In most cases "im Garten" is used for being in the garden, although with other nouns, e.g. Berg, that could only mean to be into or within the thing itself. But sometimes one sees "auf dem Garten". Most often it is with the verb liegen, which explains the use of auf. But here is an example taken from DWDS for which I cannot explain the use of auf instead of in:

Im Garten wurde auch zu Mittag gegessen.

Sonntag soll ich auf dem Garten zu Mittag essen, aber ich will nicht.

What is the explanation? Is it simply that both prepositions are accepted in this context? If so, what makes Garten different than other nouns in this respect, like Feld or Berg? It would seem that auf dem Garten would actually be the choice that was more consistent with the use of these prepositions elsewhere.


3 Answers 3


Maybe there is some regional variation which eludes me. To me the explanation is that the latter sentence with "auf dem Garten" is wrong; I cannot come up with any context where "auf dem Garten" makes sense to me. If I had to construct one it would have to be like

Auf unserem Garten liegt jetzt der riesige Findling, der den Berg heruntergerollt ist. (= on our garden now lies the giant stone block which tumbled down the hill)

However, even then, I'd most likely choose ('in unserem Garten'), e.g. like this: "Am Sonntag werde ich auf der Terrasse im Garten essen.".

Choice of prepositions indicates whether you are on the surface of something ("auf"), whether you are in(side) the object ("im") or among ("zwischen") or below something ("unter").

Of course there are always edge cases where logic can argue one or the other way - likely one has to learn those if your mother tongue treats it differently. However, generally, in German, you are in an area ("in"), and on a surface ("auf"):

im Land, im Garten, im Grünen, im Wald, im Sumpf, im Feld, in der Erde, im Steinbruch, im Haus, im Auto, im Zug, ...

auf dem See, auf dem Berg, auf der Straße, auf der Weide, auf dem Dach, auf der Motorhaube, auf dem Fahrrad, auf dem Stuhl, auf dem Tisch, ...

Interestingly, and consequently, it makes a difference whether I say "Ich liege auf dem Bett" or "Ich liege im Bett". The first indicates simply that I lay on the bed, the latter that I lay in bed.

Along the same line goes "auf dem Fluss fahren Schiffe" or "in dem Fluss schwimmen Fische".

  • 3
    It might be worth mentioning that the "Sonntag soll ich...* quote is from a letter written in 1807, and German has changed significantly in the intervening 225 years. Plus, being a letter and not originally meant for a general audience, it might be more likely to contain regionalisms. There is also the possibility of OCR errors with something like this, but in this case the original page is available and it seems to have been scanned correctly.
    – RDBury
    Apr 22, 2022 at 1:24
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    There are a lot of examples in current speech for the use of auf to mean im or bei. It should be considered regional dialect, cf. my answer.
    – AndOne
    Apr 22, 2022 at 6:18

The term auf dem Garten seems to be regional dialect. Perhaps a bit old-fashioned by today's standards, but far from exotic.

A quick Google Books search yielded Magyarische Grammatik from 1858 which explicitly lists phrases such as auf dem Garten, auf dem Hause, and auf der Mühle as valid examples.

To give more examples, some of the fellow people from Franconia (Franken) like to have a drink auf dem Keller which may well used to be an actual location but has changed to mean to drink wine at a Biergarten. Another example is to be auf der Datscha, i.e. to visit one's datcha. There's also an explanation by Zwiebelfisch about auf der Arbeit sein:

Vor dem Wort "Arbeit" sind die Präpositionen "auf", "bei" und "in" prinzipiell gleichwertig. Je nachdem, ob man unter Arbeit den Arbeitsplatz versteht, das Ausüben einer Tätigkeit oder das Gebäude, in dem man arbeitet, kann man "auf der Arbeit" (= auf der Arbeitsstelle), "bei der Arbeit" (= beim Arbeiten) oder "in der Arbeit" (im Büro, in der Fabrik) sein. Die telefonische Auskunft an den daheim Wartenden "Ich bin noch auf Arbeit!" ist hingegen umgangssprachlich.

To answer your question: Yes, I would say that auf means im in this context and represents an example of common speech.


There is one usage that may be a regional variant (found only in South-Western Germany, maybe?). Also, I cannot tell whether it applies in the context of the cited examples. Yet, this is my impression in general:

im Garten

This refers to someone's garden, usually right next to their house.

auf dem Garten

This refers to a Gartengrundstück, a plot of land exclusively used for gardering, and located somewhere else.

  • 1
    Someone told me that their grandparents used this phrasing to differentiate between leisure time (im Garten sein) and doing some gardening/landscaping work (auf dem Garten sein). But this is just anecdotal evidence, of course :)
    – AndOne
    Apr 22, 2022 at 9:02

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