Meet Pia who came to Ghent to follow her Dutch partner and then brought a piece of Slovenian tradition to this northern country: a prolific vegetable garden!
Like many Slovenians, Pia grew up surrounded by nature and people growing their own vegetables: her grandparents and her parents all tended their vegetable patches with gusto and great success. It is no surprise that she decided to continue this tradition when she had her own family as well.
Pia met Jochem in Poland, where they were both attending an architecture workshop. While her now-husband is originally from the Netherlands, he studied in Ghent. Romance ensued and after 5 years of much back-and-forth between 2 countries, she took the difficult decision to leave her sunny homeland and follow her boyfriend to rainy Belgium. “If it wasn’t for him, I would have never ended up in Belgium. But at some point you need to make a decision, a brave decision to turn your life around and put it all on the line for just one person.”
After she came to Ghent in 2007, she took up learning Dutch. At the same time, they decided to have children and since Jochem’s job was in Brussels at the time, Pia stayed at home with the children. “This was never something I would have expected for myself. But priorities in life change and you need to follow your heart, your instinct.”
Designing interiors for model homes
Three vivacious boys and 5 years later, Pia was ready to go back to work. Jochem found a job in Ghent and the male part of the family is now on their own on the days when Pia goes to work in Aartselaar. “I work as an interior designer for a model homes company. We are the only ones in Belgium doing this.”
So what are model homes and why do they need interior designing? “Well, a surprising amount of people who are planning to buy a home are having difficulties imagining how to use the space in an empty apartment or house. That is why developers and real-estate agencies employ us to decorate their sample homes as a real living environment. We put in furniture and decoration to give people an idea of how it would look. It is amazing how such a small thing can help sell a property!”
Gardening is for the soul
As many Slovenians who move to Belgium, she was in shock when she moved here: “We are quite connected to nature in Slovenia and here it’s just … different. After we had children, I felt that we needed to have a vegetable patch. For the boys and for me.”
How does one go about finding a piece of land to grow your own vegetables in Ghent? “There are several community gardens here where you can sign up for your own patch (moestuin). It is really quite accessible. You only pay a small annual membership fee.” Pia and her family signed up for the local gardening communities around their home in Ledeberg – and were told they were number 90 on the waiting list. Which meant they could expect a free spot at around pensionable age.
But Pia was not deterred and went looking for alternatives. “I managed to find a place where squatters took over a property by the Scheldt river. They also had some gardens there that they allowed people to use as their vegetable patches. It was all a bit freestyle, but it gave me an opportunity to grow vegetables.” However, the fact that the squatters saw the vegetable gardens as their own private food supply and that there were no clear rules about who could do what meant that a year later she was thinking of finding another place.
Surprisingly enough, at the same time the community garden people called to say that they had moved up the waiting list and would they still be interested in having a piece of land as their own? Pia happily agreed and the family started ‘farming’ a 100m2 vegetable patch at Gentbrugse Meersen.
The community is well organised, but not too strict. For example, the main rule is that you should not neglect your garden or it will be taken away. And there are rules about the type and size of shed you are allowed to build on your garden. But otherwise you are quite free to work your land as you please.
How to grow vegetables in Belgium
Pia has a ‘stress-free’ approach to gardening: “I only grow whatever survives. I don’t want to become a slave to our garden. We go there once a week, maybe 2 times maximum in high season.” With the focus on enjoying the time outdoors and giving her boys some experience with learning about food growing first-hand, how does she make her garden work?
“I am using the time-tested practice of rotation crops. I have seven beds where I rotate the crops each year: leafy greens, root vegetables, legumes, cabbages, fruit-bearing vegetables, potato, strawberries and herbs (including rocket).” Through trial and error she narrowed down her list of plants to grow to the ones that meet the following criteria:
- Grow well in the relatively poor, compact soil at the Gentbrugse Meersen
- Don’t need much additional watering during the season
- Don’t need a lot of extra care and can be left unattended for days
- Give delicious produce
Which vegetables does she recommend to aspiring gardeners in Ghent? “I have great success with peas, beans, parsnip, potatoes, all types of leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, radishes), rhubarb,onions, leeks, beetroot, Brussels sprouts, kale, aubergines, courgettes, pumpkins, peppers. But actually, I don’t need to grow all these – my neighbours at the community garden are happy to share their crops with me,” she laughs. The family also has several fruit shrubs and perennial herbs.
In fact, the community spirit of the gardening is what she finds the most attractive about the communal gardens. While everyone has their own patch with a fence around it, there is a great sense of sharing and socialising. “It is also very international, our gardening neighbours are a mix of Belgians, Turks, Azerbaijanis … And somehow, because we are united by a common interest, there are no ‘ethnic divisions’. We are all one community of plant-lovers, we share our seeds and seedlings, and in the summer we get so many invitations to the neighbours’ bbq’s!”
How can I find a vegetable patch for myself in Ghent?
If you caught the gardening fever and are wondering where and when to start, there are several options:
- Volkstuinen is the official word for community gardens in Dutch. There are several non-profit organisations in Ghent running these neighbourhoods. For example, the Gentbrugse Meersen one has a useful website with events around gardening.
- The city of Ghent has a special website dedicated to gardening: Gent en Garde. Here you can find information about how to start gardening, where to find ‘sharing gardens’ (people who have space in their backyard that they are willing to give away to gardening enthusiasts) and other practical tips.
- There are also groups that till the land together as a sort of co-operative. You pay annual membership and commit to a certain amount of days that you will work in it. In exchange you get the right to the produce.
- Other words to google to find useful information: buurtmoestuinieren (neighbourhood gardening), schoolmoestuinen (school gardens).
- You can buy seeds, seedlings, fertiliser and gardening at tools at the garden shops like Aveve, Eurotuin and even Brico. Sunday flower market at Kouter also has some seedlings in spring. Or go for one of the spring garden markets, like the one at the Kasteel van Ooidonk at the Easter weekend.
Slovenians in Ghent
It is difficult to say just how many Slovenians live in Ghent, since besides the several ‘senior Slovene Gentenaars’ there are many Erasmus students that come over for six months at a time. But the community does try to get together two times a year – for the traditional mulled wine at the Christmas market and a summer picnic. Join the Facebook group for Slovenians in Belgium to receive information on the next event.
Are you also an avid gardener in Ghent and have some useful tips for others who are just starting here? Let us know in the comments below!