Monday, October 2, 2017

A Garden in Germany -- Third in a Series of Garden Visits

On Friday, I introduced you to Eleonore, and gave you a quick peek into her garden, let her say a few words, and promised we'd spend more time with her on Monday. And now it's Monday. . . .

As we stroll towards her sweet garden in Germany, I should tell you that I've been lucky enough to meet Eleonore when she made a daytrip to Berlin to meet me last fall. We spent a very enjoyable couple of hours together, despite our visit getting off to a bad start when I went to the wrong café first, and then had to run across the city where Eleonore patiently waited for me.  (A highlight of that visit was her account of driving with friends to watch The Wall come down in '89). . Since then, we've kept in touch here on the blog and also through the occasional card we pop in the mail (such fun to get real old-fashioned mail with stamps from other countries. . . ). 

And around the time we visited Ali's garden, Eleonore emailed to offer a visit to her little Eden. Of course, I accepted happily! Now here we are, knocking on her door. . . .

Greetings done, introductions made, and here's Eleonore ushering us into her charming green space. She has such an interesting story to tell us . . .
My garden is very small, only about 60 square meters.  But we can sit on the tiny terrace with a cup of tea 
 enjoy the view from the kitchen door 


(the lawn needs cutting!)


 or sit on the doorstep.  


In summer, I put my flower pots outside

 and on the flower bed in the right hand corner my Lavender Lassie climbing rose  and the perennials are coming back. 


Coming back from where, you ask. Wait and I’ll tell you. 

As I did with Wendy and Ali earlier, I sent Eleonore a set of questions, and it's as she answers these questions that the story of the garden -- of where it needs to "come back" from -- emerges. And it's quite a story. . . .
First of all, could you give us a rough idea of where your garden is located?
I live in a fairly densely populated neighbourhood in a middle sized town (500.000 inhabitants) in Northern Germany.  The garden is at the back of a building of flats. My flat is on the ground floor, I can step out directly from my kitchen.

And please,  tell us a little bit about yourself?
 I am a retired teacher and single mother.  We have two cats who love to sit in the sun or jump the fence for a little stroll through the neighbourhood.

We'd like to know what garden conditions you have to consider when choosing or placing plants?
 The garden faces North West, but it does get some afternoon sun.  The soil is very dry; there have been summers when I had to water it on a daily basis. What makes it even more inhospitable to many plants is the fact that the garden, and the neighbouring plots, are surrounded by buildings. This means that two huge trees (Ash and chestnut) which stand to the right and left have very little room for their roots and crisscross the soil in my garden as well. On top of that (literally) all the rubble that resulted from the complete or partial destruction of some of the buildings in the last war was thrown on a heap in the middle of the backyard and then covered with a thin layer of soil.  So it is almost impossible to dig a hole for a new plant.  The best I can do is scrape for a crack in the ground, squeeze in the plant with as much compost as will go in and hope for the best.

I'm curious: is this the first garden you’ve ever cared for? Or did you have considerable experience in other gardens, your own or “borrowed” gardens?
 My mother was a fervent gardener, but my role had never been more than that of a helper. When I shared a house with some friends in Lima in 1980/81, we had a small patio which looked fairly barren when we moved in.  I started watering it and put in a few plants and within a year converted it into a very pleasant space. That is where I first experienced how much fun gardening can be.

How long have you cared for this garden? Did you build it from scratch or work to maintain and/or modify an existing garden? Are there still elements in the garden that testify to its previous owners – in positive or negative ways?
When I moved in and started looking after this garden in 1994, the basic structure was already there: a flower bed in one corner, a small terrace opposite the door, and a tiny lawn.  But there were very few plants, mostly bulbs.  (This photograph


 is the only picture of that time. It shows the flower bed in the background.) 

There were a few hydrangeas along the back wall of the building (this photo is from 2008).
 I planted a New Dawn to cover the brick wall 


and a friend with a lovely garden gave me seedlings and clippings of many of her perennials. Not all of them thrived but still the result was wonderful 

Those plants which felt at home started to extend and to turn up in unsuspected places. Given the difficult conditions, I have always been very grateful for this tendency of the garden to look after itself. 
Another inheritance of the first owners is the picture they painted on the wall next to the compost bin .



