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European volunteers help Greek 'bailout gardens,' created to fight city hardship

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THESSALONIKI, Greece - Volunteer gardeners from countries around Europe visited Greece's second largest city, Thessaloniki, on Sunday to help local urban planting initiatives set up help residents hit by the country's financial crisis.

Urban gardens — used to plant vegetables and make use of land left vacant amid a sharp drop in real estate prices — have sprung up across Greece since the crisis brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy four years ago. Austerity measures demanded as part of Greece's international rescue have created widespread unemployment and hardship.

The volunteers from seven European countries are from a France-based group, called Kokopelli, that was created to promote seed variety and whose members are currently touring cities in south Europe.

On Sunday, they visited a disused army base where city residents have been allowed to create garden allotments, and organized a seed exchange, where aspiring gardeners swap locals varieties.

"We brought seeds for potatoes, onions and beans. Variety is important, and it's up to everyone involved to keep it going," German volunteer Juergen Schroeder told the AP.

Municipal authorities in Thessaloniki, a city in northern Greece of about 1.5 million people, have sought out disused plots land owned by the military, the national railway company and other public agencies to set up dozens of allotment schemes as the national unemployment rate has risen to above 27 per cent.

"This place was totally abandoned and no one could visit it," Greek volunteer Haris Lioras said of the army base, 2 kilometres (1.25 miles) north of the city centre. "Now people are learning how to grow vegetables and the site has returned to life."

Retiree Sokratis Sotiriadis says he's grateful for the help.

"In the summer, I get tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini, and it's great because the prices in the stores are too high for me," said the 62-year-old who uses one of 40 allotments on a narrow strip of disused railroad land in Thessaloniki.

"I don't know how else I would make it."

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