Thursday, April 7

Ostara, the spring equinox, usually takes place around the 20th of March. For this event, we came together on the 7th of April so the weather would be good enough to start planting. After Ostara the days are longer than the nights, therefore the festivity is connected to rebirth, renewal, and fertility. The spring equinox is also the Persian new year, and many Ostara symbols were later adopted for Easter celebrations, such as eggs and rabbits. To us, Ostara was the moment for planting physical and metaphorical seeds for the coming year and talk about gardening as a cultural practice.

We began the event with a potluck; the small table we prepared in the Research Station was soon filled with homemade pastry and bread, spreads, fruits, dishes, and cakes. We served tea made from sage from the Rooftop Garden and rosemary gathered in the city. Everybody stood around the table, chatting and snacking, getting to know each other, and exchanging the recipes of the dishes.

After a while, we sat down in a circle to listen to the presentations of our guests, Michelle Teran and Renée Turner, both research lecturers at WdKA and passionate gardeners. Michelle talked about the Prinzessinengarten, a community garden project at Moritzplatz in Berlin that she was part of. In 2019 they initiated the Nachbarschaftsakademie (neighbourhood academy) as a self-organised curriculum surrounding social practice and activism which consisted of workshops, reading circles, and discussions. The Nachbarschaftsakademie departed from the idea that schools are inherently political projects, they were interested in developing new forms of education that respond to the climate crisis and capitalist violence.

Like many community gardens, the Prinzessinengarten started as a temporary project in 2009. Beforehand the area was a wasteland due to its proximity to the Berlin wall. In 2012 the land was put up for sale without the knowledge of the gardeners, but through a petition they were able to continue the project until at least the end of 2019. Moritzplatz in Berlin, where the garden is located, is also the epicenter of gentrification. Community gardens are often appropriated for city campaigns because they make neighbourhoods more attractive and look good on real estate flyers, hence they are often unwillingly complicit in further gentrifying the area. Michelle passed around a poster with a map of over 300 community gardens in Berlin, most of them precarious and temporal. The creators of the map experimented with deep mapping methods, which means finding different ways of mapping out one site, so as to not put forward one particular narrative but show complexity. The mapping also helped them to connect to other garden spaces and activist groups who organised against gentrification. Michelle wanted to demonstrate how gardens are always sites of conflicts and related to power struggles. Community gardens are spaces of nurturing, but also of convergence of aims, narratives, and approaches. The neighbours of the Prinzessinengarten, for instance, are mainly big corporations and rich people. Clara, one of the co-organizers of the Rooftop Garden project, mentioned the food forest in Rotterdam Kralingen that she works for. Kralingen is a very wealthy neighbourhood, and when the food forest crew made shades for shitake mushrooms to grow under, the neighbours deemed them too ugly and proposed to pay for an architect who would make more beautiful shades.

Renée Turner introduced us to her garden plot at the Tuinvereniging SNV (garden association), located in the west of Rotterdam. The garden plots were initially given to working class people in the 1930s, when many factory workers from the countryside still had a strong connection to agriculture. Renée’s 250 m² garden is overshadowed by a huge metasequoia, a living fossil which is native to China. Until the 1940s the tree was mostly known in fossil records, in 1939 it was ‘discovered’ by the Japanese scientist Shigeru Miki, later it was sold to garden centres worldwide. This tree, which is so dominant in her garden that a neighbour once advised her to cut it down, and its complex history, inspired her for her Phd proposal.

She started seeing the garden as an archive of (hi)stories and wondered what she could learn from this small plot of land. Archiving, intensively reading and writing spaces is a recurring element in Renée’s practice. Once she read the garments in a woman’s wardrobe, another time she studied her own kitchen in search of its teachings. Most of the plants in her garden have a colonial history. Japanese Knotweed, for instance, which is now considered an invasive species, was brought by Phillip Franz von Siebold from Japan to Leiden in the first half of the 19th century. The Dutch name, ‘duizendknoop’, inspired her for the title of her Phd proposal: A Thousand Knots.

Just after she handed in her proposal, she learned that a third of the area on which the gardens were located would be turned into a football field. Thinking that the garden might soon disappear gave the project even more urgency and significance. What knowledges and stories would be lost with the garden? Together with the other gardeners, they decided to fight. They made a website highlighting how urban gardens increase biodiversity and wellbeing, focusing on making it explicit in numbers, as that is what the municipality is interested in. Apparently, the city’s concern was that these gardens were only for the elderly, which is quite striking in the context of the pandemic, where many elderly only had their gardens to go to, spend time outside, and socialise divided by the safe distance between garden fences. Talking about the way humans and landscapes are treated as resources, she recommended Amitav Ghosh’s book The Nutmeg’s Curse that describes how this approach has brought about the climate crisis. In the end, the gardeners were able to convince the municipality to keep the gardens, but Renée also noted how a sense of urgency often deafens us to other things lying outside the immediate focus. How to be inside and outside the emergency at the same time? Is that even possible, or always a question of privilege? To end her presentation, she handed out little packages wrapped with a red and white ribbon that contained Swiss chard seeds and selected quotes.

Michelle noted how collective, long-term socially engaged projects often contain the danger of fixing a narrative, of telling a story that is too coherent. The questions, also in the context of the Prinzessinengarten, are: Who gets to tell the story? Whose needs are emphasized? Who belongs more than the other? Race, gender, income, and investment of time often create hierarchies in the power to shape the narrative. Michelle is interested in how conflict can be generative and how complexity can be embraced, rather than immediately tried to be reduced. Renée remarked that these projects are also never ‘tidy’. For example, to fight against the destruction of the Tuinvereniging they invited local politicians to visit the gardens. They needed the votes from all the parties, so they even had to welcome members of the extreme right-wing party. Michelle added that in the Prinzessinengarten they made T-shirts saying ‘I am for bad soil’, as ‘good’ soil often has problematic implications of purity. In line with writers such as Dean Spade and Black feminist thinking, she advocated for superseding binaries and sticking with the ambiguities.

Afterwards, some people shared seeds they had brought for the Rooftop Garden, and we invited participants to write the metaphorical seeds they wanted to plant for the coming year on pieces of paper and bury them with the seeds on the Rooftop.

After a short break, we all went up to the Rooftop Garden. It was cloudy and windy outside, luckily it wasn’t raining when we stepped out on the terrasse. Some people helped to top up the raised beds that were already on the terrasse but needed more soil, others filled blue transportation containers turned into planters with wood chips and soil, again others pre-seeded vegetable and flower seeds in small pots. Together, we decided which of the old plants that were already on the Rooftop we would keep, where to plant them, and where to place the newly bought plants. To the South, at the short edge of the terrasse, we now have a bed with wildflower seeds for bees and a bunch of small raspberry bushes. The raised bed beside it, on the long edge, is packed with many different plants that were already on the Rooftop. One of the blue container beds has rhubarb and strawberries, and the other calendula, sunflower, meadowsweet, and hyssop seeds. Most of the other beds are filled with herbs, and we left two of the blue containers empty to plant the seedlings after they germinate. It was amazing to finally plant, to turn the metaphorical garden we had been talking about for so long into a tangible place, to work and dig our hands in the dirt together. Just when we finished it started raining heavily, and after cleaning up we went to the canteen for beers, tired and content with our work.

Images to the right: Van den Ende, Jasper (photographer). Planting on the Rooftop during the Ostara event. 7 April 2022.