What makes you happiest about your garden?
What makes me happiest about my garden is that we are both still here, the garden and I.  My neighbourhood is a typical case of gentrification. A traditional working class district, from the 70s onwards it attracted students, artists, and small immigrant businesses; old factory buildings were converted into studios, clubs and theatres. Then young urban middle class people started buying property, there is a lot of building and modernizing going on and rents and property prices soared. In 2013 the building I live in was sold to a real estate “developer” who planned to remodel and sell the flats. Obviously, he had to get rid of the old tenants first. He was successful in three cases out of five, but I told him I was staying. Legally, there wasn’t much he could do to drive me out, but he could try to make my life as unpleasant as possible. As a part of this strategy he banned me from entering the garden and even put up a barrier in the door.

 Later he used the garden as a dump for building materials and waste. 

For more than a year I had to watch my garden being destroyed, while I took him to court over my right to use it. He appealed three times and lost every single case. So in the end, the garden was mine again, but it had suffered badly.  

I was hesitant about investing too much in its reconstruction because I did not really trust my luck. But the white hydrangea and the New Dawn rose set the example 


 Excuse my interruption here, but look at those astonishingly persistent green shoots! What a story!
and one by one almost all of my perennials appeared again.  I did not do much more than weed and cut the lawn and let the garden sort itself out.
That is more or less what I still do, so I do not spend very much time with garden work.  Which is a good thing; because there is another garden I have to look after.

What frustrations or challenges do you still have with your garden?
Compared to human greed and ill will, all other challenges appear small. But the snails do present a problem. There are some flowers which I love but cannot cultivate (like dahlias or cosmos, for example), because they disappear overnight.

Do you have a favourite plant?
The white hydrangea is my favourite because it is so old. It must have been planted in the 70s. When the flower bed along the wall was dug up for some works on the brickwork, I convinced one of the workmen to save the root ball for me and put it in a container.  The plant is not as big as it used to be, but it is alive! The container is not its favourite spot, though, so now it needs much more watering, fertilizer etc. Therefore it is, at the same time, the plant which requires the most care.

And finally, the wild-card question: What question do you wish I'd asked you?

All this struggle and fight for your garden, was it worth it? Would you do the same thing again?
Yes, it was and I most definitely would. First of all, because I would never have allowed this little would-be tycoon to push me around.  Second, because even though I can still see some damages, the garden has returned to its old role of offering peace and quiet in the middle of a lively district. And finally, because it does not only give pleasure to me, but also to many neighbours.  “A small green oasis I can see from my window”, as one of them put it the other day. There are two little girls who love coming to the fence to see if the cats are around. That is why I do not cover up the gap in the fence.

I'm sure you'll agree with me that this is a great addition to our Garden Series, with the mix of delightful garden images (and some much less salubrious ones!), an interesting history of the planting, maturing, and maintenance over the last twenty-some years, and a dramatic narrative of Eleonore's battle with a developer over the last several years -- particularly that happy ending. I think it also makes a valuable contribution to this little series by adding the perspective of someone who cares for a garden over a significant period even though she doesn't own it. 

Thanks so much, Eleonore, for sharing your garden with us. I suspect readers may want to ask you a question or two. . . . Comments welcome below. 
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30 comments:

  1. Well Eleonore , that was unexpected but so interesting . It makes my rabbit problems seem trivial by comparison . I wish more people would fight for green spaces in our cities . What a great example of what one strong woman can accomplish . You must feel very proud when you gaze at your garden . From your write up , I get the feeling you have many interesting stories to tell ? Thanks for joining us gardener folk here .
    Wendy in York

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    1. Thank you, Wendy. I should state right at the start that I was not alone in achieving this victory but had the help of a tenants' association which offered legal counselling and helped me find a solicitor. There also was a lot of material and moral support from friends and neighbours. So when I look at my garden today, I feel grateful most of all.

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  2. What an inspiring story. Eleonore!. Green spaces in group housing can be a joy to the neighbourhood. Your strength has certainly provided a lovely space! I have been working for two years on "parking lot gardens" within our apartment complex.
    It is a challenge to find plants that are low maintenance and low cost to fill the untended areas.Thank you for sharing your story.

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    1. I agree, "parking lot gardens" brighten up the neighbourhood. There are quite a few around here, and I also started one in the street in front of my building. Another victim to the "development" works (somebody decided to have the portable toilet put right on top of it), and I still haven't found the energy to restore it.

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  3. It is quite a story: about a sturdy garden and a sturdy and brave lady :-)
    So nice to meet you Eleonore-I like your garden,it has beauty,peace and character,you must have many beautiful hours there,working or enjoying
    I like the wall painting,too,lovely that you've left it there
    Dottoressa

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    1. I could never erase a painting with a cat in it! I think the first tenants who started this garden (way back in the 70s) must have had children.

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  4. Thank you for sharing your story and your lovely garden, Eleonore.

