Feature: When grass roots not only sprout

Jerry Source: Jerry Mercury

After a year in Estonia, which followed my fleeing Russia, interviews with two locals in Tallinn gave me some serious thoughts. It was May 6, 2023 when I came to the Kadriorg Community Garden for the event, where people got their flower beds ready for the season. There, I was lucky to be able to contemplate the blooming flower buds of grassroots movements in Estonia. No way could I imagine something like this blossoming on Russian soil!

In the garden I was welcomed by a vibrant group of people enthusiastically preparing the area for the summer. These people instantly introduced me to two local activists from their grassroots community: Kadi Laansalu and Ave Kargaja. Both immediately agreed to answer some of my questions about the event and the movement in general.

I had a lot of questions. For me, a refugee from Russia, it was very difficult to get my head around the fact that some people in Estonia had organized all those gardens of their own initiative, and not due to orders from above. It seemed incredible to me that people who cultivate these areas are not afraid that government officials will demolish the flower beds with excavators, or appropriate the project for themselves.

These flower beds are not fenced off, and there are many benches around. How can it be that people here have not lost trust in each other, and plant flowers without fear that some vandals will come and destroy the beds, uproot the plants, scatter cigarette butts and other rubbish around and write some filth on the benches?

I became sincerely interested in what drives these people, what fosters their lively community and where they draw so much creative energy to do collective volunteer work year after year. In other words, when and under what conditions do these grass roots sprout?

The first person who I interviewed was Kadi Laansalu. She invited me to sit with her on a bench and treated me to tea with honey from her thermos flask.

Kadi smiles kindly. Her face and hands are tanned. She must have spent lots of time in the garden and it is clear that she loves this work very much. Here is our conversation.

Kadri. Source: Jerry Mercury

Could you please introduce yourself?

My name is Kadi. I am one of the… I don't know even how to call it, because we don't have managers. (Laughs). Because it's a community garden, so, I'm one of those who helps to make this happen. And this is our year number four. The city is funding us, so, every year we write a project to say what we are doing and what we would like to do. And then the city has been supporting us, at least so far. We have more than 30 gardeners, and everyone has their own little box and they can grow whatever they want and like. The only thing is that it should be environmentally friendly. So, we are not using pesticides or chemicals. And everyone grows flowers or food or whatever. And then we have common events like today, where we do things together because we have also common areas, flower beds and different things. And some people just come here to enjoy. They don't have their own gardens, or garden beds. They just come here, sit on the bench and have a picnic here. (Kadi points to a two-level wooden bench near the beds). And yeah, so this is like that. Nice place to rest in the city center.  

And who initiated this movement?

I have no idea whose personal initiative it was, but there were, I think, two main first gardens that started it. One was in Lasnamäe, and the other one is actually on private land. So, they were the first ones even before Tallinn started supporting us financially.

Does the city support the movement only financially?

You see, we have an agreement with the city that this plot is for our use, and the city also supports us. They mow the lawn, for example, collect the rubbish, and our part is to keep it nice and keep it in order, and use it.

Does the community garden movement have to do with some other ecological movements, against pollution, for example?

No. We don't have any. It's outside any movement or any politics, it's just… And people here have all very different backgrounds and nationalities. And also, age – I mean from children to… until pensioners. And we are really different people – we just love to do something outside and love gardening – this is the only common thing that we have.  And probably people also like to spend their time outside in fresh air, and not only sit in the city parks, but do something.

What is special about today's event?

We are preparing the flowerbeds for this year. So, everyone is welcome to prepare their flower bed by filling it with soil and also to put soil into the common beds. And also, we are painting some of the wooden bedsides and benches to protect them. Some of the people came really early in the morning. A lot of families have already done some work because their children need to sleep and they are already gone. And some people will come a little bit later, so it is a long day.

Do you hold any other events?

Yes, when we teach something, for example some types of summer flowers, or organic gardening or different types of flower beds, how to make them – in the permaculture way. And last year we made one bed for children, so they can play. So, there are different kinds of events.

Ok, and I heard that community gardening is widespread in Estonia?

Well, yeah there are community gardens in many cities… The majority of them are in Tallinn and Tartu, and there are also some in smaller towns.

What are your plans for the future? Will there be more community gardens?

