I think I am half way intelligent. But sometimes I can say something stupid, yes, it can happen to the best of us. As an American living in the Netherlands, I have been surprised and shocked by certain things. And some things take a little longer to get used to.

This is a country that does not have the financial struggles that larger countries have. Unemployment has increased and families are facing tough times. There are people who are not members of the upper middle class, there are people who live in subsidized housing and there are families who are in need of assistance from the government. I did not expect to find a perfectly rich land, but still….

I did not expect to see shacks. When you are driving on the motorway, you can see these collections of shacks, like a small village, and it looks like each shack has a small yard and not much else. These small houses reminded me of something I saw as a child in southern California. We would drive by a section of train tracks to get to another town and we would see a few men sitting near the tracks. It was known as “hobo junction”. That image has stayed with me, as it was like so many old black and white movies where men would leap onto a train with a little knapsack. It all seemed adventurously romantic to me.

So after a few months of living here, and seeing numerous collections of these run down little houses, I blurted out: “I am so surprised that there are so many poor people living like this in the Netherlands.” I was asked to explain myself and I went on about the shacks and “hobo junction”.  That was my stupid comment. I was then told that those buildings and yards were not for poor people…they were garden allotments. Those shacks were sheds for  garden tools. Those yards were vegetable gardens.

First, I was so happy that I was wrong. That people were not forced to live there. Secondly, I was glad that there were options for people who wanted to garden, but could not because of where they lived. I have heard and seen allotments on television, but I had never seen them in real life.

In the Netherlands, garden allotments were started in the 15th century. This was done to help the working class grow fresh food. By the 17th century, there was a movement to increase the happiness of the poor, and gardening was a solution. They could rent a small piece of land and grow their own food and it was good for their health to be outside, working in the dirt. The popularity of the gardens has grown and there are now 250,000 allotments in this country. They are called “volkstuin”—the people’s garden.

You have to appreciate the limited access to open space—this is a reality of this country. So many people live in apartments and they want to garden vegetables or flowers. There are wonderful allotments in New York City and that provides city dwellers a perfect opportunity to get their hands dirty. Here, if you want to rent an allotment, you must be a legal resident of this country, and you have to join an association and pay dues.

There are two types of allotments:  the kind with a shed and land and the other one is of a grander scale. With these, you get a bigger yard and a house that you can live in for 6 months a year. That is right, you can basically have a summer home and a garden. The locations for these places are just beautiful and are all within city limits. As an example, Amsterdam (and surrounding the city) has 29 different allotment areas, with a total of 6,000 gardens.

The other thing that people can have on their piece of land is a  greenhouse or hothouse. Now I am not talking about the red light district, these are the traditional hothouses that have flowers and vegetables. The Netherlands has the largest greenhouses in the world and over half of all greenhouses in Europe are in this country. So you can imagine that a small scale hothouse would be very popular here.

I am not a gardener and never will be. But I love the world of gardeners and I have many friends who can grow a cucumber blindfolded in a snow storm—they just have very green thumbs.

I told the children about my mistaking the allotments for very sad little homes. Each time we are on the motorway and pass allotments, the kids yell out “Jane, that is where the hobos live.” I smile and laugh along and remember those men at the train tracks from all those years ago. Now we don’t even use the word hobo, they are now called homeless. That there are people in need of a home, in countries all over the world, is a very sad thing indeed. But I am glad that they are not living in garden sheds either. Everyone should have a roof over their heads and if they want a place to garden, then at least there are places available.

My English grandmother lived in a terrace house most of her life, it is where she raised six children. When you walked out the back door, you followed a path that led to the gardens of all the houses. Nana would send me there to gather carrots or pea pods. There I would be, squatting in the garden, cracking open those pea pods and eating the tasty, crispy peas. I loved them so much more than cooked peas. The other day I bought some pea pods at the farmer’s market and I was so happy to sit at the table and pop them open. I told our children about my garden exploits in England and they were intrigued with the peas. They had only tasted cooked peas and they love those. Our son was brave enough to try one pea and he absolutely hated it. He looked like I had given him the worst piece of food in the world. Our daughter, upon seeing her brother’s face, said no thank you. No one likes these peas but me, and that is okay. I have a bowl of fresh peas and some wonderful memories of me, in a rare moment, in a garden.

Recommended reading and viewing: Barbara Kingsolver’s ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE: A YEAR OF FOOD LIFE. Dvd: ANOTHER YEAR, wonderful British film about a couple who have a garden allotment…but it is also about their friends and family…gardening seems easy in comparison.

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  • Jean Langley  On July 3, 2012 at 5:44 am

    That just sounds so cool! I can just picture these little plots of land. Love it. By the way, I just harvested about 8 pea pods from my condo garden. I eat them raw,too, but the pod as well. Maybe your children will try again some day.

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