American Expat Is Horrified by His Discovery of German ‘Schreber Gardens’

schrebergarten german schreber gardens
“And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod…” — (Image Credit: Marco Verch [https://www.flickr.com/photos/30478819@N08/] CC 2.0 License.)
Dear Germany,

I have a confession to make.

When I first arrived at the Hannover airport back in 2012, my wife met me at the security gate, we picked up my luggage and boarded the S5 train on our way toward our new home. About a mile or two outside the city, I saw a vast wasteland of the most depressing houses on earth; tiny little shacks — too small even to hold a car — complete with miniature windows, flagpoles, chain-link fences, yards and gardens.

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“No one should have to live like this.” — Photo Credit: Patrik Tschudin (https://www.flickr.com/photos/patsch/) — Subject to CC 2.0 Generic Copyright.

“My God,” I whispered to my wife, barely containing the tear which threatened to spill from my eye, “those poor, poor people…”

I marveled at the thought of living in such a confined space. Would the toilet be right next to your head as you slept at night? What about running water? A kitchen? Heat during winter? Holy Christ, are people raising children in those things?

I was disgusted by the idea a city like Hannover could thrive within spitting distance of such wretched slums. What sort of mayor allows a cesspool of humanity like this to decay in his own back yard? A sick one, that’s who. And then I took a closer look at these little nightmare shanties, all huddled together for warmth like derelicts around a burning car tire…

“You know, for a bunch of filthy untouchables, these Germans bums sure decorate the shit out of their huts.”

And it was true: Each little house was manicured with tender, loving care. Like dollhouses for God’s sullied children. They were freshly painted, complete with trim and decorations on the front door. They even had tiny chimneys and gutters. The yards were immaculate and the gardens were actually growing real, live, fruits and vegetables. I even saw a miniature trellis supporting a beautiful red climbing rose… like a single wish of hope in an otherwise hellish quagmire of despair.

“These are the best hobos ever!” I declared loudly, not only for my wife, but for the rest of the train car to hear as well.

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“I am impressed by your derelict style.” — (Image Credit: Thomas Kohler [https://www.flickr.com/photos/mecklenburg/] CC 2.0 License.)
“Those are Schreber gardens,” said my wife. “We call them ‘Schrebergärten.’ People who live in the city rent them so they can garden on the weekends. When I was a kid, I used to have sleepovers with my friend in her family’s Schreber garden.”

She was right. Apparently, the “Schreber Movement” started in Leipzig, Germany, in 1864. European industrialization in the 19th century brought tons of people into German cities, and most of them were very poor. As a way to improve their lives and put more food on the table, they used these little plots of land outside the city to garden, work outside in the fresh air and have a place for their children to play. These days, Schreber gardens are more of a hobby than a necessity, and though I’m sure there are some young people who continue to enjoy them, all I’ve seen are super old people with their hands in the dirt and their asses to the sky.

And so, Dear Germany, I must apologize; I am sorry for assuming so many of your citizens were living in abject squalor. I just didn’t know! I mean, I own a house in the States and I hate yard work — I couldn’t imagine paying someone for the chance to weed my own vegetable garden. That’s just crazy talk. But you go ahead and do your thing, Germany.

Do it real good.

— OGM

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50 thoughts

  1. Haha. This was hilarious. The gardens sound like a good idea, like the kind of thing that would be nice for a quiet weekend getaway. But yeah, I’m with you — paying someone for the privilege of doing yard work doesn’t seem all that appealing.

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  2. They must have those gardens all over German. I remember seeing them on the train from Berlin to Munich and Munich to Stuttgart about 2007. Better than seeing derelict backs of warehouses.

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  3. Lol, when I was young we had a Schrebergarten half an hour out of Berlin. Our house (lovingly built by my dad over many weekends) had two rooms, a proper bathroom and fully equipped kitchen. We were very proud of our little Hexenhäuschen and spent many weekends/holidays there. Happy days!

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  4. Great post. Thanks.
    These are known as Allotments where i come from and they are popular with young families as well as old folk. The urban gardening thing doesn’t seem to have taken off here.

    B

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  5. The Brits call it allotment. In big and bigger USA where people do not live in old, tiny city centres but in big suburbs and buy their veggies from supermarkets, those things seem to be unknown.

