It’s been one month since Germany closed its borders to neighboring countries, one month since we’ve been able to visit the Kleingarten located only 200m (660ft) in Switzerland. It’s a little sad not being able to observe the garden transition into spring. Around this time of year the fruit trees are blooming and it’s the perfect time to celebrate spring by cooking food over a fire. We were lucky enough to enjoy a small picnic, with proper social distancing of course, under the flowering plum tree the day before the closing.
When we left, the onions and raspberry brushes were awakening from their wintery slumber and we noticed the tiniest of seedlings popping out of the prepared meadow areas from the fall. They were so small that it was undetermined whether they were in fact the meadow seedlings or weeds, though I have the sneaking suspicion that the birds might have helped themselves to the seeds over winter. If we had access to the garden to see if they are weeds, we could have cheated and sowed another round of the mixes and protected them from the birds with a thin layer of fleece until germination.
The garden probably looks a bit rough at the moment with overgrown grass, but we enjoy its wild look and in the past have even put off mowing a few extra days to enjoy the casual nature of the space. Before the border closing, Dan, a member of the Schrebergartencrew, sowed peas, carrots, cilantro, spring onions, spinach, and potatoes, of which the carrots and peas had already begun sprouting.
I’m confident the vegetable seedlings will do well in our absence, so long as the slugs show some mercy; I am slightly concerned about the meadows sown last fall, as they are supposed to be mowed by mid-May for the success of the project. It would be a shame to see the hard work from the garden crew go to waste, but there is a more concerning issue that needs to be carried out by June: the winter rye cover crop.
For the three sisters project—corn, beans and squash—we sowed a cover crop of winter rye Secale cereale and hairy vetch Vicia villosa in September 2019. Cover crops suppress weeds, protect the soil from the winter elements, and improve soil structure when chopped and dropped or rolled and crimped the following late spring. As a grass, winter rye usually grows back when you cut it, but it won’t if cut at a certain time, and this trait makes it an easy annual cover crop. And the time of the cut varies from year to year based on the weather.
How it works: the rye grows in the vegetative state from late summer to early spring. Then when daylength reaches 14 hours it’s triggered into the reproductive state of forming flower heads. Part way through seed maturity, during the milk stage, is the time to cut the rye. The ‘milk’ is the nutritious sap sent up from the roots and body of the plant; it’s the perfect time to cut because the movement of sap makes the plant think it has fulfilled its purpose producing the next generation. Cut the rye too early, the roots still have the nutrients and energy to grow vigorously in order to produce another seed head. Cut the rye too late, you lose the benefit of storing the nutrients from the decaying roots in the ground because all the nutrients will be in the seeds above ground and the seed might spread.
Depending on how warm or cool the spring is depends on whether the chop and drop occurs in May or June, at least in our area; it is not done on a specific date in the year. Last year we chopped it in early to mid-June; this spring we’ve experienced some lovely almost early summer-like weather so the rye might need cutting in late May.
The maturing winter rye seed heads are also a wonderful indicator of warm temperatures and tell you, as a gardener, that it’s time to plant out the warm season crops such as the three sisters, tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers etc. I’m nervous about spreading the rye to the three neighboring plots. Once the milk stage begins, there is a 2-3 week window to cut the plant and if the German-Swiss border stays closed by mid or late June, I feel we will have a headache later in the year with the neighbors.
Though we haven’t been able to visit the Kleingarten, the Balkongarten has taken off! The flowering waves of Blumenzwiebel are a joy to observe now more than ever during these uncertain stressful times. The miniature irises and crocuses were a beautiful first act followed by the lightly scented grape hyacinths and anemones with the now grand finale of tulips. Behind the scenes of the spring bulb performance the herbs, leafy greens, and flower seedlings are germinating for their mid spring and summer debut.
This is my fourth year container gardening and second year seed growing, and so far there’s a noticeable improvement in my abilities, everything seems to be faring much better than previous years. The major change I’ve made is consistent fertilizing with liquid seaweed and adding a top dressing of worm compost to the pots. But I believe the biggest contributing factor to the improvement is the focus. My attention is not divided between the Balkongarten and Kleingarten at the moment, giving me more time to make mistakes, act quickly, observe, and learn from them. It’s also allowing me to accomplish tasks, such as potting on, at the correct time.
This year’s balcony plan was supposed to focus on herbs, leafy greens, and a few flowers but due to the circumstances I’m growing a tomatillo, a few tomatoes, carrots, and parsnips as well. In fact, because of the extra time at home, I thought of a way to squeeze more plants on the balcony by creating a string wall for the spring peas and summer beans to grow up. Will it be a problem to lose my focus growing a few vegetables on the balcony this year? Probably, but that’s the beauty of learning.
And with the extra plants comes the shrinking of space. I’m facing the small-space dilemma many gardeners are experiencing: not having enough room for all the seeds that were sown. This is not the worst problem to have, for the seedlings bring us joy and they are a way to spread joy to the community, which is needed at the moment. If you feel comfortable and have extra seedlings, set them on the street with a sign stating “free seedlings” or in my case “Setzlinge zu verschenken.” Be sure to wash the outside of your pots with a mild soapy mixture to prevent the spread of the virus, being careful not to get soap on the soil. Your seedlings will brighten someone’s day on their walk outside the home.
