This time, a post “less lyrical, a bit more local and informational”. 

To those who asked me “How?” since we got the allotment… 

If you want to try your hand at growing your own food or flowers in South Holland, you don’t necessarily have to live in a house with a large south facing garden or confine yourself to a box of herbs or pansies on your balcony. Garden allotments (or community gardens as they are called in North America) can be a solution even for those who are not permanent residents in the Netherlands!

Allotments existed in Holland already in the 17th century as kooltuinen (cabbage gardens), and until about 50 years ago this is what they mostly were – gardens for the working class to grow vegetables in. Nowadays, most are used for recreation (as siertuinen) as much as for growing food. There are about 250,000 allotments in the Netherlands, organised into nearly 1000 associations (called volkstuinvereinigingen).

Allotments vary significantly – the plots are of different sizes, so you can decide how much you are willing and able to take on. Most would have a shed but some don’t.  Some only allow to grow annual plants and the plots have to be cleared in the autumn. Sometimes you get a permanent spot, sometimes you need to rotate. Some plots have a house, wooden or stone, and may allow overnight stays. The bigger ones often have a glasshouse.

There are different regulations too about what you can and can’t do on the allotment. And you should definitely visit several allotment parks – they are usually open to the public during the day. Have a look at what is allowed in the allotment park, see what’s growing in other people’s gardens. Is it well maintained, do you like the “feel” of the park itself? Is it easily accessible to you? – during a hot summer like last year you may well have to go take care of the plants every day. The costs differ as well, of course. And you are expected to do some work on the common areas of the allotment park, a few times during the year. Which is an excellent way to meet new people! Allotment holders are usually a very friendly bunch. There are now many young people among them, some with families, and it is becoming rather mixed in terms of nationalities. It is a very active environment, associations usually organise a number of activities, such as games, seasonal meals, plant sales, and competitions (at my allotment there is a fuchsia show every summer!).

Associations around The Hague are part of the Haagse Bond, which has a very comprehensive website, with a list and a map of all the member associations, links to their websites etc. (http://www.haagsebond.nl) There is a central application process, the application form is on the website as well. You need to pay an annual fee (about EUR20), indicate your choice of the association and will then be placed on a waiting list. Allotments are growing in popularity so waiting lists are becoming longer. But it is well worth the wait!

Once you get a plot, the first thing to do is to take stock. Do not make rash decisions and do not throw anything away! Observe the plants, observe the plot. What already grows there? What may need repairing or replacing? How does the sun move, does that tree cast a significant shade, where exactly? Are there any trees on neighbouring plots that may create shade?

Then you need decide what to grow. What will do well in the local climate? Take your clue from what’s already growing on neighbouring allotments.  Start with easy things and do not get overly ambitious (do not start with tricky options like aubergines!). Think of other decision factors. What has most flavour when picked fresh (beans, asparagus)? Where does the home grown taste really come through (e.g., tomatoes, strawberries)? What is relatively expensive to buy? Growing pumpkin and squash are economical while potatoes are less so. You can grow some varieties that do not make sense commercially but are of high quality and really interesting to try. What does your family like but is difficult to find in local shops? And what makes sense for your family from a lifestyle perspective? For example, we are happy to have inherited a couple of raspberry and gooseberry bushes. We are not, however, planning to plant anymore because of a very nice garden nearby (called Pluk, http://www.plukdenhaag.nl) which we plan to visit a lot. We also have a family tradition to pick apples and pears at Olmenhorst which is an orchard near Leiden (http://www.olmenhorst.nl). We want to keep that tradition, so it does not make sense for us to grow fruit trees ourselves. Other factors may be important – for example, our family would like to plant with beneficial insects in mind.

On our allotment this year, I am planning to grow several varieties of tomatoes (beef and cherry) as well as cucumbers (some in the glasshouse and some outside) – both make regular appearance at our dinner table. Everyone in the family will get to grow veggies they like to eat best – snack-size carrots for my older daughter and beans for the younger. My husband loves rhubarb and wants to raise a couple of plants from seed, although he got a bit deflated on hearing that harvest would have to wait until the second year! Personally, I am very keen on Jerusalem artichokes (I adore Jerusalem artichoke soup with truffle oil but also like them for their decorative value – they bloom a lot like sunflowers (and are from the same family)). Also, sorrel – in my family’s recipe book there is a delicious summer soup I want to make. Plus, sorrel is excellent in salads but difficult to come by in supermarkets.

There are so many possibilities and you are free to experiment to your heart’s desire. As long as you adhere to the association’s rules about garden maintenance, that is. And have lots of fun!

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