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  6. Those gardens are one of my fondest childhood memories of Germany. Our German landlords in Stuttgart (in the early ’60’s) had such a garden. I have my own little Hexenhaus now and dearly love it for reminding me of those tiny gardens and wee buildings.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh the memories! I grew up in Hamburg and my grandparents had a schrebergarten. The years after the war they even had chickens and rabbits there and we went just about every day to get eggs, vegetables and fruit. Obviously not in the winter. My Opa rode his bike there, my oma and I had to walk, about 20 minutes. Did you ever pull a carrot out of the ground, wiped it on your clothes and ate it? Or picked the peapods from the plant and ate the tiny little peas right out of it? Or a fresh kohlrabi? Erdbeeren, stachelbeeren, johannisbeeren, himbeeren, aepfel birnen, kirschen, pflaumen, A paradise. On really nice days we spent the night in the small clean Laube, a mini vacation.Oh and not to forget the flowers!!! Always took some home for the vase by my dads picture. He never came back from the war.

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  8. This is so hilarious because I had the same exact thought when I saw these from the train in Bavaria – I thought it was the Germany equivalent of a trailer park in the US: “Damn, that’s where the Eurotrash must live…” (Sorry, I’m being culturally insensitive.) But interesting that we had the same reaction from the good ol’ US of A perspective….

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  9. I really enjoyed your post… and never really thought about the Schreber garden phenomena from a foreigner’s point of view till I took my husband to Germany for the first time. Your vivid descriptions brought on a hearty laugh and great memories!

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  10. I used to spend a lot of time at friends gardens growing up just tanning, drinking and smoking hooka – it was a great time. I love the historical background in this piece, I never knew! Thanks for sharing :)

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  11. Several comments on here about English allotments but these are not as upmarket as the German equivalents.
    In Germany they all have nice mini-houses, usually with electricity and a veranda, barbeque etc whereas the English ones are usually just patches of land rented from the local authority. They are typically 10 rods (also called poles or perches) in size – look that one up :) They may have a toolshed which you couldn’t swing a cat in, and no power, water etc (we use a communal standpipe for water) so if you want to see squalor come to England :)

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  12. My boyfriend cried at the artistry of your words. He adored the visual smattering of small houses and gardens!

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  13. So funny!
    The Germans are really proud of what I call their garden houses. Being a British person, I had the same impression when I picked up some friends from the airport coming into Berlin. Being British, everyone had their eyes down and didn’t know where to look LOL!

    I remember when I came to visit my first German boyfriend. I was so upset when he told me that he lived in an apartment. I thought he was horribly poor…..!

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  14. I love this post! The parents of my first boyfriend back in Berlin had a Schreber garden in Tegel (they lived in Kreuzberg), and it was right in the flight path of the airport…NOT a pleasant way to wake up! Other than that, it was truly lovely. My Oma didn’t need a Schreber garden, though. She made a deal with her sister-in-law who had a house with quite a large lot (a rarity in Berlin at the time), and as long as Oma and her willing helper (ME!) did all the work, we got to keep the produce. OMNOMNOM. Very great memories.

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  15. Loved the post! Here in Berlin I know them as Kleingarten. I found it strange to have your “little piece of heaven countryside in the city” most often next to the S-Bahn tracks. A little peace and quiet…or not. In the US, I felt that having a little summer home was if you had a bit of money to afford one. My wife’s aunt and uncle have one near my in-laws, but I have yet to get there. Now I get to try to explain Kleingarten and everything else here to my parents when they come to visit next month.

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  16. This cracked me up! I’m living in Stuttgart right now (military family) and they call them ‘kliene gartens’ here. When I first saw them, I thought that it was a little shanty town HAHA!

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  17. I thought the same thing, they were the same as some of the run-down areas in South Carolina where I grew up and people lived in shacks with dirt floors. I remember thinking it was sad to see how people had to live in those tiny houses and all crammed together yet I felt so impressed by how neat and clean they were. ha ha. Now I know better and I want one for myself.

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  18. Unbelievably stupid. I’ve never seen theses Schrebergaerten before, even though I lived there for over 12 years, but one look at the photo, and it is so obvious…. obvious that the author of this article hadn’t been circulating on the planet for very long, much less done much reading or observing other cultures. Very shallow perspective, and so “overwritten”, I thought at first it was some sort of humor!

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  19. I also thought the gardens were slums when I first saw them through the window of a Frankfurt S-Bahn. I was shocked that Germany had such poverty. My German husband laughed so much when I called them slums, since the owners of the gardens are so very proud of them. I’m glad I wasn’t the only person with this misconception.

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