Babylon Urban Gardens

What do you mean by “urban gardening”?

When we say urban gardening, we mean exactly what is said. What we understand from words. The combination of urban and gardening.

Although urban gardening seems to be a recently popular concept, its history goes back a long way. Hanging Gardens of Babylon can be considered an important example of an urban garden in terms of constituting the first example of the roof garden. Hevsel Gardens, which lie on the banks of the Tigris river and next to the Diyarbakır Castle, are another important example of urban gardens, with a history dating back to seven thousand years, as well as continuing agriculture today. Of course, while talking about urban gardening, we can talk about thousands of years ago, but the history of modern cities is not that old. The transformation of cities into gigantic concrete and cement forests and the transformation of people into crowds of people living with the mechanical ticks of the clock, far from the fluid rhythm and natural cycles, in these concrete and cement piles, begins with the industrial revolution.

When we consider nowadays, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. The magnificent urban life, portrayed by the mass media and turned into a magical dream for the people living in the countryside, unfortunately, is far from the way they are portrayed. For most of the people living in cities, except for a small minority privileged economically and socially, it means a serious struggle to survive. Life becomes a pendulum swinging between these two extremes for people who work to meet their basic needs in order to survive. On the one hand, they work most of their time; on the other hand, they hope to take advantage of fast recreational vehicles or the ancient teachings of Eastern cultures to get away from the stress they experience while working in their remaining time. Unfortunately, most people do not have the opportunity to make an effort beyond being swept from one end to the other until the moment of death, while the pendulum swings in the chaos of life. When viewed from the outside, cities seem like an ocean of endless opportunities; however, they cannot go beyond an offering of human life whose boundaries are defined and bordered by angled lines for the people living in them.

I think we can think of urban gardening as an effort to contact nature and its fluid rhythm within the very center of cities in which we are isolated by the mechanical life the city obliges us to live.

When and how did you start this project of “urban gardening”?

The pursuit of urban gardening started for me after a long period of depression when I did not want to engage in any sphere of life and life itself became meaningless. The period I mentioned was a period when I had no desire for life, and had a very poor appetite for life. I could not feel the slightest urge to make an effort, let alone try to get out of this mood. I was also aware that I could not go on with that mood any longer.

I started working as a waiter in a café with the support of a friend and with the suggestion that it would be good to have an occupation. My time had become a little more flowable but working in a cafe didn’t make much difference in my mood. Another friend of mine that I encountered in the same period suggested renting a house together and our search for a house started. Fortunately, the idea of ​​urban gardening came into being spontaneously when he found a flat with a terrace suitable for dealing with gardening.

Actually, my engagement in urban gardening started as a result of many coincidences for me. I thought that the feeling of being stuck after two years of being draft dogger for compulsory military service also contributed to my depressed mood. Accordingly, during the time we rent the flat, I thought that being a student again would make my life a little easier in terms of not only delaying compulsory military service issues legally but also making it simpler to answer the question “what are you doing?” as “I am a student” instead of faltering. So, I intended to do my master’s degree. Then I started applying to many different departments without a specific target about its focus. During this application process, I learned that there is a department called “garden plants” or “horticulture” and then I canceled all my other applications and focused on the Horticulture department. Gardening, both a vital occupation and an academic pursuit, came into my life this way two and a half years ago.

Which intentions and purposes did lead you to start urban gardening?

Getting out of the depressing cycles of cities and establishing a life in the countryside is getting more and more on people’s agenda. The situation is similar for me and the people around me. For many years, we have been talking about what kind of life we ​​dream of and where. Although some of us have taken small steps for this, for most of us, these conversations are a declaration of intent for the future or the sharing of a dream that starts with “oh I wish …”. It seems that the search for a life away from the cities will become more widespread, especially for people who are deprived of the social opportunities offered by the cities due to the effect of the pandemic. However, it would be very optimistic to think that there will be a significant decrease in the population of the city in the near future as a result of this search, and even a decrease in the rate of increase.

Industrialization and urbanization continue at full speed. Nevertheless, I do not think that the lives of small and large communities in rural areas alone will be sufficient to change this course. From what I have said, it should not be understood that I consider the efforts of people who have devoted their entire lives to the search and construction of an alternative life in the countryside to be worthless, on the contrary, I consider it very valuable but not enough. If we want to deviate from the ecological apocalypse route that we are heading at full speed, this will only happen through the social, cultural, and economic paradigm breaks we will create in the flow of urban life. People migrating from the city to the countryside and establishing self-sufficient lives there is just one of these breaks. What drove me to urban gardening is the question “is it possible to create another break in the mechanical rhythm of urban life within the city?”.

What kind of reactions did you receive from your social circles? Do you have people you work with?

