Bella Peacock

Berlin's guerrilla gardens

Behind a worn wire fence lined with peeling billboards stands Prinzessinnengarten (Princess Gardens), one of Berlin's first guerrilla gardens. It occupies one of the many vacant lots that trace the line through the centre of the city where the Berlin Wall once stood. Prinzessinnengarten is the size of a soccer field, nestled in the triangle between two roads in the district of Kreuzberg. Entering the garden is like stepping into a cocoon of green in a taut city.

Unlike a traditional community garden, members don't work on their own allotted garden beds. Rather, projects are undertaken communally- people tend to seedlings sown by different hands, and donate personal time learning to build community structures

On the day I visit, seedlings sprout from rice bags and red crates, while in the centre of the garden a series of bright shipping containers with cut-out windows are used to house books and part of the garden cafe's bar and kitchen. Long wooden benches are scattered amongst a copse of trees, and while a family eats vegetable soup, a woman with long dreadlocks potters with a spade.

More than 500 different species of plants are grown organically here, emerging from wheelbarrows and boxes, some made from recycled wood- raw, functional, and slightly warped. Beehives made of bamboo and old logs nest throughout the garden, and retaining wall made from lumps of old concrete, bricks, and tiles runs along its edge.

Unlike a traditional community garden, members don't work on their own allotted garden beds. Rather, projects are undertaken communally- people tend to seedlings sown by different hands, and donate personal time learning to build community structures. A poster in the garden tells of a plant exchange and workshops on upcycling and composting, some of many events held in Prinzessinnengarten.

"Gardening is also an attitude that we can transfer to the question of city planning"

Prinzessinnengarten is one of the first and longest running of what's called Berlin's guerrilla gardens, gardens that pop up to feed life into the city's vacant lots and overlooked corners while the land remains unused.

It has been here since 2009, however the stacked crates and shipping containers are a statement of its uncertain future -braced for evacuation once the city sells the land. From all this though, a tentative beauty arises almost accidentally - delicate and serendipitous.

Nomadisch Gruen, meaning Nomadic Green, is the not-for-profit group behind Prinzessinnengarten. They create pop-up gardens on rooftops, and building sites and in carparks, encouraging residents to do the same. The city, without the money to support green projects, often permits or wilfully overlooks gardening locals who are cultivating plants on public land.

Prinzessinnengarten's mobile concept and nimble use of space has captivated the city. Marco Clausen, one of Prinzessinnengarten's founders, loves seeing the change in attitude and perception that comes from unheralded city gardens.

"It's people taking care of something living, people taking care of something fragile, and taking their time to do so," Clausen says. "Gardening is also an attitude that we can transfer to the question of city planning."

To Clausen, the space kindles interactions that become part of a process of nurturing. In Prinzessinnengarten, people are asked to nourish what they do not own, to learn slowly, to act slowly, to collaborate and sustain.

From building prototype DIY homes with inexperienced locals to growing shared vegetables, engagement becomes a means to learn and to love things. Reflecting on Prinzessinnengarten, Clausen says: "There is lot of separation in the city between generations, between people with different cultural backgrounds, and what we learnt is that garden is really an instrument to bring people together, especially a food garden, because food is something we all need."

Food, fruits, vegetables, and herbs have become the garden's sustenance and main source of income. Prinzessinnengarten doesn't have funding from the city but is happy not to rely on this or donations.

The other half of Prinzessinnengarten's founding duo, Robert Shaw, says the cafe creates income and employment and what's grown in the garden is used in the cafe.

"The major difference between us and an allotment garden is that allotment gardens today are a place to retreat, to get rid of the city, and we wanted to have a constant communication between the garden and the surroundings, the city"

To Shaw, being self-sustaining is important for a social project, yet "the tension between being socially conscious on one hand and being able to support oneself on the other was always there."

The money made in the cafe and through selling plants is reinvested into the garden's workshops and numerous community projects.

"The major difference between us and an allotment garden is that allotment gardens today are a place to retreat, to get rid of the city, and we wanted to have a constant communication between the garden and the surroundings, the city, so that there is a always interaction," says Clausen.

As if to back this up, I see three Polish-speaking men in all black drinking beer and laughing loudly in the sun, while, a little way off, a group of 20-somethings drill wooden supports onto a structure that will become a new community learning centre.

Prinzessinnengarten shows what could be, how we might nurture spaces and community in simple, unencumbered ways.