    I spot one of your cats in the last photo! Examining something interesting...

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  5. You're right. That is Marlene.

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  6. Human greed and ill-will: this surely is the plague of modern life. I am so glad that your garden made it back from such wanton cruelty and that you stood staunchly by your guns. No wonder you delight in it and I hope your landlord feels a lurch in his stomach every time he sees it putting up two horticultural fingers to him.

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    1. My feelings exactly, and I love the image of the "two horticultural fingers"!

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  7. Thank you for sharing your garden story. And for persevering through the struggles to keep it.
    I love your descriptive phrase "this little would-be tycoon". Hah, who is the rich one now!
    Suz from Vancouver

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    1. You're so right, Suz. I feel very rich, with the garden restored to me and after having received so much support and solidarity from so many quarters.

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  8. What a lovely garden, Eleonore, and what an inspiring story. How mean of the developer to have wilfully tried to destroy a place of beauty - it must have been very painful to see. I love your generosity despite this in keeping the gap in the greenery for the little girls to look out for your cat.

    And I love hydrangeas too.

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    1. I discovered the beauty of hydrangeas rather late in life. But now, that the big white one lives in a container, I am going to take it with me when I move out of here. (Which I will at some moment, because this is not the perfect place to grow old in.)

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  9. Hi Eleonore, thank you for sharing your garden with us. As well as admiring your space and also your determination to keep it, I'm appalled by the actions of your building's owner. So glad you won that battle, hopefully he won't come at you again.

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    1. In German there is a word for all the actions a house owner may take to get of rid tenants he cannot expel by legal means. It could roughly be translated as "de-rent" and developers and estate agents can take courses on "de-renting". In my case it also included cutting off the gas without notice and leaving me without hot water for six weeks and heating for eight months (mostly in the summer, though). All this made me so furious I just had to stand up to the bully.

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    2. Should read: "to get rid of..."

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  10. Thank you Frances and Eleonore, this is an inspiring story and a beautiful garden.

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    1. Thank you, Katherine. Glad you liked it.

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  11. Gosh this is inspirational and very moving. I am in awe of your persistence and spirit. I wondered initially that you had left the chain link fence free of a climbing plant, but I understood when you revealed it was so that the children could peep in at your cats. What a microcosm of what city life should be like, when led with such concern for nature and for connections with other city-dwellers.

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    1. Good neighbourhood is a give-and-take, isn't it? A free roaming cat may get into trouble or be lost. So I think it is a good thing if our neighbours know and like my cats. (And I also enjoy the delight of those two little girls.)

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  12. Oh my that was one nasty landlord....glad to hear that your have your garden back!
    Good for you not giving up and giving in to the developer...and your lovely garden is thriving!

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    1. Yes, I think not giving in was the key. I might have been defeated, but I had to try. The rest was luck (and solidarity and friendship).

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  13. Bravo! Such a lift to the spirit that you stood up to such a nasty person, and that you and the garden prevailed. The bits of greenery asserting themselves brought a smile to my face. Your little garden is a gift to everyone who gets a glimpse.

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    1. Thank you. In my wildest moments I sometimes think that maybe my experience may encourage others not to give up before they are beaten.

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  14. Such a beautiful, beautiful story. And I love that people come and peek through the fence. Such history to your plants, and such gentle lessons from their responses to change.

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    1. I admit that I have been tempted more than once to close the gap in the fence, because people can look right into my kitchen and see me sitting there reading the morning paper in my pj. But on the other hand - the children, the cats, friendly greetings through the fence... Maybe with time something will grow there. I am leaving this for the garden to decide.

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  15. Frances..thank you for such a great story...some gardens are so manicured and pristine they seem other-worldly..this one looks "normal" in a good way..one we can identify with!
    Eleonore..what a story!! wonderful to see a glimpse of your life..the tenacity of you and your plants is inspiring...It looks so welcoming and cozy with your tea-cup and cats and paper!! Thanks for letting us see it! Coco

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  16. Thank you, Coco. That tea cup was a present I gave myself on retirement, anticipating the days I would wander from flat to garden and from activity to leisure, mug in hand. There have been days like that, although not as many as I had hoped....

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  17. I used to work for our local tenants' association (still belong to it). Here in Montréal, there is a push for "green lanes" to improve the air quality and safety in what used to be service alleys; we have one now.

    I love cats (well, I'm lagatta) and was happy to see your Marlene. Would like to see the other! My Livia is all black and as small as a half-grown kitten; we rescued her from the lane (her mum and brother were also rescued).

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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