How strict these conventions are varies from one colony to the other, and also depends on the people already there.

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

A manual lawnmower might be more useful

If unkempt gardens are frowned upon, mowing the lawn on a Sunday or during the sacred "Ruhezeiten" (resting times) is a no-go, and the same goes for loud music. These quiet periods are determined by the colony, but are typically set from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m on weekdays and after 7:00 p.m. on weeknights, as well as starting at 1:00 p.m. on Saturdays. The entire Sunday is a quiet day.

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

From Russian discos to the Schrebergarten

Author and DJ Wladimir Kaminer became an international best-selling author with his Berlin tales, entitled "Russian Disco." As a prototypical hip and younger Russian gardener in a Berlin gardeners' colony, he has also humorously analyzed the peculiarities of the German allotment garden culture in his book "Mein Leben im Schrebergarten" (My Life in the Schrebergarten), available in German only.

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

The garden gnome's paradise

Germany's small gardens are also renowned for hosting all forms of kitsch. The garden gnome - "Gartenzwerg" in German - immediately comes to mind, but elaborate water fountains and plastic windmills are other popular accessories.

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

Out grilling

Although there's always gardening work to do on the lot during the summer, it's also a great place to enjoy a meal outside. A barbecue is definitely a must - but here, too, neighbors might complain about the smoke and smells. One good way to get them on your side is to invite them over for a perfectly grilled wurst.

Everything you need to know about German garden colonies

Timeless idyllic scenes

Although this picture is from the 1970s, it still represents well the spirit of a "Kleingarten." The 150-year tradition has since been adopted by all German-speaking coutries, and there are now thousands of garden colonies in and around big cities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

They might look like slums or homes for garden gnomes. Those peculiar settlements of tiny little houses with allotment gardens, known as the "Schrebergarten," are a typically German phenomenon.

While "urban gardening" recently turned into every hipster's pastime, Germany has a long-established culture of city gardens, dating back to the period of strong industrialization and urbanization in the 19th century. 

Today's gardeners are rediscovering the joys of digging the earth, making their statement against consumerism by growing their own vegetables. But when the allotment gardens were initially created, they aimed to combat urban families' extreme poverty and malnutrition.

First called "gardens of the poor," they are now known as "Schrebergärten," inspired by the "Schreber movement" launched in 1864, which drew on the ideas of German physician Moritz Schreber.

During World Wars I and II, the food produced in those gardens became essential for many families' survival. 

Today, for many foreigners, the fenced up garden colonies, with their tiny cottages lined up along railways or occupying former no-man's land, seem a little mysterious.

Click through the gallery above to learn more about these very German gardens, which become particularly busy this time of year. To avoid going hungry while tilling the soil or relaxing in the garden, the gallery below shares "light" German dishes for the summer. 

For more on German lifestyle and culture, visit dw.com/meetthegermans.

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11 light German foods for the summer

Summer is 'Grill' season

Just like in many other countries, Germans love to barbecue, and anything can go on the grill. Sausages, of course, as well any kind of meat, along with vegetables and Turkish halloumi cheese, are among the most popular options. Many Germans stick to old-fashioned coal barbecues. In cities, grilling in public parks is common.

11 light German foods for the summer

Add a little 'Krautsalat'

The word Kraut became a derogatory term to refer to Germans during the World Wars. Although "Kraut" itself means "herb," it is often used to refer to cabbage too - such as the popular German dish "Sauerkraut," which is finely cut, fermented cabbage, and "Krautsalat," coleslaw. Germans will dress it with vinegar instead of mayonnaise, and some people add apples and onions to the salad.

11 light German foods for the summer

One potato option among many: 'Kartoffelsalat'

If the German word for potato, "Kartoffel," had been simpler, it could've well become the term soldiers used to describe Germans, too. There are probably as many potato salad recipes as families in Germany - and many people will strictly follow their mother's for the rest of their life. Instead of mayonnaise, some traditional recipes combine broth, vinegar and oil for dressing.

11 light German foods for the summer

Another potato dish: 'Pellkartoffel mit Quark'

In the summer heat, no one feels like cooking an elaborate meal. That's why Germans came up with this favorite, based once again on the potato. To save work, "Pellkartoffeln" are potatoes boiled in the skins, removed by each diner before eating. They're served with "Quark" - a creamy dairy product similar to yogurt - that's combined with fresh herbs, salt and pepper. Simple, but addictive.

11 light German foods for the summer

Salads are not just for rabbits: 'Fleischsalat'

Vegetarians, you can close your eyes now: Germans have managed to make meat the main ingredient of a SALAD - though many people use "meat salad" as a spread for bread, to be honest. Lyoner sausage, or baloney, is cut into strips and combined with mayonnaise or sour cream, pickles, onions and other spices. You have to trust your butcher to enjoy this.

11 light German foods for the summer

Another challenge: 'Apfel-Matjes-Salat'

"Matjes" are pickled herrings, and although they're perhaps not to everyone's liking, they're cult along the northern German coast. In this traditional recipe, also called "Matjes nach Hausfrauenart," which means "housewife's style," the pickled fish is combined with diced onions, apples, dill and creamy dairy products. This refreshing summer dish is served with - no surprise - potatoes.

11 light German foods for the summer

Creamy herbs: 'Frankfurter Grüner Sosse'

You might start recognizing a trend: Different German summer specialties involve a sauce that's served with potatoes - and, in this case, eggs. This traditional green sauce from the Frankfurt region celebrates the fresh herbs that are available during the summer. The sauce has its own festival and official season, opening on Maundy Thursday before Easter, called in German "Gründonnerstag."

11 light German foods for the summer

The summer stew: 'Birne, Bohnen und Speck'

Pears, green beans and bacon: The name of this northern German dish is both a basic shopping list for what's needed in the recipe and a culinary poem for the taste buds. These three ingredients are cooked into a comforting stew that's salty and sweet, healthy yet with a nice touch of fat. The pears are of a variety that remains firm when cooked - available from July to September.

11 light German foods for the summer

Competing stars of the summer: 'Beeren'

Some Germans could probably skip the main course and simply stick to dessert all summer, as it is the season of regional fresh berries ("Beeren") and fruit ("Früchte" or "Obst"). Favorites include strawberries ("Erdbeeren"), red currant berries ("Johanisbeeren"), cherries ("Kirschen"), blueberries ("Heidelbeeren") and apricots ("Aprikosen").

11 light German foods for the summer

'Zwetschgen': Not all plums are equal

Another fruit that's typically used in Germany to make amazing cakes is the plum. But not just any kind of plum - one with a strange, untranslatable name: the "Zwetschge." It is similar to the damson plum, but still a distinct variety. This can be confusing for foreigners. Zwetschgen are small and oval, while "Pflaumen" (the general term for plums) are the round ones.

11 light German foods for the summer

The summertime staple: 'Rote Grütze'

If you start craving "rote Grütze," then you've really adopted German food culture. Its literal translation is "red grits," but this classic can best be defined as a thick red berry fruit compote. Summer berries are combined with sugar and cornstarch. The fruit pudding is served with vanilla sauce, cream or ice cream. It's simple, but somehow summer in Germany wouldn't be the same without it.

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