Stockholm’s allotment garden

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The 100 or more allotment gardens at Tanto are dotted with perfectly cute red, yellow and green cottages and dapper sheds above Årstaviken bay on Södermalm. And very natty gardens with multi-coloured sprays of flowers, blossoms, blooms and trees. 

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Had I stepped into a storybook? Cute-as-a-button little cottages painted in shades of red, yellow, white and green nestled behind white picket fences and clipped hedges, each surrounded by an array of flowers, abundant beds of vegetables, and fruit trees summer-heavy with fruit.

You’ll find all types of gardens here: designer gardens, kitchen gardens, countryside gardens, vegetable gardens etc. Look out for original cottages from the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

A good time to visit is end August when the allotment holders put on a harvest festival. The gardens are part of Tantolunden park.

There are frequent buses to Tanto allotments, Stockholm’s allotment garden, and the nearest underground station is Zinkensdamm (red line).

The Tanto allotment gardens are part of a ‘secret’ Stockholm that not many visitors experience. Visit them for free and experience a different side of Stockholm. 110214_Tanto_Allotment_Park_Stockholm_Sweden

The path I followed took me deeper into the collection of little houses and gardens clinging to the hillside that descended to the edge of Sweden’s Årstaviken Bay.

“Yoo-hoo!” Lisbeth Ulfstedt awaited me at a junction in the path ahead, reassuring with a wave of her arm and her attention-getting greeting that, yes, I’d followed directions correctly into storybook-land Stockholm: Tanto Södra koloniträdgårdsförening, an allotment garden of 111 spaces.

Tanto, as it is called, is located south of Gamla stan (Old Town) on Södermalm, one of the 14 islands that make up central Stockholm.

Tanto’s picturesque collection of miniature cottages surrounded by vegetables and flowers is among the oldest of 150 allotment gardens scattered throughout Stockholm. Together, they create some 10,000 spaces available to city dwellers yearning to dig in with trowel and spade.

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Stockholm’s first gardens were laid out in 1895, with the Stockholm Allotment Society established to oversee the various areas in 1906. The gardens all were out in the countryside — the city grown around them since — put in place so that Stockholm’s impoverished might have a place to grow food, with the added benefit of being able to do so in fresh country air.

Tanto’s allotments were laid out in 1915, one of several new garden areas to provide potato-growing land to feed the city’s near-starving population during World War I.

A more unlikely spot could not have been chosen, its base amounting to a gigantic boulder. Soil was laboriously transported into nooks and crannies and, soon, vegetables, berries, fruits and herbs enhanced the planting of potatoes. Flowers began to bloom.

Sheds to house gardening equipment began to emerge. To form a common policy, the Allotment Society specified what they called “gazebos” to be modeled on supplied drawings and built of wood, then painted red, white, yellow or dark green.

Despite the specified uniformity, individuality emerged as gardeners embroidered the basic with ornamentation and surrounded their “gazebos” with gardens of their choosing. Regulations were relaxed in the 1960s to allow larger and individually designed cottages.

In the 1970s the areas received electricity and telephone lines — a move decreed by purists as a modernization inconsistent with the image of life in the allotment.

Lisbeth and I were on our way to allotment number 41, where she and her husband, Bo Belin, garden. Bo Belin, following in the green thumbprints of his grandfather and father, is a third-generation Tanto participant.

“Are visitors welcome to wander about Tanto?” I asked Lisbeth as we followed a path to number 41.

“Yes, indeed,” she answered. “We encourage walkers, joggers and bicyclists,” adding that Sweden’s policy of right to public access makes that a given. “We clip our hedges so that passersby can easily see into the gardens. But don’t step in,” she advised, “unless invited by the garden holder to do so.”

Reaching number 41 and Lisbeth’s pocket-sized cottage, she asked if I’d like to peek inside.

A shipshape interior flooded with light from ample windows was outfitted with a rudimentary kitchen with tiny appliances, table and chairs, a heater, and daybeds for sleeping. Water, cold, came to the allotment via a hose. Bathroom facilities, communal, were located not far away.

“In spring we’re here every weekend,” Lisbeth told me as we returned to the adjacent terrace affording additional space. “By June, we more or less live here. We start seeds in April and harvest until frost closes the gardens for the winter.”

Stockholm, largely a city of apartment dwellers, has no shortage of would-be gardeners awaiting allotments. Precious patches they are. Tanto’s waiting list contains over 350 names.

“Waiting time can take up to 20 years,” Lisbeth told me. In addition, prospective space holders face an exhaustive interview process as to their intended use of the space and their interest in gardening. To eliminate the possibility of parents’ signing up their kindergarteners for placement down the road, no one younger than 18 can apply. Payment of a small yearly charge keeps one’s name on the list.

Once a plot is snagged, the privilege of gardening does not come cheap. An annual fee of 14,000 kronor (close to $2,000) is charged, making the ownership of a Tanto space out of reach of those for whom they were originally intended: Stockholm’s poor.

Lisbeth and I left her terrace so that I might see what others were up to in their gardens. We leaned over fences to talk, accepting invitations to step inside precious patches to admire the size of a just-dug onion here, the fragrance of a crushed handful of rosemary and basil there.

“The garden is a close neighborhood,” Lisbeth commented. “We see each other often, at organized events, chatting over a cup of coffee, discussing our gardens over the fence or,” she added with a laugh, “doing what my husband is doing right now, enjoying a late-afternoon beer on a neighbor’s terrace with his cronies. That’ll keep him busy for the next couple of hours!”

Staying near Tanto allotment garden

I visited Stockholm and Tanto allotment garden in August ’09 as a guest of the Stockholm Visitors Board (Drottninggatan 33, 10325 Stockholm, Sweden; phone 08 508 285 08,www.visitstockholm.com). I stayed at the Hilton Stockholm Slussen (chosen for its proximity to both Old Town and other Stockholm areas of special attraction and to Södermalm, where Tanto allotment garden is located.
Double rooms at the Hilton average $325, including a full buffet breakfast. The excellent Stockholm city museum with its exhibits emphasizing the city’s history is just across the street.

Written by guest contributor