The Berlin Wall famously divided families and enforced division for nearly thirty years, but strangely it also gave one man the opportunity to create a flourishing urban garden. This is the story of Osman Kalin, a Turkish immigrant who defied the authorities to turn a piece of wasteland beneath the Berlin Wall into an oasis of greenery beloved by his community. It’s an example of gardening at its best: a source of greenery and positivity during a darkly turbulent time.
In 1961 the Berlin Wall was erected quickly and haphazardly, and consequently a splinter of East Berlin land ended up on the wrong side of the dividing line. Given that it was inaccessible to its legal owners the land was used as an informal dumping ground, until 1982 when Osman cleared away the rubbish and started up a vegetable patch as a post-retirement project. In a nearby watchtower East Berlin guards spotted his activities and investigated to make sure he wasn’t digging a tunnel, but eventually allowed him to carry on with his green fingered endeavours. The West Berlin police also turned up and tried to move him off the land, but he stubbornly refused to budge.
Osman soon planted garlic and onions, along with several fruit trees, and he would regularly make gifts of his produce to the guards on the wall. They soon became comfortable with his presence and even began sending him a Christmas card every year. In 1983 Osman also began constructing a ramshackle shed that slowly evolved into a two-storey treehouse kitted out with electricity and running water, which soon became known as ‘Das Baumhaus an der Mauer’ or ‘The Treehouse on the Wall’.
The violence inherent in the Berlin Wall was never far away, as the garden was located at a popular crossing point for those desperate enough to make an escape attempt. Yet despite the presence of barbed wire and machine guns, Osman became famous for his cheerful friendliness, always happy to share his produce or invite visitors in for a cup of tea. Anarchist punks living in the area were especially big fans, holding him as an example of heroic resistance to political power.
In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, and while this was a moment of great joy for most, it meant Osman had become an illegal squatter. There were attempts to evict him, but the local community rallied to his side. This included the Church of St Thomas next door, which helpfully tried to use a map from the 1780s to claim that the land actually belonged to the church. Faced with such widespread opposition the local council abandoned their attempts and the garden was allowed to stay.
Osman passed away in April 2018, but the garden is now tended by his son Mehmet and granddaughter Funda. People still visit the Treehouse on the Wall, inspired by Osman’s determination to create something special amidst the harsh realities of international power politics. As Osman showed, gardening can often mean much more than just a hobby; it’s a way of improving mental health, gathering people together, and bringing beauty to those that need it most. The Berlin Wall might be long gone, but the garden remains – surely that says something about what really matters?
Why not follow in Osman’s example yourself? Although you may wish to avoid requisitioning land that doesn’t belong to you, even a small space can be turned into a calming oasis of greenery, or a bountiful source of fresh fruit and vegetables. Have a look at Primrose’s range of outdoor sheds or tools for growing your own veg, and get started on creating your own outdoor escape.
All images have been reproduced with permission of owner.
Will is a Copywriter at Primrose and spends his days rattling out words for the website. In his spare time he treads the boards with an Am-Dram group, reads books about terrible, terrible wars, and rambles the countryside looking wistful.