I know there are Parisians with real gardens, because I’m always catching heady whiffs of jasmine climbing over wooden gates, squinting at impossibly lush trees high on rooftops, and trying to get good photos of the wisteria taking over the narrow passages whose postage stamp-sized green spaces turn most urbanites green with envy, especially in the time of Coronavirus. Most of us have to make do with our window ledges or tiny balconies. But there are actually several options for Parisians who want to do some serious gardening, even growing your own food, without owning land or leaving the city.
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The Urban Gardening Phenomenon
Once a fringe activity for the aging baba-cool hippies, urban gardening has taken Paris by storm in the past five years, with innovative ways of squeezing vegetable plots into the most improbable locations, from growing strawberries in shipping containers to planting a flower farm behind a cemetery. After urban beekeeping started flourishing on rooftops all over the city, it wasn’t long before gardens would find space up there as well.
The Largest Rooftop Farm in Europe
The biggest one in Europe, Nature Urbaine, aka “NU-Paris”, took root in spring 2020 (yes, right in the middle of a lockdown) atop the Paris Expo Convention Center at Porte de Versailles in the 15th arrondissement. It’s a truly ambitious project, with 4500m² of vertical hydroponic and aeroponic gardens producing several hundred kilos of organic fruit, vegetables and herbs every day during the summer. By 2022 they plan on expanding to the equivalent of 80,000m² by using 1,832 columns and 3,540 cultivation gutters. The produce from this rooftop farm is sold to the neighboring hotels and restaurants, including Le Perchoir, which opened a rooftop restaurant-bar overlooking the farm. Local residents can even find the produce for sale in their neighborhood supermarkets (such as Intermarché at 21 rue de Brançion, 15th, and Carrefour at 1 ave du Général Sarrail, 16th).
One of the primary goals of this rooftop farm is to serve as a model for how to sustainably and ecologically feed the cities of tomorrow. So the public are welcome to join a tour to see the farm itself (including “degustation” of the fresh produce). See the schedule here. There are also yoga and meditation sessions, but I’ll admit as much as I love the rooftop farm concept, visually it’s more “Life on Mars” than “Zen Oasis”. 😉
Get Your Own “Carré”
A small part of this massive rooftop farm has been dedicated to Parisians who would like to grow their own fruits, vegetables and flowers. There are 135 “carrés potager”, or raised wooden beds of exactly 1m², that you can rent for €320/year (that includes the starter kit of soil, gloves and seeds, access badge, as well as access to the compost, automatic watering, and assistance from professional gardeners on-site). I really wanted to get one of these myself, but the 30-minute trip from my flat to the Porte de Versailles seemed unreasonable. When I visited, I couldn’t help but notice that almost every box had the same things growing. “We had to plant almost all of them ourselves because the members couldn’t come to get their carrés started during confinement,” explained one of the young farm managers, who was on-site answering questions. They certainly got a good head start! All of the carrés are reserved for 2020, but you can get on the waitlist for 2021 here.
Peas & Love: An Almost Risk-Free Alternative
Although they’re not getting as much press, Jean-Patrick Scheepers’ urban gardening company, Peas & Love, also offers an interesting way to enjoy the harvest of your own fruits, herbs and veggies without worrying about accidentally killing everything you plant.
The basic premise is that you reserve as many square meters of space to grow both vertically and horizontally for a monthly fee in one of the Peas & Love gardens near you, and a professional farmer will actually do all of the gardening work, you simply come by at least once each week in summer, or every two weeks in spring and fall, to harvest the bounty. Although it’s registered as a business, not a non-profit community garden, there is an emphasis on community and learning, with regular workshops and demos for all of the members.
In addition to the private plots that you get to harvest just for you, there is also a “communal” plot that all members can enjoy for a wider variety of produce available. It’s a bit like signing up for weekly produce delivery from farmers, except that you go and pick the produce yourself.
Membership starts at €34/month for a 4m² plot in one of the two gardens in Paris’s 15th arrondissement (including one on the rooftop of the Hotel Yooma near the Eiffel Tower). There are also two other gardens in the Parisian suburbs (Rosny-sous-Bois and Le Chesnay). There are some spaces still available on the Yoomla rooftop for 2020 if you’re itching to get started right away.
Join a Community Garden
Back down to earth, there are over a hundred community gardens, or “jardins partagés” in Paris, mostly in the outer arrondissements (there are only a half-dozen in central Paris). Sometimes they’re located within a public garden, and sometimes they pop up in abandoned lots or spaces loaned by the local town hall, including along the Petite Ceinture train tracks. Most are managed by neighborhood associations made up of volunteers. A few are reserved just for schools, usually under the moniker “jardin pédagogique.” In all cases, these are informal community gardens, not commercial ventures like Nature Urbaine or Peas & Love. Garden plots in community gardens don’t cost that much, usually just a small fee (ie €10-€20) to become a member of the non-profit association that manages it.
Disclaimer: This shouldn’t imply the farms selling plots aren’t doing city dwellers a service! For some perspective, the average price of real estate in Paris is €9000 per square meter (much more if there’s any space for gardening)!
While finding information online has become a lot easier in the past decade, many still have outdated websites – if they have one at all! Getting a plot might require adding your name to a long waitlist, but if you’re really interested and persistent, your best bet would be to simply show up and present yourself, find out who you need to know, volunteer if they’re in need, and basically show you’re interested and committed, especially towards the end of the gardening season when a lot of people start to lose interest.
Some community gardens have individual plots, others are communal gardens. If you don’t have time to commit to your own veggie plot, or, like me, your thumb is more black than green (I’m sure I singlehandedly keep gardening centers in business by replacing my dead houseplants on an almost-monthly basis), consider volunteering your time on a community garden where everyone works together rather than starting on your own plot right away. This gives you the chance to learn urban gardening skills, recognize the difference between weeds and radish shoots (hey, don’t judge!), and ideally get to enjoy the literal fruits of your collective labor.
This Weekend’s Garden Festival
You may have already spotted a communal garden in your neighborhood; don’t be shy! This weekend is a great time to stop by during the Fête des Jardins when many are open to the general public for tours and workshops. See the full list here (PDF).
Volunteer at an Urban Farm
I had a great experience volunteering for a year at V’Ile Fertile (in the Bois de Vincennes), which you can read about here. Anyone can pop by to purchase the produce for sale each weekend, but to participate in the gardening you need to be a member (suggested donation €20). There’s a lot of info on their website, but it’s best to just stop by on weekend afternoons (between 2-6pm there is usually a core group of volunteers to welcome you).
Guerilla Gardening Right on the Streets of Paris
Another option for ambitious urban gardeners that isn’t for the faint of heart is to get a permit to cultivate your own little corner of Paris. In 2016 the City of Paris decided to encourage its residents to participate in the greening of their own neighborhood with the initiative known as “Végétalisons Paris!”
It’s not technically guerilla gardening because anyone with a well-defined project can apply for a free planning permit – permis de végétaliser – to green any inch of soil in the city’s public spaces. That means you can plant your veggies or flowers in the little patch on earth at the foot of the tree outside your front door or in the strip of grass in the roundabout at the end of your street. What’s hard is keeping it from getting destroyed by people using it for an ashtray, a trash bin, or a place for their dogs to relieve themselves.
Most Parisians seem to be using their permits to grow flowers, but you still see the occasional blackberry bushes or zucchini plants. Above all, creativity seems to win the most points!