When survival is a playground garden

  • 2001-07-19
  • Elina Cerpa
RIGA - Almost 70 percent of Latvia's inhabitants own a little parcel of land, a small garden of about 300m2. These tiny plots were allocated in pre-independence times to those who don't happen to own a country house with plenty of land around it. Without these small havens they would not be able to grow their own fruit and vegetables - essential for many Latvians struggling to survive this era or rising prices.

The minigarden phenomenon appeared in Latvia at the beginning of the 1960s. As large collective farms were systematically instilled into Latvian culture, as they were throughout the Soviet Union, other smaller plots were divided into small gardens. These spaces were free for families who wanted to have a garden but who lived in mammoth housing blocks of up to 16 floors with little if any natural surroundings.

Before the Soviet invasion of Latvia in 1940 these sliced-up pieces of land were much larger areas that belonged to private owners. They were forcibly taken away during the 1940s and 1950s.

Two types of garden were established. One kind were parcels of land, spaces where people cultivated vegetables, fruits and berries but with no room for a small summer shelter, just a shed for keeping gardening tools.

The second variety had a little more room with space allowed for a modest dacha. Here people could take a break with some tea, snooze away from the summer heat, or get in out of the cold during the fall when they came to collect their fall crop.

Some people live in their dachas during the summer and leave to go to their city flats in the early fall. Others live there all year if they have nowhere else to go.

Usually the plots are not that far from a city, and they are often located by a forest or a river.


The simpler, dacha-less garden plots have an interesting hand in creating a new Latvian landscape. An integral part of this scene is the greenhouse of plastic or glass for tomatoes and cucumbers. Sometimes there's even a playground for children with a sand pit and iron swings so they can play while their parents and grandparents slave away in the garden.

Ilze Avotina, 30, who owns a hairdressing salon, says, "For me, my family's small garden plot was my childhood. It was so exciting! There were so many other kids and we had lots of fun together. My sister later married one of the boys whose parents had a garden close to ours," she says sentimentally.

"These gardens were one of the few good things about the Soviet times. Now we don't have that garden because we don't need it. I'm not that sure the need for them is as great as it was then," she sighs.

Avotina runs a successful business. For others who are not so lucky, a plot of earth for gardening is the only thing that helps them pull through. It's a question of survival. Almost all the vegetables cultivated in the summer and the fall can be pickled in jars for the winter and early spring.

Generally, the people who really need a garden are pensioners and those without any property or place to live. Still others keep their space simply because they love to garden.

Liga and Brigitta have neighboring pieces of land in Ikskile, a small town 30 kilometers from Riga. There is a small pond for them and their fellow gardeners to fetch water from. Red flowers and purple cabbages dot the landscape. Yellow pole-bean flowers hang on strings.

They enjoy gardening and the plants they grow are beautiful and healthy. Liga has lived in Ikskile for 30 years. Ralfs, a boy playing beside her, pipes in, "I have lived here for seven!"

"I love Ikskile," Liga continues. "I have this nice garden, there are birds and nature, and the Daugava."

As we talk and pick cherries and dark purple thornberries, a rush of wings whizzes past our heads. I look up. A flock of about 20 birds whoosh past. Ralfs points, "Birds!"

"Yes," said Brigitta gravely. "Birds. You know? They steal all our cherries."

As I glance about the gardens I see that some people even went so far as to drape their cherry trees with bedsheets or tablecloths to cover the ruby-colored fruits and keep the bandits at bay.

Thievery in the greenery

Anna and Arturs Berzs also have a little garden in Ikskile. They till the land in early spring when the snow has just melted and they work until late in fall. The elderly couple spends every day there except Sunday.

The two old people bend to and fro with their work, pulling weeds and harvesting potatoes.

"Unfortunately we don't have any children who could help us with this task. We have to do everything ourselves. It seems that we are expecting and preparing for winter all spring and summer long. If we don't have the vegetables we grow we would need to go out on the streets and beg. But we could never do that. We are very proud people," said little Anna. She is old, but still very beautiful. Burnt by the sun, her dewy eyes are blue like the sea. Arturs nods along to her comments.

They have a special calendar at home that indicates the best times for sowing potatoes, beets, cucumbers, carrots or peas. Their garden looks perfect. There are no weeds. The carrots are planted precisely five centimeters apart. Their sense of geometry with the rows of vegetables is a wonder.

But birds are not the only thieves in these gardens.

"For the most part, our garden is covered with potatoes. We are trying to collect as many as possible. By the fall we hope to have seven or eight sacks of them. But we can't always manage to get so many, especially lately," Anna says quietly, glancing furtively about. "There are people who come and steal our potatoes. Sometimes, they just dig out one or two to see if they're ready. When they're convinced they're ready they come back to take more," she said.

While we talk two women join us. Liene and her grandmother Dzidra look tired. When I ask why, they say they arrived at 5 a.m. and spent all morning hiding in bushes next to their garden waiting for a thief to come. Unfortunately, this time the thief didn't show up.

Dzidra says she is suspicious about one old woman who lurks around the gardens with a huge bag, hobbling about with a cane. She doesn't seem to spend much time working.

"We don't know her. She's lame and she never says hello to us. That makes me suspicious, because we all say hello to each other. And," Dzidra emphasizes with wide eyes, "next to my potatoes I have seen little footsteps and cane marks in the earth."

You could say that the territory of little gardens is a separate world. The people buzz about their work like bees. Every single flower and sprig of herb is accounted for.

Very late on a warm evening by the Daugava as I pass through the little gardens, a steady hum comes from the old power wires. As I peer from the darkness of the greenhouses and peas I see an old, lame woman coming closer. She has a big bag and uses a cane. When she passes me she doesn't say hello. She continues along the path toward the patches of potatoes and after some 10 meters she turns her head sharply to look at me before she ducks into a little garden, and vanishes.