Digging Your Nails into the Ground. The “Garden of Freedom” and Allotments

Digging Your Nails into the Ground. The “Garden of Freedom” and Allotments
Kaspars Garda, Riga 2014
“To be on the safe side, basil has to be planted outside after the midsummer holidays, otherwise it may wither and die. Mustard makes a good disinfectant for the ground, whereas moles do not get along with mole crickets.” This is just a short excerpt from the notebook “Allotments” (“Mazdārziņi”), published by the interdisciplinary art group “Serde”, which documents and researches the life of allotment gardeners in Riga. The notebook and the “Garden of Freedom” at the Vidzeme Market, planted on the 17th of May, are both part of the “Riga 2014” Programme.

We meet Signe Pucena and Ieva Vītola, the authors of the idea of the “Garden of Freedom” and the “Allotments” notebook, shortly before yet another “Serde” project at the Vidzeme Market – Joanes Simon-Perret’s flower blanket workshops, which we have already written about here. We are sitting on the steps of a dusty stairway in the Vidzeme Market’s meat pavilion, closed to the public since a fire in 2007. For already a couple of weeks, the outer wall of the building is home to a vertical garden or the “Garden of Freedom”. The story below is about the unique countryside gene that many Rigans appear to have, about the best ways to grow onions, and about the art of predicting the future.

The culture of allotment gardens in Riga goes back to the later half of the 19th century – the maps of that time show allotment areas available to the public in Jumpravsala Island, next to the orchards in Lucavsala island. But the history of gardening in Riga is much older – monks and nuns used to have vegetable gardens at their monasteries already in the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the 20th century, a large number of allotments were created in the city’s pastureland (now Ganību dambis Street) with the famous Mayor George Armitstead’s permission. The new trend became highly popular, and colonies of allotments were created in other Riga neighbourhoods as well. Allotments were commonplace in Riga between the wars, and their popularity skyrocketed again during the Soviet rule. Since the restoration of independence, the number of allotments has decreased as many were located in areas that, as the city continued to grow, were acquired by property developers. For example, ten years ago there was an extensive colony of allotments where the “Arena Riga”, the Olympic Sport Centre and several banks’ head offices are now located. However, gardening rose to popularity again during the economic crisis, becoming a stylish pastime for many young people.

The “Garden of Freedom” project presents a solution for the future, when Riga will become increasingly industrialised and there will be no vacant land plots for the people to grow own potatoes or tomatoes – vertical gardens with a practical watering system. The system was designed by architect Ivars Šmits and built by Uģis Pucens. The other project, the “Allotments” notebook of traditions may be viewed as a collection of practical recommendations, but in essence this is a realistic literary work, where stories of people’s gardening experiences present multiple comical situations and dramas.

I believe many readers do not know what “Serde” is. Why don’t you tell us what your work is about?

Signe Pucena: “Serde” is an interdisciplinary art group uniting artists, architects, researchers and representatives from other fields of culture, who express themselves by participating in various projects. The “Garden of Freedom”, for example, is a collaboration of artists, architects and researchers. This kind of synthesis describes the work of “Serde” very well.

“Serde” projects cover several disciplines, one of which is visual arts that in 2002 led to the establishment of a residence centre in Aizpute. At the moment, the residence centre is more than 1,000 square metres in area, providing artists with a place to live and work. Quite often we do not even see the final result of the ideas created in Aizpute – the works are taken to some other country, to exhibitions or biennales. It is, in fact, creative production environment. Many Riga projects have also been produced in Aizpute.

Sometime around 2000 we, several artists why had just graduated from the Academy of Culture and the Art Academy, were travelling Latvia looking for a place to set up workshops somewhere in a rural area. This is how we came upon a wonderful barn in the centre of Aizkraukle. When we went to the municipality, they said, yes, you may have it, but there is also a home on the same land plot. We thought about it a little, consulted an industrial archaeologist, and decided – yes, we’ll take it! It was clear that we would not have another chance like this. And it is also true that never again we will undertake something so ambitious. The building we were offered was a cultural and historic monument, but that time there were plans to tear it down. These plans were thwarted by the authorities, and, in a way, we were like life-savers to the municipality.

