Producing your own food. It follows the trend to eat more organic, healthy, locally produced food. However, how healthy is that exactly? In other words, is the soil clean? After all, anyone who has a vegetable garden will have intensive contact with the soil which is used to produce the food, while digging , delving and harvesting. Besides this direct contact, there will be indirect contact when people eat the food the soil produces.

How healthy are vegetable gardens actually?

Vegetable gardens created on healthy soil will improve the health of residents, help them acquire healthier lifestyles and improve the quality of the living environment. By working in vegetable gardens people will exercise more and eat more vegetables and fruit that they have grown themselves. There are also indications that working in a (local) vegetable garden or on a vegetable garden complex reduces stress and helps people establish more social contacts in the neighbourhood. In this way (local) vegetable gardens can help prevent health problems.

Is it healthy to eat food from a vegetable garden?

How do you find out whether the soil you use in your vegetable garden is contaminated or not? If the vegetable garden complex is located on former agricultural land, far away from industry and traffic, there is probably nothing to worry about. However, many such gardens are located on imported soil alongside railways, or soil which has had other functions. In that case there is always a risk of soil and groundwater contamination. If you are worried about contamination, you should contact your local Municipal Health Service or your municipality.

Chronic effects

Chronic effects on health are possible if people eat vegetables from seriously contaminated vegetable gardens over a long period of time or vegetables that are exposed to dust from seriously contaminated land for a long time (for example in the vicinity of old metalworking plants). Animals run a risk if they find their food (such as grass will earthworms) predominantly on seriously contaminated land.

Am I allowed to pump up groundwater or sink a well in order to water my vegetable garden?

In some locations in the Netherlands you can pump up water or use water from ditches to water the plants in your vegetable garden. All this depends on the groundwater level and whether it is permissible to pump up groundwater in the area in question. The Netherlands has groundwater protection areas . In those areas you are not allowed to drill and extract groundwater. Water from ditches may also be contaminated with pesticides or manure which may have an effect on the microbiology of the soil or groundwater quality.

How can I make sure that the soil in my garden stays healthy enough to grow vegetables?

Do nutrients have to be added to the soil after harvesting, so minerals are available to allow vegetables to grow properly? Too many fertilisers may deplete the soil and therefore reduce its long-term fertility. By contrast, natural manure actually helps soil fertility and stimulates soil life and that is positive for plant growth and soil processes. The use of self-made compost is also a good solution because it helps improve the soil life (the soil biodiversity) and also reduces household waste. Amateur gardening associations like the Dutch Allotment Holders' Association (AVVN)  can provide more information.

The use of natural pesticides, if your crop is being damaged, can help save useful animals in the soil so they can continue their useful function.

Human environment and health

Municipalities are using neighbourhood vegetable gardens to establish a link between policy for health and policy for the living environment. This helps when it comes to tackling social issues, such as healthy aging and realising a climate-adaptive or climate-active town or city. Vegetable gardens can help people to get enough exercise and spend time outdoors, and they encourage well-being because they increase someone's social contacts. A lot of people get too little exercise and that increases the chance of obesity and chronic diseases. That is why there is a lot of focus in public health policy on encouraging people to exercise. In addition every square metre of green in a vegetable garden, in other words uncovered ground, helps to ensure a more natural urban water management system and limit the amount of heat in a town or city.

Legislation and regulations

In the case of many allotments and vegetable garden complexes, compliance with legislation and regulations is arranged via statutes and appointed committees in order to coordinate activities. Examples of the rules that then may apply are: a ban on using pesticides or an obligation to grow only organic produce. With this in mind, a national quality mark has been created. Vegetable garden associations sometimes make agreements relating to (food-producing) plants, such as the obligation or incentive to grow edible plants.

The municipality may also be involved in communal gardens, for example in terms of local people adopting green spaces. This may imply organisational and (possibly) financial support, such as a soil survey and a subsidy for the (partial) establishment of the garden, as well as restrictions such as limited plant height, a ban on fruit trees and the temporary use of a garden in connection with a zoning plan.

Legislation and regulations on contaminants are included in the section entitled I am worried about contaminants.

If you are planning on starting a vegetable garden you can obtain information on how to do this from:

Where to start?

Consult the website of your municipality to find allotments and urban farming complexes in your municipality. Consult the municipal guide to find free plots of land which can be used temporarily for vegetable gardens. Make sure the soil structure of your vegetable garden is of the right quality to encourage soil life and to ensure that the plants can properly absorb fertilisers. The soil can be improved by adding (self-made) compost or other resources that improve the soil and are available on the market. Compost is rich in humus and therefore suitable for use as soil improver.

Make sure the soil in your vegetable garden is properly fertilised. Proper fertilisation requires knowledge and experience. Too much manure will contaminate the groundwater and is a waste of money. More information can be obtained from the Environment Centre.

Ask your municipality or provincial government for information about the soil quality of the location where you want to establish a vegetable garden. They have information about the soil quality. If you are in any doubt you can arrange for a research firm to carry out a soil study. The Municipal Health Service can (but not always) determine whether the land is suitable for a vegetable garden.

If there are any doubts about the quality of the water from an existing well, it is a good idea to ask the Municipal Health Service, municipality or provincial government whether the water quality is suitable for watering a vegetable garden. It is also possible to assess the irrigation water. Look at the map entitled The ecological quality of bodies of surface water to see whether local surface water is suitable for watering your vegetable garden.