Next in our series of interviews with organizers in Berlin: we talk to Marco Clausen, co-founder of Nomadisch Grün and the Prinzessinnengarten.
You may recall that we’ve mentioned the Prinzessinnengarten at Moritzplatz before. We wanted to learn more about the garden and its development, so we took a walk over to its charming garden café, amid the trees and flourishing mobile planters, to speak with co-founder Marco Clausen.
Marco arrived, camping backpack in tow and paddy cap on his head, and gave us each a firm handshake. He grabbed a plateful of fresh garden cooking and chatted with one of the mothers of the many toddlers wandering about the place. Just when we sat down to start talking, thunder rumbled and rain started coming down in buckets. We took shelter in a little storage area under a plastic roof. Here is the conversation that followed.
Who are you and what do you do here?
My name is Marco Clausen and I’m part of the Prinzessinnengarten. I’m one of the founders. In 2009 we [Marco Clausen and Robert Shaw] started to transform a piece of wasteland in Kreuzberg, close to Moritzplatz, into an urban farm. In the meantime, we’ve established this new form of urban green together with a lot of voluntary helpers. We now have 400 different plants that we grow here; we have a restaurant and a café. I think we have 7 or 8 beehives. The garden is growing every year, and new people are coming into it.
What is Nomadisch Grün?
First we decided to have a garden in the center of the city and then we had to create some kind of form in which we could work. We’re working like a company. Robert and I are the CEOs in a way, but every profit that we make - and we can make a profit - goes back into the project. The project has specific aims, which are mainly education and working with the neighborhood: transferring knowledge about ecological farming, conservation of food, biodiversity and so on. This company is called Nomadisch Grün.
What’s the history of this plot of land?
It was a wasteland for almost 65 years. There was a big department store here until the Second World War, when it was bombed. From then on it was not really used for several reasons. One reason is that Kreuzberg was and is a very poor borough here in Berlin. Another reason is the Berlin Wall was 200 meters from here. Now this piece of land belongs to the city, and the city wants to sell it. In the meantime, we can use it. We have to pay rent for it. Because we don’t know how long we can stay here, we created this mobile garden.
What happens here in the wintertime?
Like all the farms in this region, there’s no gardening going on in the winter, because it’s really harsh. We can have -20 degrees. We go on working of course but because most of the work we do is not just gardening itself, but organizing things, looking for money, doing networking, making concepts for the kind of informal education that we do here. We support gardens in different German cities, for example, and we’re starting a garden together with people from Hamburg. We do consulting, so now municipalities come to us asking what they can do with their unused plots. They come to us asking how to activate this kind of space. It’s many different things that are not really gardening. There’s a lot of things to do in the winter.
What other projects have come up? What have your suggestions been?
It always depends on who you’re working with, the surroundings, the neighborhood, and so on. You really have to go there and try to figure out what kind of potential is already there to use in this kind of project, as we do here. We see there are neighbors with competences in the field of gardening, especially when they’ve migrated from rural areas. And also about preparing food, conservation of food, and so on. There’s a lot of institutions working here with teenagers for example, and you have to find a way to cooperate with them. So you have to see the local conditions, and also the gardening conditions - light, soil, water - and legal and economic questions. It’s complex but we’ve had specific experiences here that we can pass on to people who want to start something similar.
What about the community that’s involved here? About how many people are regular gardeners?
We have a group of around 20 people who are really here on a regular basis. They have fields of responsibility, so one takes care of the tomatoes, another the potatoes and so on. On top of that we have open gardening days twice a week where people can just come by, every Thursday starting at 3 and Saturdays at 11, and then it’s hundreds of people that just come by and garden with us and learn things. Apart from that we also do workshops. Our beekeeper, for example, does workshops about beekeeping in the city.
Do you have any stories about people that you might not have expected to be involved?
There’s a lot of people who come from all over the world, who are here for just a few weeks or a few months, and help us. But there’s also people who’ve lived here for 40 years who help us. The group that is more stable is also very mixed. We were so surprised from the beginning that there were so many people helping us. When we started in the summer of 2009, what we found here was a place completely full of trash. We had a newspaper ad saying these two guys want to start an urban farm and they need help. And the first day we opened the gate there were 150 people doing nothing but collecting the trash. From then on we knew that there are so many people who want to make this happen.
Do you find that people who come to the open gardening hours keep coming back?
That’s different. And that’s a part of the concept. Normally if you have a garden you have to take care of it for a whole season. A little bit like a baby. A lot of people don’t want to have that responsibility. And they like the idea that they can have this experience once in a while, maybe just once a year. Other people come really often, some come once a day. We take care of the basic needs of the garden and other people can just come in and contribute or learn.
As people new to urban gardening, we were hoping you could give us some useful tips on how to get started in this scene…?
Really? I don’t know…I have no clue about gardening myself! I think there’s so many different motivations to start with things. The important thing is that you start. You don’t have to be a professional: you can learn a lot on the way. You can learn a lot from the people next to you. I think cooperation is very important. And for gardening, you have to deal with time in a different way, so patience is also a very important thing. It takes time for the plant to grow. And you have to be open to mistakes. You don’t have to avoid them all the time, but you have to really look at the thing and see what goes wrong and what you can change. This is what we do all the time. We make a lot of mistakes and try to learn from them. And this is not just important for gardening.
What would you consider to be your area of expertise?
We call ourselves amateurs. If you’re an amateur, a non-professional, what kind of strength and creativity lies in this? Maybe this is an expertise in itself, that you know you can do things on your own without being a professional and knowing everything about this field. We learned that organizing voluntary help is tricky - we had to learn a lot about this. We have a balance between working as a business company and doing things that you never get money for. And this kind of balance is also something that we can share with people. That it’s possible to make money but also do things that have a different value.
What’s your favorite thing that has come out of this garden?
The food. That’s something we learned. Food is something that brings everyone together; everyone is interested in food. It’s also connected to pleasure. We talk a lot about global problems that you learn a lot about when you start gardening, like biodiversity, climate change, food supply and so on. But on the other hand you have an alternative that’s fun and a very intense and good experience. When you grow your own vegetables, you harvest them yourself, and you work with them directly in the kitchen, then you have amazing results.