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Why my building's garden day marks the real start of Swedish summer

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
Why my building's garden day marks the real start of Swedish summer
Richard Orange's son Finn whittles a stick during his building's garden day on Saturday. Photo: Richard Orange

People across Sweden will gather around Valborg bonfires this weekend to mark the end of the dark winter. But for Richard Orange, summer officially begins when his apartment building holds its garden day.


"Are you going to go to the garden day?" asked one of my neighbours at the start of last week. "I'm not sure I really have the energy."

I stopped dead in my tracks.

Miss the garden day!? She might as well have asked if could be bothered to celebrate Christmas.

Communication with our neighbours in Malmö is generally limited in winter to short, sometimes awkward, conversations in the stairwell and notices that go up admonishing residents, frequently us, to remove bicycles and clutter from the hallway.

But in spring and summer, that changes and the moment it changes is Garden Day, or trädgårdsdag, which is, for me, one of the best things about living in a Swedish housing cooperative or bostadsrättsförening.

"You absolutely have to go!" I admonished her. "It's the only time the building comes together. Muck in!"

READ ALSO: How to get on with your neighbours in Sweden

Preparations this year began in the second week of April. A notice went up setting a date and time, then shovels, trowels and bags of cow manure appeared in the hallway (purchased, it turned out later, by my wife).


After lunch on Saturday, representatives from the 13 apartments appeared punctually in our courtyard garden, with its cherry tree, birch tree and small island patio.

Soon the courtyard was a vision of productive labour: the bike shed was swept, bushes and roses rather too savagely pruned. Long strings of ivy were pulled from the wall and fence. Manure was worked into the flower beds and new flowers planted.

What impresses me every year is how good my Swedish neighbours are at each seeking out a task that isn't already being done by someone else and then getting stuck in. No one needs to give any orders and when a decision needs to be made, all it takes is a short discussion. People might disagree, but when they sense they're in a minority, they give way.

Back home in the UK, this wouldn't work. Egos would clash. Rather than bringing the neighbours together, people would fall out over competing visions for the common space and what work to prioritise. 


But it's as much about community as about work.

Swedes, I've learned, are only comfortable socialising when engaged in a common task, like weaving, training a football team, or fixing up boats. It's the reason Christmas and Easter celebrations are all about the little julpyssel and påskpyssel craft projects families do together, and why Swedes seem to enjoy preparing festive foods more than they do actually consuming them.

You don't have to be in a bostadsrättsförening to witness this in action. Similar days of common labour are held at the koloniträdgårdar or shared garden cooperatives you find around Sweden's cities, at any club with common areas, or in villages with common spaces. Foreigners who want to take a step into Swedish life, should leap at every chance they get to take part, as it's the best chance to get to know people. 

On Saturday, for the first time in more than seven months, the courtyard in our building was teeming with, I think, 13 children between the ages of two and eleven, with some of the youngest realising only then that they have potential playmates only a few floors away. Big boxes of ice creams came out. Our dog raced around in pursuit of rats.

At the end of the day, we heaved our two barbecues back up from the basement and fired them up. The adults then knocked back beer and wine, sharing food and sitting back and chatting for the first time since the barbecues were packed up in September.

Throughout May and June, and to a lesser extent, July and August, this will continue, with different constellations of neighbours and their friends gathering around the outdoor table pretty much every week and sharing food and drinks.

So for a few summer months my building contradicts Swedes' otherwise justified reputation for reserve, just as city squares, parks and beaches across the country are filled with a kind of jubilance you never otherwise never see. 

"It was so amazing. I had such a great time," the neighbour said, here eyes sparkling, when I met her the next day. Her 3-year-old daughter, she said, couldn't stop talking about the new best friend she had played with from the first floor flat. "We have such wonderful neighbours".


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