Thank you, Social Action!

by Janet Mac Nair, EUU member at large

On behalf of my garden group, VHS-Biogarten am Thurner Hof, I’d like to thank the EUU Social Action Committee for donations we have received under the category of “planet”.

A little background

I came across this group – and this urban paradise – two and a half years ago during a guided tour of the Herrenhaus Thurner Hof. A Herrenhaus is a manor house, and this one is a three-story half-timbered construction dating back to the 16th century. Located on 7200 square meters of property that includes horse stables, an inner courtyard and the remains of a moat, it was in the possession of a family called “von Thurn” for several hundred years and has belonged to the City of Cologne since 1911.

Starting in 1988, the Cologne VHS (Volkshochschule) set up an organic garden (“Biogarten”) on the grounds in place of an old parking lot, and this is now the oldest community garden in the city. Everyone who works there does so on a volunteer basis, and their door (or rather, gate) is open to everyone.

When you walk onto the property, you are met with 400 square meters of vegetables, herbs and various perennials in a rectangular area watched over by a quite ancient-looking pear tree in the center, and diagonal rows of boxwood shrubs forming paths leading to an inner circle surrounding the tree. This was based on the medieval garden, and you actually find things considered rather old-fashioned nowadays, like parsnips, Jerusalem artichoke and columbine in addition to more standard plants.

Beyond the flower / vegetable / herb garden there are also several composting areas, a meadow with fruit trees, an apiary, a tool shed and a cozy little cabin or recreation hut for breaks or for escaping from the rain (or, increasingly, the sun). The remains of the moat have been converted into more of an elongated pond filled with water lillies and swarms of tadpoles in the spring.

This oasis serves not only as a paradise on earth for me every Saturday, it’s also the site of VHS courses on everything from beekeeping and composting to seed collecting, setting up raised beds, pruning methods and creating a garden that allows birds, insects and plants to thrive.

The donation

The money was actually donated to the VFF: Verein der Freunde und Förderer des VHS – Biogartens Thurnerhof e.V. The legal background is that the VHS cannot accept donations, but the VFF, a support association, can. There is a large overlap between the VFF and the working group of the Biogarten.

The donation has enabled the Thurner Hof VHS organic garden working group to purchase a large, beautifully designed water barrel, so that much more rainwater can now be collected from the roof of one of the buildings on the property and stored effectively.

This is particularly helpful during and after long dry spells in spring and summer, when our water barrel was otherwise empty. Due to the large capacity barrel that we were able to afford, considerable amounts of water can be collected in a short time during a thunderstorm and stored for the next dry phase.

The budget has also made it possible to buy accessories so that the new barrel can be used in a variety of ways, not just for watering with a watering can. Additional connectors and a hose were used to connect the new barrel to an older and smaller barrel now standing next to it, so that both can be filled with rainwater at the same time via a communicating hose.

A drainage hose was also fitted to the bottom of the new barrel, which in turn can be connected to the existing hose reel. As these old and new rain collection barrels are on slightly higher ground, this allows the collected rainwater to be channeled across the walkway and into the lower beds by gravity alone – i.e. without an electric pump.

Even in winter when there is plenty of rain, we use this set-up to direct the water from the barrels into the beds and fill the soil at greater depths with rainwater. This will ensure that there is moisture farther down in the soil for longer periods during the next dry spells. One problem we have is mice burrowing holes and tunnels in the garden, but we’ve turned that to our advantage, using their work as an underground irrigation system. No feedback from them so far.

What it has done for us

I think it’s fair to say that the donation has truly inspired us. In general, it has encouraged and enabled us financially to optimize our rainwater collection.

We have attached overflow hoses to the existing barrels that are connected to the roofs of the greenhouse and the recreation hut. As soon as the barrels are filled with rain, the overflow hoses are used to direct the precipitation into beds with a high water demand instead of letting it seep into the ground where it is not needed.

Our recreation hut used to have several soggy areas on its perimeter where run-off water collected. Now, two of our members have placed a barrel on a base made of bricks so that a watering can fits nicely under the water faucet and gardeners can draw from it. At the same time, the barrel has an overflow outlet at the top, to which a hose can be attached to funnel excess water into the raspberry bed when it rains. This hose can also be connected to the lower water faucet and allow us to water the raspberry bed when it is dry. So this has really increased our flexibility and reduced water wastage. And made our lives easier!

It has also inspired us to look at other ways of managing limited water resources. Last summer we tried out three ollas on a raised bed, which worked like a charm. An olla can be made by attaching two unglazed clay pots to each other. The one on top is inverted and connected to the bottom one with silicone and then buried in the earth with just a bit of the inverted top pot (where there is presumably a hole) sticking out above the ground. When you pour water into the (unplugged) hole and fill the olla, it releases the water slowly and evenly into the soil.  This was such a success that we’ve made three more ollas for the second raised bed.

What I love about this place is not “just” the warm, friendly people who welcomed me – a botanical nincompoop – with open arms and a smile on their faces, and not just the opportunity to get some fresh air and physical exercise every Saturday, but also the sound and smell of the horses from the adjoining stables as they bluster and whinny and clickety-clack past our garden or stick their heads out the window to see what’s going on and remind me of the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.