One of the biggest benefits of this process for me was that it brought a new dimension to our relationship with my mother, we developed a master-apprentice relationship. For many years, my mother tried to create a garden within her limited means wherever she lived. She used to grow tomatoes and peppers in charcoal sacks, and greens in ice cream pots. Every time I went home, some fresh tomatoes and strawberries she kept waiting for me would be ready for sure. But since I did not have any interest in gardening at that time, I stayed quite far from my mother’s pursuit. When I intended to set up a garden myself, this distant stance became a great regret about the past. I think that the most valuable knowledge about plants in particular comes from experience, and I’m sorry that I missed some of the opportunity to benefit from my mother’s experience, which is a treasure in this respect.

At the beginning of spring, we worked with my mother during the establishment of the garden. More precisely, I apprenticed my mother. In addition to the experience I got from my mother, it was also so much fun to deal with the garden day and night for a week -there were not many activities that we have been doing together as a mother and child for years.

As a habit from my university student years, I pursue any occupation with other people through a collective structure. For this reason, I had the intention to bring a collective structure to urban gardening through a formation called Babylon Urban Gardens. But I cannot say that I have made much progress in this area yet. Babylon Urban Gardens continues to exist as an intention for the time being.

Although there is no one with whom we have been working on this endeavor together at the moment, many people have helped and continue to do so in many stages. Especially in the process of preparing the garden for spring, we worked together with many different people, such as moving soil, planting seeds, and changing pots. In the last two years, most of my time has started spent for gardening, especially when the spring period approaches. At that time, my friends, who stopped by or called me, suddenly find themselves carrying soil from the other end of the sack or preparing the pots for planting seeds.

Let's talk a little bit about the process. What did you hope for, what have you found?

As I mentioned before, the search for ecological life is widespread in cities. There are people working on this issue through various community gardens, organizations, and associations. I had hoped that we could build wider partnerships with people who agreed on this quest, but such a process has not started yet. Of course, considering that the last year has passed in the atmosphere of a pandemic, the fact that these partnerships have not been established does not create despair for the future.

What are your plans to proceed with this initiative in the future? Can you tell us about your road map?

I think it would be more correct to talk about two different road maps at this point. Personally, I want to gain a structure that will have a financial return in order to continue and develop this occupation. While setting up Babylon Urban Gardens, we also had the following idea. For people who have an interest and space to engage in gardening on their balconies, terraces, or gardens, but could not start doing because they did not have the time or because they could not take the first step, we can create gardening designs according to their own desired space and desired plants. The idea is to set up these gardens as much as possible with practical tools such as the drip irrigation system to make its continuation easier and to encourage people to start urban gardening and then continue their activities on their own through a short training on the care of plants that we will provide.

Another intention is to build an organization that will carry out more comprehensive studies and initiatives on urban gardening together with people seeking to create an ecological life in the city. I think that an institutional structure such as a cooperative will increase its acceptance as an addressee by institutions and organizations that carry out studies on this issue or support such efforts, and that it can be carried out more easily with or with the support of these institutions and organizations in order to spread urban gardening.

What are your dreams about urban gardening? How do you imagine urban gardening will look like in the future?

I think we have stepped into a limitless world when it comes to the imagination; therefore, it is quite enjoyable to imagine cities that are self-sufficient from the smallest scale to the largest, although I do not know how much it is possible. Wouldn’t it be super nice that the neighborhoods are self-sufficient in terms of certain vegetables where each apartment building meets its needs to some extent on its own roof or garden, the community gardens be established on empty lands, and hydroponic vertical farming gardens be established in abandoned and empty buildings, and also, with the integration of rural settlements around the city to live in a world surrounded by the barter networks to be established between cities that can meet their needs in terms of certain vegetables and settlements of different scales?

The pandemic actually showed us the fragility of the system we live in starkly. As people living in cities, we are desperate in the face of any problems in production or logistics.

What have you learned from your mistakes so far? What are your recommendations for beginners?

My biggest mistake, or more precisely, my deficiency was not planning well for the garden I was planning to set up before spring. Because each plant has different characteristics in terms of both the desired conditions and the rate of growth. It can be a serious problem to try to deal with many kinds of plants without investigating in detail like which plant will develop well in what kind of soil depth, and whether it likes sun or shade. So, my suggestion, especially for beginners, is to prefer specific plants that they can research on their growing conditions rather than trying to grow a lot of plants or start with easy-to-grow plants such as dill, and onion and then gradually expand their gardens.

What does urban gardening tell us when it is approached politically?

Perhaps the best statement to explain what urban gardening means politically is Deleuze’s saying “Life becomes resistance to power when power takes life as its object.”. While our lives in cities are to be shaped by many different power techniques, I think that the effort to create an alternative life outside of the lives we are offered or compelled to, and any intervention to the mechanical rhythm of urban life is highly political.

It is obvious that the increase in agricultural production within cities, lacking the ability to survive without the products produced outside of it, and the decrease in external dependence of cities is a liberating situation for individuals living in cities. In addition, it is out of the question that the relationship and acculturation between individuals with reduced external dependence will be very different from now.

Yaşar Ergin Demirhan

Interview: İlkin Taşdelen

Translation: Tevfik Hürkan Urhan