Ask people from the Baltics to define a traditional line of work, and you’ll most likely to hear the same thing: “We are a nation of agriculture at heart. Mention our countries, and the image that often comes to mind is one of wheat fields, blooming sunflowers, and singing farmworkers.”
Lithuanians may also tell you they are a nation of farmers — even if their only agriculture experience is weeding their grandmother’s garden. Up until the late 90s, most of rural dwellers had gardens in their backyards. Urban citizens would often own small plots of land with summer houses. And while it might no longer be customary, the idea of growing their own food is still important to many Lithuanians, either as a plan, or a distant dream.
For now, however, it often remains highly unprofitable to cultivate smaller pieces of land. Despite efforts from different NGOs, governments, and the European Commission to promote alternatives — small or medium-sized family farms, organic, no-till, or biodynamic farming — mass farmed food pushes higher-cost, better-quality products out of the market.
But it’s these alternatives that are appearing in Lithuania’s urban spaces: reaching out to communities to teach them not only about growing food, but also about growing closer. Whether as a way to reconnect with national roots, an opportunity to redefine agricultural identity for modern times, or as a tool for community building, food growing is seeping back into urbanised society.
Dominated by towering gray blocks of Soviet-era flats, Lithuania’s residential districts — also known as ”sleeping districts” — are a whirlpool of constant public discourse. There is an ongoing battle to improve these often neglected neighbourhoods: to make them more appealing, greener, and to renovate buildings with insulation.
Activists at The Garden of Ideas are doing their part to unite these communities. They allow the residents of Vilnius’ Pilaitė district to grow their choice of vegetables, herbs, or flowers in open-air raised garden beds. It started as an experiment to revitalise the area, says co-founder Beatričė Umbrasaitė. “The neighbourhood, like many other social modernist residential neighbourhoods, suffers from poor quality public spaces, and the lack of developed urban greenery,” she says. “The monofunctional nature here degrades the public realm and its vitality.”
Although Soviet-era residential blocks have plenty of empty space between them, these are usually either filled by cars, or neglected and left to fend for themselves, resulting in sparse patches of grass dotting the ground. The Garden of Ideas has published a free urban farming guide to prove that even these small spaces can become something more — and hope that more similar projects will sprout up around the country.
“This urban garden is a tool to both create more high-quality green public spaces in the neighbourhood and also to engage the local community and empower them to change their living environment for the better,” says Umbrasaitė.
At its core, CoolŪkis is a project that connects those looking to garden with those who have a spare plot of land. After participants are matched, one party provides the land — and often, their own gardening knowledge — while the other regularly tends the garden and grows vegetables that the pair later share between them.
“We were looking to preserve gardening traditions and pass the know-how from one generation to another,” says co-founder Austė Černiauskaitė. “We noticed that many people who own land suitable for gardening don’t cultivate it, and then on the other side you have people who are interested in gardening but do not have a place to do it.”
The project revolves around sustainable farming. Participants learn about soil health and composting, foraging and plant-based diets, and reusing objects in the garden or at home. “We are still very small, but there are about 2,000 people in our Facebook group,” says Austė. “Some of them participate in the activities and seminars, others are waiting for an available garden plot.”
Goda Sosnovskienė often meets people who see gardening as an alien concept. “Children sometimes do not know how milk is made, or ‘what factory produces tomatoes’,” she jokes.
Sosnovskienė is a co-founder of The City Laboratory — a project that brings food growing into urban spaces. As well as providing several outdoor raised garden beds where local can plant seeds, the project also has an experimental hydroponic garden: where plants are grown indoors in nutritionally-saturated water, rather than soil. While hydroponic gardens have high starting costs, due to their special construction and lighting, they also use up to 90 per cent less water that traditional farms. They allow crops to be grown in industrial zones, where groundwater may be polluted, and eliminate the need for pesticides, which are common in soil gardening.
“Gardening initiatives in urban areas are important for several reasons: growing your food shortens supply chains, but it’s also about educating the next generation about how food grows and appears on our table,” says Sosnovskienė. “The more of the urban population grows food for personal consumption, adhering to seasonality, the less food will need to be imported from far-away lands, and that would significantly reduce our CO2 footprint.”
All of the group’s work is brought together in a community café and space in Vilnius’ Antakalnis neighbourhood, where families and friends can play, eat, or gather for events. They include artist meet-ups, cooking classes, and courses that teach residents how to set up a garden on their own balconies.
Sustainable farming projects often fall into one of two camps. There are those which rely on back-to-roots, no-till, regenerative farming, and those which pioneer cutting-edge and innovative technology, optimising every drop of water. One example of the latter are Daržulis’ vertical, hydroponic indoor gardens. Founded by food technologist Marius Krutulis, the company’s leafy greens line multi-levelled shelves. They do not use soil, but grow using an LED light. This fully-controlled environment eliminates seasonality and allows continuous harvesting throughout the year. The first of its kind in Baltics, the company seeks to offer a solution to the world’s increasing lack of arable land. What can you do when traditional land cultivation is not an option?
Daržulis’ vertical gardens are located in a heavily-industrialised area of the Kaunas Free Economic Zone, somewhere that would not be suitable for traditional crops due to industrial pollutants in the air and soil. Krutulis claims that vertical farming uses up to 97 per cent less water and about five times less electricity than greenhouse farming, making it more sustainable than soil cultivation.
“Maybe it is true that having less than 100 hectares in traditional farming is not a lucrative business. But try giving 100 hectares to a vertical farmer, and I could see them feeding half the European population. That is the main difference and advantage of this method,” says Krutulis.
Fancy adopting a beehive? Urban beekeeping is sometimes seen as the ultimate in keeping green spaces thriving — but the practice is still niche and requires more knowledge than growing basil on your windowsill. Vilnius-based company Urban Bee solves these issues by offering a full beekeeping service. The company allows gives hive-keeping customers the chance to get involved in beekeeping without the leg work, which has proven popular amongst business centres and other institutions. Urban Bee clients include Lithuania’s Presidential palace, and the Vilnius municipality.
Urban Bee will bring their customers bees and hives, install them, and take care of the insects regularly. Owners can then monitor the bees through regular reports or even get data on the hive’s temperature, weight, or buzzing. At the end of the process, the company harvests the honey, which can be branded with customised labels and used as business gifts.