I think, that every year there're more and more gardens of different types. Some of them are in kindergartens and schools. So, I think, there will be as many as possible, it only depends on where you find the place. Because it is not always easy to find the place where you have all the necessary things – not only the land, but also water.

Community garden in Tallinn. Source: Jerry Mercury

Do all people respect this garden, or probably there are some cases when people vandalize it?

Yeah, we've had some minor issues. There was a homeless guy who started using our water for washing. It would have been okay, but he just left all the rubbish here, so we had to put a lock on our water tank. (Laughs). And sometimes people pick our strawberries but there's no huge vandalism. And I think, people just love that they can sit here and it's not so, let's say, polished. It's more like your grandma's garden. (Laughs).

A lot of different people just come and sit on our bench, watch the birds and the flowers and then move on. These may be moms with their children or elderly people, or just neighbors. And actually, we have some areas there (Kadi turns and points at the area behind the trees), where people drink together. (Laughs). Or some homeless [people]. We see them very often. But they don't do any damage. They are really respectful.


I walk around the garden and take footage of the garden beds. White tulips fall into the frame. I take close-ups of them.

Community garden in Tallinn. Source: Jerry Mercury

A tall woman, with shoulder-length brown hair wearing a white-green baseball cap comes to meet me. She is also very friendly and smiles a lot. We start a conversation.

Could you please introduce yourself?

I'm Ave and I live in Kadriorg, and we are doing this community garden with a friend of mine. And I am really interested in community things – to do something in the place where I live. And I also organize tomorrow, [the] children's flea market, which is for the first time here in Kadriorg, and the interest is so big. (Laughs). And that makes me really happy because people can come together and work together like a community.

Ave. Source: Jerry Mercury

And what is [the] children's flea market?

It's actually this kind of event. Children and their parents are taking their old things – children's things. Clothes or toys or whatever and they are selling them for the next round. (Laughs). Maybe some children will make food and they sell it.

So, is it a big event?

I thought it would be a small one, but on Facebook I see that there are over 100 people who are interested in it. And we have almost 40 people who want to sell something. So, it's quite a big event.

And how did you come to the idea of this flea market?

I came to this idea, because I have two small children and they are growing so fast… So, I have many things at home and I don't have so many people to give those things to. I thought that maybe it would be good to give a new life to the old things.

Ok, maybe you would like to add something?

I don't know. (Laughs). I like doing community things and I live in a really nice street in Kadriorg, where I know so many people, who have children. And children are those who connect people with each other, I think. And dogs – also, I think, yeah. (Laughs).


Of course, sharing a passion for gardening can bring together people from all walks of life. And of course, bringing up children and breeding dogs can foster a lively and connected community. But I believe that there's something else to it that allows people to turn ideas into reality, and support each other's initiatives.

The next day I went to the children's flea market to see it with my own eyes. Everything was very simple and democratic: people, often whole families, placed children's clothes, shoes and toys for sale on tables, or right on the grass. Some people were selling homemade cakes, others were selling self-made goods. There were people of different ethnicities and cultures.

It was so unusual for me to watch this peaceful event where people experienced a great sense of community connectedness through this shared activity without being disturbed by threats or racketeering.


History knows many examples of when grassroots movements sprouted under oppression. But I believe that in order to really flourish these grassroots movements need a sufficient degree of freedom. When human dignity is valued and when one does not need to wait for an initiative from above to start doing something, people can gather freely together without looking around, fearing that they are about to be grabbed. They can create community hubs, be they gardens or flea-markets, where they can enjoy a range of social activities. Instead of leading an isolated lifestyle, competing fiercely with each other, people gather in these social hubs, which provide lots of opportunities for recreation and learning, sharing one's talents and even earning some money. They also provide spaces for exercise (working while breathing fresh air), contemplation and relaxation.

And besides, all these movements are very environmentally friendly. Gardening helps the environment to stay clean and healthy, and setting up grassroots markets contributes to a decrease in the production of new goods, as old things get a new life. These movements are also friendly to the social environment: in order to do something important, it is not necessary to occupy a high public position or belong to a certain social stratum. Anyone who wants to join can rent a flower bed for €10 per season.

I wish good luck to Estonian grassroots initiatives and have a dream that one day in the countries where aggression and oppression are cultivated, the situation will radically change, and grassroots initiatives will not only sprout, but also flourish and bear fruit.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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