It’s important during this time not to lose hope. We will get through this crisis and become stronger as a result. I hope you are staying safe and if you’re feeling stressed, remember that a garden, whether it’s a large plot of land or two pots on a windowsill, is there to help soothe an anxious mind.
Living in Germany has its difficulties, particularly as a non-native speaker. In an ideal world I would be able to find everything I need to apply what I preach, but that can be challenging. The most obvious hurdle is language. I don’t know all the German terminology associated with gardening; it’s learn-as-you-go. This can be annoying since I don’t even possess the common knowledge of where to find certain products like I do in the States, not to mention not knowing the names of the products.
For example, where can one find speciality spring bulbs? In the US, I can instantly name a few familiar nurseries (Brent & Becky’s, Burpee, Spring Hill, Gurney’s, etc) and then rank them in speciality, quality, and expense to decide which nursery to order from.
Now, tell me, where I can buy spring bulbs in Germany?
Let’s walk through the process.
The literal translation for spring bulb is Fruehlingszwiebel but Zwiebel also means onion. Search ‘Fruehlingszwiebel’ brings up sites selling green onion bulbs.
Let’s use a specific spring bulb in order to refine the search: Tulip. What’s the German name? Head to a translation site, find “Tulpe”, search, and the first result is a company named Albrecht Hoch.de. It looks like a nice spring bulb site, with no mention of the word “spring bulb”.
Next result, Samen Mauser.ch, a Swiss site. I can’t easily order from there since it’s out of the country and uses a different currency, but it lists Blumenzwiebel. Of course! Flowering bulb! Why didn’t I think of that? Type in ‘Blumenzwiebel’, search, and finally multiple results.
Now, it’s time to sort through and rank which nurseries are best to order from. Start the next research process.
Most of the time it’s fun to research and learn the German name of a plant. A favorite of mine is Stiefmuetterchen which translates ‘little step mother’ for pansies Viola tricolor hortensis and Fingerhut, ‘finger hat’ foxglove Digitalis purpurea.
But it’s also a pain when I want to quickly look something up, or if I’m in a store trying to decipher a label. Not only do I need to learn the new word, I have to retain it, something that does not come easily to me.
A huge hurdle when learning German is memorizing words. I’m terrible! And yet, I love learning the language. I’m not entirely sure why: it’s not the prettiest to listen to, although I’d argue that it’s not as ugly as most make it out to be. Many examples Americans hear are in anger, which emphasizes the harshness of the language, but in everyday speech it’s pleasant. The grammar is difficult, to put it mildly. It’s frustrating when you don’t understand a rule but so satisfying once you finally do and can move on to the next frustrating one. It’s definitely a love-hate relationship.
The owner of the garden constantly has to repeat the German names of the plants in the garden. I’ve started to think that I should start labeling them with hanging tags in order to memorize everything. Can you imagine seeing large brightly colored tags with bold names hanging off of everything in a garden?
However, I am also attempting to memorize latin names too since it’s the international identification language. This might not be a bad idea. I think that this weekend I might just become that crazy American who labels everything.
Bicycling is one of my favorite things about living in Germany. There are clearly-marked lanes specifically for bicyclists and should you accidently wander into one, you will be reminded by angry shouts and ringing bells, or simply run over.
Motorists, the majority of the time, are fairly respectful of bikes, at least in the city I live in. But there is one major downside when you don’t have a car and that is space.
Think about it, when you go to the nursery you’re able to fill up your car with trays of plants, a few bags of soil or mulch, maybe the tools you’ll need and still have some room leftover in your car or pickup.
Me? I have this.
You can barely fit 5 plants in that basket! The one advantage is it prevents impulse purchases. I always have to go in knowing what materials or plants I need and then figure out how to squeeze them on my bike without damaging them. Although this isn’t always the case. In the above photo I went to the store to buy large bag of potting soil and ended up leaving with 70% off houseplants—and no potting soil.
And since I own a men’s bike, which requires swinging a leg around the back, forget about tall plants too. I learned this the hard way with a climbing rose and clematis I purchased in 2017.
Picture a woman in the parking lot hesitantly raising her foot 20 times deciding whether she’ll make it over the bike without falling over. I wandered around the parking lot eventually finding a curb to make the swing distance shorter. Only issue was forgetting when I arrived home and proceeded to fall into a bush next to the building. This is the one time where learning the splits would have been useful.
Point is, space is an issue. And in relation, so is weight. I’m not able to buy giant bags of soil. If it can’t fit in my backpack or basket it can’t be transported. Luckily my store has some compressed soil, which barely fits in my pack, but is lighter than everything else. It just requires more water to rejuvenate it during planting. Now that I think about it, it might be compressible if it’s full of peat which is great for plants but not for the environment. I’ll have to read the bag again to see if it is full of peat. I might lose my convenient soil bag.
Thanks to the owner of the garden I do have access to a kid trailer it’s just a matter of coordinating when to pick it up. The city also has special cargo bikes people can rent too.
There is also the matter of inclines. In order to cross the Rhein bicyclists must go up spiral bike ramps to reach the bridges.
Or in the case of some unfortunate plant-loving friends, they must climb a large hill to reach home. It’s definitely a planned effort for them when they starting planting their large balcony garden.
Thankfully I only have to worry about the ramps to reach the garden center. I will admit when carting heavy items around town I do not find biking fun anymore. Just another love/hate relationship while living in Germany.