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  • Writer's pictureAnna

What I did at Urban Gardening Summer Camp

My personal top 3 highlights:

  • Helped build a seating area out of mud, clay and straw!

  • Made a wallet out of a Tetrapak carton!

  • Facilitated a workshop on connecting with the living world!

A wheelbarrow and sunflower in a muddy garden

A few months ago, when I saw the notice about an urban gardening summer camp in the Prinzessinnengärten newsletter I got so excited I felt like a kid in class again, virtually waving my hand and squirming in my chair: "Ooh, ooh, I want to come, I want to come!" Just to get back to the garden and connect with other community gardeners; I almost didn't care what the actual activities might be.

When the programme came out in mid-August, just before the weekend of the summer camp, I thought, ok, so this is really a conference by another name: the focus of the two days was on peer-led workshops and talks on common challenges and goals in community gardening. However, my own experience of it turned out to be 100% summer camp after all! First because I went for the hands-on activities on the schedule (more on that in a minute), and also because it was a fully outdoor experience, including the opening dinner and concert that proceeded in the midst of a downpour. (Imagine 50-60 adults plus a few dogs and babies queuing up for pizza at the garden's outdoor cafe, trees dripping, the ground so much coffee silt, those who had arrived earlier in the afternoon wearing garbage bag-raincoats and hats, plonking themselves down at sodden picnic tables, which however were still decorated with vases of wildflowers and flickering tea lights.)

Highlight #1: A sisterhood of mud

As with most adult activities, I noticed that most of the time in this summer camp was taken up by talking (both in formal presentations and a gazillion informal conversations). I found myself looking for physical activities as a counterpoint. On the first day, there was a workshop listed on building structures with clay and straw. I felt slightly daunted by the idea (building actual buildings??) but I felt drawn to the project and the people involved, a women’s herb garden in Berlin with a sister project in Syria. It turned out to feel more meaningful and fun than anything I have done in a long time.


The impetus for the workshop was theft, an issue that unfortunately bedevils many community gardens. These ladies in Berlin kept having their stools stolen, even when they locked them up! They decided that if they wanted seating, it would have to be a structural feature. In the village in Syria, the women make entire houses out of clay and straw. All we needed, they told us, was to make a couple of benches. We could manage that in an hour and a half, right? The ten or so of us gathered (all women too) didn't even debate it: we just divided ourselves into two groups and got to work.


We started by laying down stones (mostly broken-up old gravestones from the cemetery where the Prinzessinnengärten is located. Discarded gravestones are almost impossible to recycle otherwise, we had learned earlier that day from a presentation on the transition of German cemeteries into green spaces). Once the stones had been laid into semi-circles, we covered the stones with spadefuls of earth, which we watered until it became mud. Finally, on top of the mud came a layer of clay and straw, which had been mixed by one woman in her bare feet treading the mixture into a kind of dough in a big hole in the center of the space. Then the rest of us took fistfuls of the mixture and thwacked and patty-caked it over the mud. (Oh, the sound of so much wet clapping!)


A woman smooths mud over a bench while two other women look on.

It all came together surprisingly quickly, even though none of us had ever done such a thing before (and we laughed a lot while doing it), but we didn’t quite finish in the time allotted. No matter, the organisers told us, they needed to add a couple more layers anyway, so they would carry on by themselves the following week.

Highlight #2: Transforming trash


Later that afternoon, my hands scoured from the mud and clay, I went to a Tetrapak upcycling workshop given by a friend from Prinzessinnengärten I was happy to reconnect with. This was much finer work, requiring a lot of measuring, cutting and folding on a small piece of material. My fingers got gluey and sore and my eyes were tired but I managed to complete one wallet in a Nepalese paper style, and started one more in a kind of Turkish textile design. (Who knew you could make such cool things from empty oat milk cartons?)


After dinner that evening, I thought I would come home and fall into bed because I was physically tired but my mind was buzzing with so many impressions and ideas that I found it hard to go to sleep. And then I was up early the next morning because I had my own workshop to lead on Sunday.

Highlight #3: Thinking with nature


As you probably know if you have been reading my blog and newsletters thus far, a big part of my mission is to reconnect human beings with the living world. So this workshop was about remembering the other beings who are part of the garden (from butterflies to soil bacteria) and re-imagining our relationship with them.

Running at the same time as other workshops on practical subjects like compost toilets, reclaiming wasteland and raised bed gardening , I wasn't sure how many people would come to my session, but in the end, I had about eight participants. 


We started by brainstorming actions they thought were important in reconnecting with other beings in the garden. The top three they settled on were: "making space", "interconnection" and "give and take". Then we turned the actions into pictures.

The first two actions, i.e. "making space" and "interconnection", ended up becoming one big picture, with everything from starry nebulas to rusty city gates. These images were grounded with actual grass and soil and even a few flowers from the raised bed garden. By contrast, “give and take” showed a sort of bifurcation between farm animals and aliens (which I am still not quite sure how to interpret, but I think must say something about our unconscious notions around consumption and/or the future of life on Earth?).

What I came away with was feeling really touched by how sincere everyone was and how their ideas spanned such a wide spectrum. And as I write that, I realise I am thinking in German, which does not happen as much as it should... However, on that weekend, I found I was able to do all of the things I have described so far in a foreign language that I was not at all confident in (especially speaking to groups) only a year ago. Amazing!

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