The Indefinable Charm of Kitchen Gardens
Less than an hour’s drive from Hamburg, the red-brick apartment houses give way to American style suburbia: sloping roofed houses with a patch of green in front, and sometimes even a picket fence. A supermarket every few houses completed the image. Pinneberg is the classic American dream landscape. But a couple of sharp turns, and we were in another century, in the England of the Pride and Prejudice films. At least, that’s how it looked to my big city-bred eyes. Green, green land till as far as the eye could see on either side of the narrow motorway, a fresh, cool silence, a humming breeze and a couple of people riding by on tall, stately horses.
Here, in the community of Schaferhof, is a startlingly successful kitchen garden project called Erntezeit run by Jule and Henry Vickery. Translated from German to English, it means harvest time. Started in April 2010 by the energetic couple, the project already has 130 members and a waiting list of about 100. Each member has a 50 sq metre plot, where he/she/they can grow vegetables. In this part of Europe, namely northern Germany, the growing season is from the beginning of May to the end of October. The cost of renting a plot is a very reasonable 160 Euro for six months. (That would be about 10,400 Indian rupees.) The members are of all kinds: middle class folk from nearby, millionaires, artists, photographers, schools, gay couples, couples with specially-abled children who come for the peace and quiet.
The organic way
The gardening, or farming if you will, is entirely organic. The couple insist that members buy ‘old’ seeds from a company called Dreschflegel, which sells good quality, preserved (obtained from plants) seeds as against the genetically modified, high-yielding varieties that are often used in commercial farming. The seeds are planted with the help of simple hand-pushed machines, the technology that was used a hundred-odd years ago. No chemical fertilisers are allowed, and in the first two years, not even natural fertilisers were used. There is no irrigation, in fact, Jule and Henry ask members not to water their crops either. The couple feel natural rainfall is enough to sustain the plants, and moreover, that this will make the plants strike deep roots in search of water. This, naturally, will make them hardy in the long run. The soil here is of a sandy, loose variety, not fabulously fertile. Yet, each plot yielded, in Jule’s estimate, an average of 320 Euros’ worth of produce. The garden plots are not very demanding in terms of time. A couple of hours of weeding a month is about all the tender loving care it needs.
Carrots and curly kale
The vegetables grown are universal household staples like carrots, potatoes (a German obsession), radishes, pumpkins, and European specialities like mangold, curly kale, parsnips, lettuce and herbs like fennel and dill. I had the privilege of tasting some freshly dug-up carrots and lettuce at the garden. I have never enjoyed carrots; growing up, I detested them. And truth be told, apart from the fine dirt dressing that I was unable to shake off, these carrots tasted no different from the supermarket variety I have been eating in my stay in Hamburg so far. I have said this before as well, in another post here (http://goodfoodgood.com/blog/713/this-thing-called-organic-2), that organic food has left no special taste in my mouth in comparison with the regular stuff. It was no different here, yet there was something perhaps about digging up the carrots with a pitchfork, or the wind in my hair, or the geese in the distance that made me warm to the carrot. I wanted to come back, I wanted to do this again.
I am no convert to the organic school though. Jule tells me that the yield might have been twice the amount if commercial varieties of seeds had been used with the standard fertilisers, so this is more expensive. Still, I want to give this a try. There’s something special about the carrots you bring to life yourself. When I go back home to India, I will find out about the nearest kitchen gardening project. And if there isn’t any, I think I’ll look around to see if one can be started.
TAGS: Dreschflegel, Erntezeit, fertilisers, Jule and Henry Vickery, kitchen garden, old seeds, organic, Pinneberg, Sohini Chattopadhyay