German Garden Houses

Kleingarten in Germany
GettyImages / Holger Leue  

Need to get out of the city? Garden houses offer a welcome respite for many of Germany's apartment dwellers without leaving the city lines.

The first time I saw the vast villages stretching along the mauerweg (Berlin Wall path) in Berlin, I wondered if people actually lived in the tiny houses. Are these German slums? No, no. Not by a long shot. Germans don't live on these plots (most of the time), but the garden colonies, called Schrebergärten or Kleingärten, appear across the country and are an integral part of German culture.

Located on the outskirts and along public transport lines, these garden societies are eye-catching and head-scratching for many visitors. Along with the many public parks, kleingärten are a private sphere in which to step off the pavement and back into nature. Learn the history of German Garden Houses and what role they play in the culture today.

History of German Garden Houses

As people moved from the German country to city in the 19th century, they weren't quite ready to leave their green pastures. Conditions in the cities were poor, with cramped dirty spaces, disease, and serious malnutrition. Nutrient-rich foods like fresh fruits and vegetables were in scarce supply.

Kleingärten arose to address that problem. Garden plots allowed families to grow their own food, children to enjoy a larger outdoor space and connect with the world outside their four walls. A phenomenon among the lower-classes, these areas were called "gardens of the poor".

By 1864, Leipzig had several collections under the direction of the Schreber movement. Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber was a German physician and university instructor who preached about topics concerning health, as well as the social consequences of the rapid urbanization during the Industrial Revolution. The name Schrebergärten is in his honor and comes from this initiative.

The importance of the gardens continued to grow throughout the decades and was amplified during  World War I and World War II. Relaxation and nutrition were harder to come by than ever and kleingärten offered a rare bit of peace.

In 1919, the first legislation for allotment gardening in Germany was passed providing security in land tenure and fixed leasing fees. While most sites forbid using the gardens as a full-time living space, the housing shortage after the Second World War meant that many people used any habitation they could - including Kleingärten. These illegal abodes were tolerated by a country trying to rebuild and some were given lifelong residency.

 In 1983 the bundeskleingartengesetz (Federal Small Garden Law) was passed which offered regulations. There are now over 1.5 million allotment gardens in Germany. Berlin has the most with an estimated 67,000 gardens. Hamburg is next with 35,000, then Leipzig with 32,000, Dresden with 23,000, Hanover 20,000, Bremen 16,000, etc. The largest kleingartenverein lies in Ulm and weighs in at 53.1 hectares. The smallest is in Kamenz with just 5 lots.

German Garden Communities

Gardens are more than just a space to plant flowers. They are usually no larger than 400 meters of green space with a rustic cabin, more jubilantly decorated than any German home. Many abide by the 30–30–30 rule, meaning at least 30 percent of the garden is fruit or vegetables, 30 percent can be built upon, and 30 percent is for recreation.

They also act as a community space with an overarching organization tightly controlling membership and offering things like clubhouses, biergartens, playgrounds, restaurants, and more.

Because this is Germany, there is an organization for German garden houses. The Bund Deutscher Gartenfreunde (Association of German Garden eV  or BDG) represent 20 national associations with a total of 15,000 clubs and close to 1 million allotment holders.

How to Get a German Garden House

Applying for a German garden house is fairly easy, but rarely a fast process. Wait lists are the norm and applicants may need to wait years for a desirable plot to open up. Despite the humble beginnings of the schrebergärten, having a garden house is quite popular and now crosses all socio-economic groups. In fact, these community gardens are meant to foster interaction between different people.

Luckily for those on the hunt, the demand is not nearly as severe as it once was. If you aren't picky about which parcel, you may be digging up your new garden in no time.Although you should note that these gardens are not owned, but merely leased.

However, getting membership might still be tricky. There have been recent allegations of discrimination when a colony refused membership to Turkish families. Each colony and its committee is king to its little fiefdom and may choose who they do - and don't - admit.

And once you have a space, it is far from bohemian. Be prepared for rules on what is allowed to plant, how you should tend it, watering, garbage, and chore schedules, and more. Tree size, house style, renovations and children's toys also may be regulated.

To find a gardening association in your area, consult www.kleingartenweb.de and www.kleingartenvereine.de.

How much does a German Garden House Cost?

German garden houses are usually only a few thousand euros for the "purchase" or transfer fee, a small yearly membership fee, and then a small monthly land rental fee. On average, the transfer fee is around 1,900 euros, membership should cost around 30 euro per year and the rental is 50 euro per month.

The level of rent should correlate with the city size and how central it is. Plots where there is pricier real estate are understandable more expensive. Also consider the cost of utilities that are highly dependent on your facilities. Have an indoor bathroom, electricity, kitchen or water feature? Your utilities are going to cost more. Expect to pay between 250 to 300 euro for these services plus insurance and local taxes.

That is a lot of numbers! The bottom line is that a small garden house in Germany costs around 373 euros a year or just about one euro per day. A steal if spending in the garden is your happy place.