Volkstuinen: The allotments of the Netherlands
There is nothing more satisfying that growing your own fruits and vegetables. In the Netherlands however, the prospect of doing so can seem quite bleak. But believe us when we say, things can grow here without a greenhouse!
What is a volkstuin?
For those who have not heard of the term, a volkstuin is an allotment or community garden. It usually consists of a plot of land, which is non-commercial, where individuals or families can grow fruits and vegetables, flowers and trees.
Allotments are generally patches of land but often have sheds and sometimes, even a proper summerhouse shelter for seasonal or weekend accommodation. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it!
The history of volkstuinen
In the Netherlands, volkstuinen started in the 17th century. Back then, they were more commonly known as moestuinen; an old fashioned term meaning vegetable garden, or kooltuinen (cabbage gardens). They were places where the working class produced a reasonable amount of vegetables for themselves as well as selling off the surplus.
It was believed that these gardens would increase the happiness of people by improving the material and moral circumstances of the working class.
It wasn’t until around 1928 that the allotment societies founded a national organisation by the name of De Algemene Vereniging van Volkstuinen Nederland (AVVN). Allotments in the Netherlands were generally used for vegetable production up until about the 1950s when the gardens became more known for their recreational use.
The benefits of having an allotment
There are more than 240.000 allotments in the Netherlands. With the hustle and bustle of the city, getting away can come as a godsend. In fact, spending time around nature can work wonders, and gardening is most definitely therapeutic.
Whilst allotments in the Netherlands cannot be considered as permanent residences, overnight stay during the summer season is possible if this falls under the municipality's plans and the space has a garden house that meets the requirements. You won’t be able to obtain a residence permit though as it is not an official residence.
An expat’s story
Hanako, an expat from Japan, describes her story of how she came to buy her allotment.
› How you come to find out about volkstuinen?
We came to the Netherlands through a work opportunity. A local theatre company had hired us to make music for a play. They had taken care of our accommodation but only for the three months, we were working for them.
Finding a place to live in Amsterdam was impossible with the budget we were on as self-employed musicians so my partner and I were desperately looking for a place to live.
Then, I saw an ad on a Japanese community website that a Japanese lady was looking for people to help manage the garden since she was getting old. In exchange, we would be allowed to stay in her little garden house temporarily.
The very first time we saw the garden, we fell in love with it. It was huge! It was 630m2 filled with trees, plants, and flowers! It had 25 cherry blossom trees, 10 grape vines of different kinds, two apple trees, a pear tree, a walnut tree, a chestnut tree, and a plum tree, to name just a few.
Please be aware that not all associations allow non-members to work or stay in the allotments. Regulations regarding this are set out in an associations statutes.
› What kind of things did you grow?
Spending time at the garden house was awesome! We grew a bunch of vegetables; edamame beans, daikon, mizuna, persimmons, radishes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, eggplant, pumpkin, potatoes, chard, Brussels sprouts, kale, mint, raspberries, strawberries, and even figs. These were all organic of course, and we even grew wild plants like nettle, chamomile, and mustard greens grew everywhere!
› Did you experience any challenges?
One of the challenges we had was fighting off slugs! Since we were farming organically, it was just impossible for us to get rid of them. They’d appear from nowhere and they would just eat everything!
So we made beer traps to try and catch them. Each morning and at sunset, I would patrol and check the beer traps for slugs. They were always full.
The beer traps are an old technique from Germany according to a fellow Dutch gardener of mine. They help reduce the population of slugs, but it’s only effective if you do it repeatedly. Otherwise, you won’t have anything to harvest.
› How much time did you put into harvesting?
If you want to harvest something in the Netherlands, organically, you have to spend some time every morning and evening taking care of the vegetables.
Veggies from the cabbage family need a lot of attention because you will see worms trying to make their home in their leaves.
Having a good organic fertiliser, like compost is also key to a successful harvest.
› How many harvests did you have?
Every year the harvest kicks off with fruits like strawberries, raspberries, cherries, figs, apples, pears, and then grapes.
For vegetables, the earliest harvest is from May or June depending on the vegetable. Leafy stuff like shunpike takes a shorter period of time, whereas root vegetables take a few more months.
You can harvest kale or chard later on in the year because they taste better after it starts to get frosty.
Harvesting cherries is one of the highlights of summer at our garden house allotment. I just love waking up and eating the freshly picked cherries every morning!
How to go about getting one
Allotments in the Netherlands are rented from an association or the rights to a plot are obtained when one is granted membership at an association.
Plots differ in size and you can, for example, rent a small plot just to grow a few vegetables, or a slightly larger plot of land with a shed. You can also rent one with a garden house as well as a shed, or even a plot of land with a garden house, shed and possibly even a greenhouse.
The costs for an allotment will differ according to its size, extras such as a shed and the association involved.
Allotment holders do not own the land they rent. More commonly than not, the municipality owns the land, although in some cases the association itself owns the land.
Allotments around the Netherlands
Allotments can be found all over the Netherlands. The national organisation for allotments is called the Algemene Vereniging van Volkstuinen Nederland (AVVN). This website lists volkstuinen around the country, however, you would then need to contact the individual association to find out about available allotments and what rules apply when acquiring one.