Beneath Andernach's medieval city walls, birds flit among apple, pear and peach trees. Strawberry plants and heads of lettuce sprout from the soil alongside patches of herbs and wildflowers.
Founded more than 2,000 years ago, this settlement in the Rhine River valley is one of the oldest towns in Germany. Its city walls have survived, along with the ruins of a moated castle dating back to the 12th century. It's also home to the highest cold-water geyser in the world, a big tourist draw. But today, visitors have another reason to come to Andernach — its city gardens.
"If you feel like picking something for dinner, feel free," said Anneli Karlsson, the project coordinator of the Edible Cities Network in Andernach. "That's our motto: Feel free to pick."
Andernach, with a population of around 30,000 people, is known as an "edible city." That means many of its public green spaces are used to grow food that anyone can harvest free of charge.
The city's administration launched the project in 2010. The idea was to get locals more engaged in their community and raise awareness about how food is grown.
"You don't feel such a relationship to a tulip or a rose, as you do to maybe a salad that you're going to pick tomorrow for your own dinner," said Karlsson.
From tomatoes to pomegranates and bananas
In that first year, the city planted more than 100 varieties of tomatoes. It was so well-received that they decided to add more edible plants.
How many? "Oh wow, that list is a long one," said Karlsson.
To name a few, there's zucchini, grapes, Brussels sprouts, almonds, Swiss chard, potatoes, artichokes, pumpkin, kale and — perhaps unusually for this part of Europe — even bananas.
"It's just a very favorable climate in front of the city wall. It captures the sun's warmth," said Karlsson.
There are also bees, who make up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of honey a year, and chickens laying eggs — products that are sold in a shop in the city center.
"I often drop by to pick some herbs that I'm missing at home," said one resident passing through the garden. "Everything is easily accessible. There aren't any fences. You just take what you need. The only thing is you have to be quick once the fruits are ripe or they'll all be gone!"
No pesticides are used, so the produce is all organic. Nutrient-intensive crops such as potatoes and pumpkins are rotated in order to keep the plants and soils healthy. The gardeners also plant diverse species to boost biodiversity and create a habitat for birds, bees and other insects.
Another local has come to pick some Greek mountain tea leaves. "The project is phenomenal, especially the workers and gardeners who tend these areas all year round," he said. "It's really great that you now have these opportunities centrally, in the city."
The edible city has also become a draw for tourists who come to take guided tours of the gardens.
Opportunities for the long-term unemployed
But Andernach's gardens aren't just about food. Karlsson said the project is unique because it hires unemployed people to maintain the plant beds, alongside a team of gardeners.
"It has changed my life," said Jörn Schamari, a former truck driver. He suffered burnout and was out of work when he came across the edible city initiative several years ago.
"This project helped me bounce back. And from next year, I've been promised a permanent position as a gardener here. The project has also changed my relationship to plants. Before, I had absolutely no interest in them, but now I even plant fruits and vegetables at home."
Growing focus on self-sufficiency
According to Martina Artmann, who heads a research group on urban human-nature resonance at the Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development, many German cities are seeing an increasing interest in urban gardens and growing food in general.
That trend is likely getting a push thanks to rising food prices and empty supermarket shelves resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and now the war in Ukraine. Some communities are looking to source produce closer to home to safeguard themselves from weaknesses in the global food system.
Urban populations are expected to grow rapidly in the coming decades, only adding to food supply challenges. By 2050, nearly seven out of 10 people will live in cities, according to the World Bank. Artmann said there needs to be more awareness about just how dependent cities are on rural areas for their food.
"So there's really a need to put food self-sufficiency — and also how and where food is produced and comes into the city — onto the political agenda. And this is still lacking," she said.
While the focus of Andernach's edible city project is not food security, Karlsson hopes it will "open people's eyes to how you can use one square meter of land and harvest enough for at least a couple of meals."
Andernach has about 14 hectares (about 34 acres) of green space, including at least 2 hectares that are edible, according to Karlsson. But she wants to expand that and help other cities to follow suit.
The town on the Rhine is part of the Edible Cities Network, an EU-funded project running from 2018 to 2023. It was set up so that members — including major centers such as Montevideo, Rotterdam, Guangzhou, Havana and Oslo — could exchange experiences and lessons from their garden projects with each other.
"We're reaching out to South America, to Uruguay, we're reaching out to China, to Cuba, to countries in Africa, and of course countries within Europe. This is just a start," said Karlsson.
By the end of 2023, Andernach plans to have a digitalized inventory of all its plants, how much water and nutrients they use, as well as "a catalog of what we've learned, what we've done well, what we can improve for others to use and implement in their cities."
Karlsson said she often gets calls from other cities in Germany and beyond who want to copy the Andernach model. As far as she's concerned, that can only be a good thing.
"We really hope that we can inspire people and reach other communities," she said. "We're really hoping we can make our mark."
Edited by: Tamsin Walker