Friday, September 14, 2012


It’s mid September and the harvest season in Finland is, well, practically over. 

The rye and oat fields at the city-owned farm near our house were shorn already a few weeks ago and left empty for the pigeons, Canada geese, and other birds that often congregate there for pre-winter feasting. The farm’s fields of peas, free for visitors to harvest, have long been picked clean, and now its crop of sunflowers have also now been carried off by the general public. 

Our own private harvest is also almost complete. As usual, we got a few bowls full of strawberries and gooseberries from the bushes in our yard, and apples and cherries from our young fruit trees. 

What's left of our old apple tree.
This was the first year our cherry “crop” was decent enough that we had to fight off the magpies attracted by the reddening fruit. I even went so far as to buy a plastic snake at the local hardware store to scare the birds. 

When I was a kid, my parents did something similar for the cherry tree we had behind our house. I suspect back then you couldn’t buy commercial decoy snakes. In any case, my parents improvised by stringing the cherry tree with short lengths of green water hose. I have no idea whether this worked better than our modern fake cobra, but it couldn’t have worked worse. I’m guessing that, with snakes being so rare here, Finnish birds can’t take any snake in a tree as credible, let alone a species indigenous to south Asia. 

Besides a dwarf apple tree, we also have a full-sized “mature” one, whose crop is still ripening. It’s the last of the three apple trees that were here when we bought the house exactly twenty years ago, and it’s probably not long for this world. At the beginning of August, half of the tree, weakened by rot at the base, crashed to the ground, littering the yard with hundreds of half-grown apples. Even with that loss, there is more than enough fruit left on the surviving branches for my wife to make a lot of delicious pies and apple butter. It was indeed a bumper crop this year, which might have contributed to the tree giving up its fight against gravity.

While our strawberry plants and gooseberry bushes produced at least enough fruit for snacking this year, the crop from our single red currant bush, as usual, was so abundant that we could fill several containers for freezing, in addition to the berries that went straight from the bush to the pie pan. 

Red currants.
Photo: Lukas Riebling.
Currants (in Finnish viinimarja, or “wine berry”), a fruit I never saw growing up in Georgia is extremely common here, unlike our sea-buckthorn (tyrni, a little-known Old World berry). After reaping a big “crop” of these extremely tart and yellow berries a year ago, we harvested only a handful this year. 

Usually, the biggest part of the berries we cache in our freezer comes not from our own yard, but from my in-laws’. They have an old farmhouse where they tend a vegetable garden in summer, plus a patch of potatoes and enough berry bushes to keep them and us well stocked with currants (both red and black) for the winter. 

The urge to grow some of your own food seems to be very typical in Finland, and, of course, not unfamiliar to many Americans, as well. My parents always grew a garden, and my memories of summer meals from my childhood revolve around fresh corn, beans, okra, and other veggies from our garden. 

Sea buck-thorn.
One very noticeable difference in Finland is that here city dwellers also often get into the act. Scattered around many Finnish cities are plots of city-owned land, subdivided into tiny lots that are rented to anyone wishing to cultivate their own slice of earth. Even fourth-generation urbanites can tap into their agrarian roots by nurturing a small crop of vegetables or flowers, sometimes in the shadow of Helsinki high-rises. 

The simplest of these garden areas are made up of dozens of 50- or 100-square-meter plots rented for only about 40 euros ($50) a year. In Helsinki alone, there are nearly 40 of these viljelyspalstat (“farm-plots”) located around the city. 

A step up from these are the larger “allotment gardens”, apparently also common in other European countries, which can even function as small-scale summer homes. The Finnish name for allotment gardens is siirtolapuutarha (“settlement garden”), the word siirtola vaguely referring to “migrant” or “refugee”.  

The name seems to fit. Renters of these 250- to 500-square meter (around 4000 square feet) plots often set up caravan-sized cabins, giving some siirtolapuutarhat the feeling of miniature villages of urban farmers. Many garden tenants spend summer nights and weekends in these simple cabins, escaping from city life without leaving the city. 

If nothing else, the cabins provide gardeners with a quiet place to relax, read the paper or have a beer after the labor of watering and weeding their patch of dill, carrots and rhubarb, carrying on  in a small way  the 10,000-year-old tradition of coaxing a good harvest from plain dirt. 

Some of the garden plots at Vallila siirtolapuutarha
are practicably second homes.  
Chick here for information on Helsinki farm plots and allotment gardens (in Finnish).


  1. Great stuff!

    In recent years here in Charlotte I've noticed a proliferation of community gardens being planted and cultivated on reclaimed land (mainly on empty lots from demolished houses and buildings). Community activists and church groups seem to be the folk planting and caring for the gardens. I will assume the product is given over to soup kitchens and food banks.

    My wife's dad used to grown a huge garden ever year. I'm not talking about a little plot--his was around 1/2 acre in size. He would keep in producing something into winter. We never wanted for fresh vegetables when Frank was alive. Since he died the plot has been lying fallow. Neither Carole nor I have the time to drive across the county to care for a garden, and her mom's too old to do so. We did plant a very small garden there a couple of years ago, but even that was a chore to keep up. So we haven't repeated it. If we end up retiring there it'll be a different story.

  2. Thanks! I have been seeing news reports about how people are planting gardens in vacant lots or rooftops in cities like New York. Encouraging trend, and completely sensible. I've also heard stories about how some homeowner associations prevent people from starting a garden.