October 12, 2017
This post is the eighth in a series – Letters from the Low Country – about food and agriculture in the Netherlands, written by Laura Genello as she studies organic agriculture at Wageningen University.
What would you do with a thousand square foot garden?
It’s a sunny day in the early fall when Lennart and Iris show me their allotment in the volkstuinencomplex, translated as “people’s garden complex.” We walk through a low fence buried in nasturtium vines, past towering sunflowers and a weathered wooden compost bin to find their 3 by 30 meter allotment garden. Golden raspberries mark a corner of their plot. Warm from the sun, the berries are delicious. The garden is awash in color: saucer-sized dahlias lean in to deep red amaranth stalks, orange nasturtium blossoms intertwine themselves with drying stalks, and deep green Lacinato kale takes shelter under netting. At the far end scarlet runner beans climb a trellis far taller than me, their tendrils waving in the breeze.
When I first arrived in the Netherlands, I was struck by how ubiquitous these gardens were, often tucked in between dairy pastures or behind a train station. Similar to the United States, an individual or a family can rent a plot in these community gardens from the garden managers for a small annual fee. In visiting allotment gardens in the Netherlands, I couldn’t help but notice that they seemed bigger, more widespread and more enduring than many of the community plots I’ve seen in the US. In fact, an allotment in the Netherlands can stay in a family for decades, and in many gardens the smallest plot size on offer is more than 900 square feet. Thus, it’s not uncommon to find fruit trees, asparagus, berries and even a tiny greenhouse occupying a corner of the plot. Some allotment gardens in the Netherlands even allow people to purchase a plot and erect small vacation homes on site.
Iris and Lennart have two plots totaling more than 3,000 square feet. In the first, which is plowed annually by the garden manager, they grow a colorful assortment of annuals. Their second plot is not plowed and is dedicated to perennial production, including several rows of strawberries. In their perennial garden, a small grove of willows creates a sense of peace and privacy. As a gardener, I’m impressed at the space they have under cultivation, but Iris doesn’t seem daunted by the work. While Iris and Lennart are able to produce most of their fruits and vegetables in the garden during the summer months, for Iris, it is about much more than food production. The garden is an escape, a chance to find peace and quiet, but also a community. Over the nearly 20 years she has been gardening in this space, she has enjoyed the everyday interactions with her fellow gardeners: from good morning small talk to coordinating plans for irrigation.
Today, there are more than 240,000 allotment plots in the Netherlands, and the practice has a long history dating back to the 19th century. The first allotment gardens in the Netherlands can be traced to around 1838 as a strategy to combat urban poverty. Increasing industrialization and migration to urban areas put a strain on cities. Beginning in the 1800s, land was leased to the urban poor to grow food. By the turn of the century, many businesses were providing land allotments to their workers for gardening. However, the practice of allotment gardening across all of Europe peaked during the time of and in between the first and second world wars. Across Europe, the rise in gardening in the war period was fueled by the victory garden movement in the US, in which gardening was seen not just as recreation or self-provisioning, but an act of civic duty to compensate for the loss of many farmers who had enlisted, especially in countries like the UK.
Lennart and Iris feel that the reconstruction period after World War II helped cement the practice of gardening culturally in the Netherlands. Indeed, in the 1950s municipalities across the Netherlands allocated additional land for gardens and included allotments in zoning codes. At the time, the scarcity of the war was not a distant memory, and growing your own food created a sense of resilience. After the reconstruction period, allotment gardening declined, and its purpose shifted away from food production to recreation. Today, many gardens are hybrid production-recreation spaces, and allotment gardening is seeing another revival across Europe, spurred by increasing environmental awareness. (For more information on the history of allotment gardens in Europe, see Simon Bell; Rundrid Fox-Kämper et al. (Hg.) 2016: Urban Allotment Gardens in Europe : COST Action 1201. London: Routledge.)
It’s amazing how time slips by when surrounded by greenery and flowers. As I leave the allotment, with a pumpkin from Iris and Lennart in my bike bag, I think about what a garden can mean. Allotment gardens in the Netherlands have evolved over the centuries from places of subsistence food production to recreational oases, where food is grown not out of necessity but by choice and for fun. While the role of gardening in the Netherlands has evolved over time, it has always filled a need. For Iris and Lennart, the garden provides a way to connect with nature, to be outside and find relaxation among the flowers. Iris believes that the gardening is also popular today as an opportunity for people to reconnect with food and teach their children how food grows. On a broader scale, gardens green urban environments, spread environmental awareness and bring people together.
Images by Laura Genello, 2017.