It has become a fashionable trend these days, to live in abandoned buildings. We did it in 2002.

So that’s how we, artists, became construction experts and renovated the house in Aizpute on our own, which is also part of our artistic experience. For this reason, restoration is one of the areas in which “Serde” specialises, especially restoration of old wooden buildings.

Traditional culture research and regular publications has been integral part of our work since 2005. The goal is to study various traditions, document stories told by local community members, and to not just lock them up in an archive but to bring them back to the people. For instance, one such project dealt with plant foraging, which the local community did not appreciate at all. We were interviewing old women who were experts in herb gathering, collated the findings, and published a book and organised various events – a series of exhibitions, a “Traditional Drugstore”, etc. That’s when the old ladies also started to believe that their knowledge was unique and they had to share it. The latest “notebook”, about the culture of allotment gardens, is already the 14th instalment in the series of tradition notebooks.

How long have you been studying the culture of allotment gardening in Riga?

Ieva Vītola: The study into allotment gardening in the capital began last year when we went to several colonies of allotments in Riga – in Lucavsala, Jumpravsala and Jugla. We were taking pictures and speaking to the gardeners. First, we were recording the ethnography of the gardens, the old furniture, materials good for recycling, the unique fences that are typical of Riga for just one reason – thieves. Second, we were interested in the gardeners’ experience and advice they could offer – not the kind of advice that comes books or magazines, but from their practical experience and the know-how passed from one generation to the next.

We were also told stories of individual accomplishments, such as stories about staving off thieves or homeless people, which unfortunately is a pressing problem for allotment garden owners in Riga. Some of the stories were captivating, some almost frightening.

We also studied how the allotment gardeners go about their routine activities and co-operate with each other, how they exchange seeds and seedlings, and share harvest.

The findings of the study have been collated in the “Allotments” notebook, and we tried to make good use of everything we had learned as we were planting the “Garden of Freedom” – plant everything that grows above the ground on the new moon, use only the organic fertilisers we were recommended – ashes, for instance, make green manure, special composts in barrels, and so on.

That seems self-explanatory for someone who has a garden

Signe Pucena: We have one Finnish-Scottish partner who has been attending various events at “Serde” already since 2003. One of his first visits fell on the midsummer festival celebrations, which is also something that seems self-evident to us – meadows, flowers, garlands and so forth.

He was the one who kept telling us, we have to do a study and share this knowledge. For Finland, where he lives, these are bygone traditions.

I took me some five years to realise – if they talk so much about it, well, let’s just do it. In 2010 we went on the “Herbology and Foraging” expedition, in which Latvian and Finnish artists participated. This is how gathering of herbs began and how we came to studying gardening in cities, which – to us – still remains something natural.

Ieva Vītola: Speaking of the “Traditional Drugstore” and gathering herbs, I, as someone who was born in the countryside, also treat many things as self-evident, but there was much for me to discover when we were gathering herbs for herbal teas. For instance, in Vidzeme Province where I come from people do not gather lilacs, but lilac tea is very characteristic of Kurzeme. Lilac tea is believed to help against cough. I believe that such notebooks of traditions should be very useful to young people.

So, what could be the portrait of an allotment gardener in Riga?

Ieva Vītola: There are people close to the retirement age, to whom the garden’s harvest is an important contribution to their cellars, and there are younger people who simply love gardening and are enthusiastic about it. To many, gardening was originally a pastime, but eventually they accumulated notable experience in gardening. The first part of the notebook is a compilation of young gardeners’ experience and stories, the experiments they have done and the challenges they have overcome. The younger gardeners may seem to be more progressive, but they make more mistakes and are willing to listen to the more experienced neighbours. For instance, one of the gardeners we interviewed, Mārtiņš, started out by reading magazines on gardening, but then he observed that sorrels in the neighbour’s garden looked much better than his. They started to talk and the woman advised him to switch to green manure, a much more efficient fertiliser. Young gardeners also tend to grow different plants, trying out various herbs and spices.

