Notes from the Field: Helsinki’s Secret Gardens

Sophia Hagolani-Albov (text)
Megan Resler (illustration)

Resler_Illustration_JPG
Researcher steps off the tram to find the “secret garden.”

The tram rattled and shook as it inched its way through the city. The air in the car was warm and stale even though outside it was sunny, but crisp. I felt like I had been on the tram for a year. This was a completely new corner of the city and further from the center than I had ever ventured. The tram shuddered to a stop and I tumbled out. I scanned the street and saw only apartment blocks and concrete. Each block was approximately eight stories high and either gray or white with identical windows. While there was greenspace between the blocks, I could only see short grass with gravel footpaths. Of all the corners of the city I had been, this looked like one of the least likely places for a vegetable garden. Yet, I followed the directions that had been provided to me and ended up in a small park between apartment blocks. There were two older women waiting for me in the middle, but I still did not see a garden.

I greeted the women in a bumbled half-Finnish, “Moi, mitä kuuluu?”

One of them spoke with a sly smile on her face, “Do you see the garden?”

I laughed nervously, was this a test? I looked around again—only short grass and a few trees. I slowly shook my head.

The woman smiled again and said, “Look again, closer.”

Neither of them offered any insight, so I continued scanning. Eventually, my eyes stopped on a long and even aronia berry hedge. Could this be it? I tentatively headed over—a little worried about looking stupid if this was just a hedge. It seemed to be so close to the building, surely it was just a hedge. As I got closer, I saw there were some bees lazily circling above the hedge and the air took on a sweet and earthy scent—at this moment, I knew—this had to be it! My stride got more confident and I peeked over the chest-height hedge and was greeted with one of the lushest gardens I had ever seen. It ran the entire length of the hedge and disappeared around the corner. I audibly gasped and the women laughed. They said this was often the reaction when someone discovered it, a garden that hosted over fifty gardeners in roughly ten-square-meter individual plots. Apparently, even some of the neighbors across the park were not aware of it. We entered the garden through a hidden little break in the hedge and slowly strolled the length of the garden.

Each plot was long and narrow and managed to catch abundant sunshine even though the rows were nestled between the hedge and the buildings. While these plots might have appeared to be private garden areas or managed by the apartment, they were not. This Viljelyspalstat (known as an “allotment garden” in English) and another category of gardens, the Siirtolapuutarhat (which roughly translates to “cottage allotments” in English), are incorporated into the city municipal plans. These are not gardens developed in interstitial spaces but are incorporated into the landscape in conjunction with the neighborhood as it is being built. The ability to grow one’s own food is appreciated in Finnish culture, a nod to the strong agricultural history of the country.

Each individual garden was a mélange of plants—most had a variety of salad greens, herbs, berry bushes, and huge rhubarb plants. My garden guides said these are some of the most commonly grown plants but that gardeners also took care to plant things that were a bit more personally special. Several of the plots were managed by individuals and families who were newer immigrants to Finland and had brought with them varieties and plants that the garden had not previously seen. In addition to vegetables and berries, there were also flowers in abundance. No trees were allowed within the individual plot areas, which is how the garden was able to maintain such a low profile. This garden was just one of many secret gardens I discovered in Helsinki that summer. However, it remains the largest, lushest, and most hidden in plain sight.

Biographies

Sophia Hagolani-Albov and Megan Resler are students at the University of Helsinki in the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry in the agroecology group. Sophia is a doctoral researcher in the Doctoral Program in Interdisciplinary Environmental Sciences and Megan is finishing a master’s in Agroecology. Their respective research examines food systems change. Sophia and Megan interact with urban agriculture as researchers, consumers, and participants. In particular, they delve into the points of interaction between people and the agricultural landscapes developed within broader urban landscapes. This story illustrates the thin line between the concrete jungle and the secret garden. Sophia and Megan’s experiences in municipal and experimental spaces of Helsinki’s urban gardens serve as the inspiration for this collaboration.