Urban jungle: With their trees, flowers and greenery, allotments could be the perfect city break

Entering through the gates of a garden community in Mokotów, the Defenders of Peace Family Allotment Garden, which is open to the public, instantly removes people from the bustle of the metropolis. Walk through the alleys shaded by trees and perfectly trimmed hedges, on each side there are little plots of land with small structures, a gazebo or a shed, each of them with their own design reflecting the owners taste. It is almost a botanical garden, with a never ending variety of greenery. 

Rows after rows of colourful flowers, fruit trees and bushes are interlaced with swings, hammocks and playgrounds in an idyllic setting.

Mrs. Grażyna, 82, has had her garden for over 30 years. “When the weather is nice I try to come here every day. I get some exercise and I’m needed by the garden. An old person who is not needed by anyone, is worthless. This is very bad for the mental state,” she says.

“I have very nice neighbours and a social life here,” she continues. “In the spring it is very beautiful, because the whole garden is filled with tulips. I should start planting them now, but I need to wait for the first cold days”, Mrs. Grażyna reflects, looking at her lovely garden, full of grapes, apples and quince.

The first allotment gardens were established in Grudziądz, in the north of Poland in 1897. They role was to provide active rest and relaxation for all types of workers, as well as act as the “green lungs” of the cities. 

After the Second World War, the communist authorities included them in the urban plans as a space for workers and inhabitants of the apartment blocks. In 2018, there are 170 gardens with over 30,000 individual allotments in Warsaw, covering an estimated 1,200 hectares.

The tradition of planting vegetables in the little gardens seems to be less and less popular, though the more eco-minded still do it. For most it is not worth the work, as the products are easily available and cheap. Yet the gardens remain an important place for the community. For some of the elder gardening enthusiast, such as Mrs. Grażyna, the allotment is the only reason to leave home.

Tomasz, 23, a gardening student, has been tending to other people’s gardens for 11 years. His father also owns an allotment.

“When it comes to fruits and vegetables, people are no longer planting them in such places. The gardens are more recreational, a nice place to have a barbecue, rest and relax.

“There are still many elderly people here, but more young people are buying allotments. More often than not they hire someone to rebuild it from scratch or do it themselves”, he added.

The owner of an allotment has both rights and responsibilities, listed by the community regulations. The garden has to be tended to and each year a commission checks each of the plots to make sure it is properly taken care of. If an allotment is abandoned, it may be put up for sale. The law is very peculiar here, as the gardeners own the structures and plants, but not the land itself. They only have the right of use, which can be inherited as any property.

Dorota, an office worker, bought the allotment together with her parents from some old friends who could no longer tend to it. Now she is remodelling it.

“It will be a garden that requires as little work as possible,” she says. “We have only plants that don’t need a lot of tending, but are very beautiful. We have meadowsweets, forsythia, barberries and a patch with herbs.

“Right now I have some days off, so I’m finishing painting the little house,” she continues. “I’ve been working on the garden for three months now, fixing it up. I’m still new here, but I know the garden’s management organises all sorts of activities”.

The unusual legal state, with the land owned by the city and what’s on it owned by the gardeners, plus the prime locations of the gardens (the value of the land is estimated in billions) can lead to people wanting to close them down. For investors the gardens occupy space that could bring in a lot of money, but for locals they play an important integrational role, giving people a space to rest, spend time together and get a little dirty.

Some worry that demolishing the gardens will also worsen the already bad air quality, and lead to gentrification. The spaces which are now open to everyone, not just the allotment owners, such as joggers, kindergarten kids and anyone fancying a walk will change into places available to only those who can afford it. But for now city dwellers can take a breather in the allotments, or purchase one themselves to get a breath of the country right in the middle of the city.