Paola is an old friend of mine. We met for the first time seven years ago, and now she is a successful academic in Helsinki, where she lives with her partner Fabrizio and their lovely daughter Arja.
When they moved from Italy, land of sun, the risk of becoming climate displaced was high. Snow storms in April may unease you, if at home the first spring sun brings you to the beach.
But Paola and Fabrizio are proactive people, and kissed by luck. They found the most warm welcome – on a rooftop.
The so called “Helsinki Secret Garden” is a project run by the local Slow Food group, with the aim of growing healthy food as well as social boundaries. Which better location than the roof of a dismissed factory, now occupied by artists that have set their studios downstairs.
The garden is about 35 square meters large, dotted with wooden pots containing big jute sacks, sacks made of vegetable fiber.
In the bags gardeners successfully grow vegetables as well as aromatic herbs.
Paola explained that they have carefully chosen the pots’ material, using recycled pallet and wood. When they bought the plants’ containers, they looked for non chemically treated materials, so to have an organic cultivation.
Building a rooftop garden in Helsinki meant not only to deal with the peculiarities of urban agriculture, but also with a difficult climate. I’ve always wondered how did they manage to grow CHILI on a building in – Finland -.
Yet, here they are, red and bold, challenging the unbelieving visitor. The Secret Garden also produces potatoes, pumpkins and a wide variety of herbs. Of course, not all the Italian delicatessen can be grown in Helsinki. But Paola, who is a mathematician, does not lack scientific perspective.
With Fabrizio she studied the best cultivations via trial and error, with the help of a professional gardener.
“We are not experts, and we were curious about the response of different species to the peculiar habitat of a rooftop. So, we decided to carry out experiments. Some ended up in bitter failures, basil for example. But many others went surprisingly well: we managed to grow dill, mint, nettles, tomatoes, potatoes and many other plants!” said Paola.
The Secret Garden is not only about producing food. It’s about bringing people together. The ecological impact of a tomato plant grown on a terrace might be minimal, but the social one is important.
The experience of Paola and Fabrizio shows how sharing interests and practical activities can help to wear off the sense of displacement: “In Finland, many people are passionate about urban gardening, and they grow many vegetables at home. Sharing their enthusiasm has helped us to get in touch with the local culture.” said Fabrizio.
For a gallery of Helsinky Secret Garden, check our Pinterest board.
Images courtesy of Helsinky Secret Garden and Paola Elefante