Signe Pucena: One thing they all emphasise is that all that chemistry, which is used in intensive farming, definitely does not exist in the vegetables grown in their gardens.

What about the air in the city? It’s not very clean, I suspect

Signe Pucena: Studies done in various parts of the world have found that, for instance, honey produced by beehives located in the city limits is not very polluted at all. Such apiaries are even better off than those next to intensive farming sites, which simply kill all insects. Actually, it could be quite interesting to do a few chemical analyses on the harvest from the “Garden of Freedom”.

Why did you choose the market environment for the “Garden of Freedom” and this allotment research project?

Signe Pucena: A market is social environment where there are all kinds of people, for all kinds of reasons. Such projects need to be as close to the people as possible. If put in a classical art or cultural environment, they would not reach the audiences they are meant for.

Ieva Vītola: Now, too, passers-by are stopping to take a closer look, they wonder at what they see… hopefully, they are inspired also!

Some people do not like to work in the garden as their parents forced them to as kids. What are your memories?

Ieva Vītola: This kind of resentment usually passes at the age of thirty or so, when people discover that they want to dig in the ground and grow something with their own hands. If you have a chance to do some weeding in the flowerbed, you will need no Citramon [laughs – ed.]

Signe Pucena: Indeed, you need to dig your nails into the ground to find your peace. Especially so in the spring, to shake off the stress accumulated over the winter, when you can’t wait to plant something. As for childhood memories – my family had a rather large garden, and it helped our budget a little. I spent my childhood in Skrunda, where the Soviet Army’s military town was located. As we used to say, we “supplied the Russians with onions”. [laughs – ed.]

Ieva Vītola: I didn’t know you grew onions.

Signe Pucena: We did, we had really long onion beds. Too many, I though back then. When we were planting onions in the spring, I thought the skin would come off of my fingers from pushing onions into the ground all the time. We also had to do the weeding which, of course, fell on the beautiful summer afternoons and evenings when the local balls and parties were going on. Half of my classmates used to come help me do the weeding, so we could go to the parties together. [laughs – ed.]

This must be valuable experience, you probably have some expert advice to share with other people.

Signe Pucena: Sure, I can grow onions, cabbages, horseradish, and strawberries too. [laughs – ed.]

The exhibition “FIELDS” is on show at the “Arsenāls” exhibition hall at the moment, where some of the works deal with developing new models of a more sustainable way of life. Some of the ideas are making wood bark edible for humans, or using bacteria enzymes to help humans absorb more nutrients. You, on the other hand, accumulate the knowledge and experience of traditional gardening, practices that may seem natural today but be forgotten in a few generations. What could be the key to survival in the future – experience and traditions, or innovative scientific solutions, or perhaps both?

Signe Pucena: Quite often artists create works that predict the future, although they may be unaware of this. There are ideas proposed just for fun. Later on some of these ideas are picked up by research institutes… That’s my experience. But as to what the future will be like? It depends on what future we create. Both options are possible. There will certainly be small gardens created on the façades of homes in the not-so-distant future, but after that...

Ieva Vītola: I believe the opposite. Traditions must be cherished, people have to practise gardening and farming, and learn from their experiences. The global population is increasing, but the situation in Latvia is much more favourable for gardeners and farmers, as there are many vacant land plots overgrown with weeds. That’s where people can make use of their knowledge and at least do some subsistence farming should a major crisis begin.

The “Garden of Freedom” project is part of the “Riga 2014” Programme’s thematic line “Survival Kit”. The vertical urban garden with automated watering system is on show at the Vidzeme Market’s meat pavilion until the end of the summer, whereas harvest will take place during the contemporary art forum “White Night”.

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