Aladdin knipst die vertrockneten Knospen mit der Gartenschere ab
Author: Inge Fuchs
Pictures: Hanno Meier

Plant Whisperers

One is from Baden-Württemberg, the other from the Gambia. Landscape gardeners Klaus Mödinger and Alige Konateh met through their work. They have been close friends ever since. We spent a day looking over their shoulders.

One slab, then another. Alige Konateh, also known as Aladdin, is carefully putting together a stone carpet. The challenge: creating a two-centimeter slope while his examiner watches him closely. Two centimeters exactly, no more, no less. Aladdin puts down the final slab, and the examiner scrutinizes the ground with a raised eyebrow. “That’s not two centimeters.” “Boss”, Aladdin argues, “it’s nothing but a muggaseggele!” A West African speaking in the local dialect of Baden-Württemberg! The examiner’s heart melts, making him forget about the minor deviation. Aladdin passes his exam and receives the certificate making him a professional landscape gardener. He’s finally arrived – in his dream job and his new home.

Aladdin steht auf einer Leiter, um an die Knospen des Hibiskus ranzukommen

The Plant Whisperers

That was one year ago. Aladdin has been working with Rigon & Lenk in Fellbach for four years now. This is where he met Klaus Mödinger, who offered him an apprenticeship in his company. The 58-year-old grins as he recounts the story of Aladdin’s final examination. In a broad accent, he tells us of the examiner’s delight over the trainee’s mastery of the local dialect, which Klaus appears to have taught his protégé.

But the sense of humor, he assures us, is entirely Aladdin’s own. “As is this,” he says, tapping on his heart. He believes that plants have a soul. You may not be able to talk to them, but they’re just like all other living beings. Whenever a shoot needs trimming, he first inspects the plant carefully. “We always check in with the plant first,” Aladdin explains. This involves asking the tree why it’s growing the way it’s growing. Every shoot has its place, and a wrong cut cannot be reversed.

It’s an overcast day, and drizzle dampens our faces. Aladdin gently clips the buds off a wilted hibiscus plant. In the background, Klaus is clambering up a ladder. He analyses the treetop, pulls a saw from his belt and fells the branches of this ginkgo tree. The pair will need an entire working day to drag this sloped garden in the Stuttgart suburb of Fellbach out of hibernation. Klaus has been looking after the splendid grounds for more than 20 years. During a quick chat on the owner’s doorstep, we learn that she appreciates his landscaping work greatly, And she adores Aladdin. “These two together can brighten up the grayest day,” she praises her hard-working gardeners.

Transplanting seedlings, acquiring citizenship

Besides “Aladdin”, Alige has another nickname: “Mister Sunshine”. But where did “Aladdin” come from? “I’ve always been called that. It’s easier to pronounce, for Africans as well as Germans,” he jokes. Having come to Germany as a refugee seven years ago, he initially trained as an ornamental horticulturist, spending day after day transplanting seedlings. The 26-year-old soon became frustrated with the repetitive work, but his situation kept him coming back to the greenhouse. “If I hadn’t completed the training, I would have been deported right away,” he explains. He finished his two-year course and applied for an apprenticeship with Rigon & Lenk. “I was lucky, and now I’m very happy,” he says.

Klaus’s nickname is “the Plant Whisperer”. He is like a search engine when it comes to gardening: ask him about any plant and he will tell you its correct Latin name. Even though he used to be quite a lazy trainee in his younger years – before he developed a strategy and began to memorize the Latin terms using mnemonic stories and similes. That is exactly how he teaches his trainees today. “At some point, they all started calling me the Plant Whisperer,” he recalls. To show everyone that he and Aladdin belong together, both have a label saying “Plant Whisperer” on the breast pockets of their work jackets.

Aladdin hopes to continue working with Klaus for a long time. After all, they’ve become very close friends. He repeatedly emphasizes how grateful he is for everything he’s learned from Klaus. When we ask him about Klaus’s favorite plant, he takes a minute to think. “It’s definitely not taxus,” he exclaims and casts an expectant glance at Klaus. But his boss gives nothing away. Aladdin keeps guessing. Palm trees? Roses? It’s got to be something that blooms. I can’t be yew. “Of course it’s taxus,” Klaus shouts. Both laugh. “I’ve got a good boss,” Aladdin says. Sounds like a fairytale. And we all need a few of those nowadays.

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