We bought a garden

Do you ever feel like nothing is going right in your PhD? Like you have been pipetting and pipetting but not actually reaching any results?

If your PhD life feels like you are swimming against the current in some viscous soup of still stands, it helps to have something on the side where you can see your hard work flourish…literally flourish.

About a year or so into our PhD we got to talking about growing plants. At the time, it seemed like growing and sustaining a plant was the only biology project we were able to get right. Our windowsills were full of cacti and pretty flowers, and we had a pretty decent selection of herbs. When those were too trivial, we levelled up and successfully harvested a few zucchinis and tomatoes. When we managed to do that, we got especially excited. There’s something about growing your own produce that is immensely satisfying.

Eventually, our fruits and vegetables quite literally outgrew us, and we started looking for a bigger challenge. So, we went one step (more like leap) further and bought a garden.

Step 1 – Find a garden

Okay, so we didn’t buy a garden. But we did rent one – from a garden club.

Garden clubs (Kleingartenverein) are a collection of little plots of land that garden-less urbans like ourselves can rent out for leisurely gardening. Although ‘urban gardening’ may sound very hipster, it’s actually a long-standing German hobby. The idea was originally conceived in the 19th century to help people get more fresh air and exercise, and to encourage the poor to sustain themselves. So it sounds like young PhD students were precisely their target audience!

In Easter 2018, we started contacting every garden club in our vicinity and asked if anything was available. Since Kleingartens are extremely popular in Göttingen (who knew so many students were looking for ways to distract themselves), there were only two vacant plots available.

The first club we visited was the stereotype of what you’d hear about these types of tight-knit, upscale Kleingarten communities. The garden beds were all in perfect shape, the grass was trimmed to precisely the same height, and each plot had a row of identical roses at the front. It was way too much for us, especially considering we didn’t know the first thing about gardening at this point.

Luckily, the second club was more ‘up our alley’. The gardens were a bit scruffier and unique, and the colony committee seemed to have less of a shovel up their ass. We were hesitant at first, but when we heard that there were other people interested in the same plot, we dropped our pipettes (we really did, we got the call during working hours) and rushed to the club to sign the contract.

After only two weeks of searching, we relinquished a total of 800€ between the two of us (a yearly fee of ~200€ plus payment for a shed, a water pump, paving and few fruit trees that were already in the garden) – and got a garden!

Step 2 – Why on earth did we get a garden

This is what our plot looked like:

As you can see, it was a bit like a tiny haunted house. It was also somehow bigger than we realized. We weren’t really sure how we would maintain 300 sqm and do a PhD at the same time. So where should we start?…

What’s the first thing you do when you get a new workspace? Put your name all over it.

So, first things first, we took down the torn dirty flag that was hanging over the garden and raised our own Tigerduck flag.

What the f**k is a tigerduck you ask? It comes from a children’s story about a bear and a tiger who go on adventures and have a pet tigerduck. There’s a famous saying in the story that there’s “no need for fear when you have a tigerduck!”

Step 3 – Fixing it up and sowing the first seeds

We had to start by deweeding the plots. We knew that much. What we didn’t know is which ones were weeds and which ones were actual flower roots. This meant that for the first few weeks we mainly texted a lot of pictures of green stuff to our parents and grandparents to get some guidance.

Since we didn’t have any tools or plants, we also got in touch with people in Göttingen that were giving things away. We ended up with a decent haul of tools (half of which we’d never even seen before, let alone knew what they did), some strawberry plants, raspberry plants and currant trees (more like currant sticks but hey, you gotta’ start somewhere).

Over the course of a weekend we managed to deweed all the beds on the left side of the garden. Even though we had both hated deweeding when we were little, we found it oddly satisfying to pull the weeds out with our own hands and finish clearing an entire plot. But truth be told, later on we found it much more satisfying to put things in and see them grow.

We set our priorities straight right from the start. We wanted to grow stuff as soon as possible. We could take care of what the garden looks like once we have more time (yeah right, whoever ends up in a situation where they think well now I have more time all of a sudden?).

So, we started by planting some easy stuff. We had some radish seeds, some spinach, beans and peas, as well as some zucchini and pumpkin seeds. We also bought some tiny tomato plants and a cucumber plant.

Step 4 – Something is actually growing?

After just a week we could already see some plants sprouting, which was great since it usually takes several weeks in the lab to find out if stuff worked. It was incredibly satisfying to plan, do the research, do the physical labor and then see something grow. We were really proud of ourselves. We were also proud that we thought to put up labels at the start since, believe us when we say that all plants look virtually the same when they first sprout.

Having been successful with our more important task (growing something), we moved on to take care of some aesthetics, and fixed up our garden shed to make it look a bit homier.

Oh, and the picture might give it away…we had some (a lot of) help here and there.

Step 5 – Overwhelming success! Switch careers?!

From there onwards the garden flourished. We stopped taking pictures of questionable weeds and started taking pictures of real fruits and vegetables.

Over the fantastic summer last year, we harvested a ton. More than enough to feed ourselves, our friends, our lab mates, and some random strangers. We had zucchinis the size of small children, giant heads of cauliflower, radishes, carrots, enough tomatoes to make homemade ketchup. We had more than enough to self-sustain, and then some.

We also had a great outdoor space to have a picnic, relax with a book or have a nap – basically, a life outside the lab. Maybe that’s why the maintenance was easier than we expected. The garden needed water every day, but we could just come by, turn on the pump and chill with a cold Radler while it ran.

And by the end of the summer we were as tanned as California beach bunnies (what PhD student in Germany can say that about themselves?).

We didn’t just grow a lot and chill a lot, we also learned a lot. For example, we learned that you shouldn’t sow all the seeds of a certain plant at one time, unless you want to eat it for a whole week straight and then not at all for the rest of the year (and that beans should not be eaten for a whole week straight).

We also learned that two zucchini plants are more than enough to feed two entire labs, that pumpkin plants can go rogue and overtake an entire garden if you give them a chance, that bell peppers don’t grow very high in Germany, and that home-grown tomatoes out-flavor any supermarket brand. Oh, and that lots of people would pick up a shovel and dig if you bribe them with BBQ.

And now that spring 2019 is coming, we’re really excited to put everything we’ve learned into practice.

So let us know if we sparked your curiosity, and if you have any questions about getting your own Kleingarten (or if you want to dig in ours)!

Ronja Markworth & Linda Olsthoorn

PhD candidate, Neuroscience, University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) & MPI for biophysical chemistry

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