segunda-feira, 15 de agosto de 2011

O exemplo da Holanda: Hortus Botanicus Leiden

Wherever I look, gardeners have been putting “big society" projects into action, even before the UK government came up with the phrase to promote its flagship policy idea of “taking power away from politicians and giving it to people”. First I found one in action at London’s Chiswick House. Now I have found spectacular examples in the Netherlands. My advice to the government is simple as it starts to wonder if its big society is going to be big enough: go Dutch.

In Leiden (twinned with my home, Oxford) gardening is ahead of the new social game. The Botanic Garden is one of the city’s distinctions, the garden of the great botanist and gardener Clusius in the 16th century. His namesake, Tulipa clusiana, is the lovely pink and white striped Lady Tulip and in Leiden it is just about to flower. It is one of the Clusius plants in the garden’s front court, which has recently been restored as a tribute to Clusius’s original design. Narrow wooden-edged beds contain plants that the great botanist knew or named. The paths are laid out like the four rivers of Paradise, the botanical garden’s original symbolism. On a grey, wet Dutch morning it looks a bit surprising but there is no mistaking the care with which the beds have been weeded and planted. The entire garden is so much tidier than when I first studied it in 1993.

In the shelter of the tea-rooms I cornered the redoubtable Carla Teune and asked her what had happened. Carla served as the Hortulana, or head of the garden, until 2004 when reforms forced the over-60s to retire. Carla handed over to Paul Kessler, a long-standing employee in the garden’s herbarium who had moved to Leiden from his native Germany. She then made retirement into an asset. There have been changes, she advised me, but above all “we now use volunteers”. On Tuesday mornings, from April 26 until October, 40 Dutch volunteers report to Carla and are distributed to weed and tidy parts of the garden most in need of care. They free the professional staff for other tasks and, just as at Chiswick, they are the icing on a pre-existing cake. No wonder there are no weeds in the Clusius beds: the volunteers have pulled them all out.
Admittedly they have Carla in charge, one of the most practical and clear-minded public gardeners, as I realised when I first interviewed her nearly 10 years ago. In 1998, she was struggling with the Botanical Garden’s maintenance and decided to contact the Leiden Garden Club. Six volunteers turned up and now there are 40. Carla, in her late sixties, has lost none of her energy. Her oldest volunteer is a lady aged 81 but she rises admirably to Carla’s challenge. The one problem is the gender balance: 36 of the volunteers are female and only four are men. Carla is aiming to narrow the gap. “Only gentlemen I accept,” she told me briskly. I began to wonder if I would qualify.

The Botanic Garden, she then revealed, is only part of her voluntary career. She is also chairman of the Leiden Schools Gardens, where volunteering is on an even bigger scale. Leiden’s Schools Gardens scheme began nearly 80 years ago. Twelve schools in the city participate and between them offer 625 little plots of ground in Leiden for cultivation by their Dutch schoolchildren, mostly aged between 10 and 12. By 2000, the school-plots were falling into disorder and the entire scheme needed a new grip.

Carla and her team provided it. They recruited 60 adult volunteers to help to perpetuate the school tradition. The role of the adults is to guide and instruct the children and encourage them to sow and grow the right crops. In 2004, the Leiden city authorities were considering closing the scheme altogether and abolishing the green plots. They reckoned without Carla and her team. They dressed up their young gardeners as anything from piglets to beetroots and demonstrated for their future, bringing 600 children to sing prearranged songs and influence the council. They succeeded and Carla is now chairman of a formal board with a budget of some £20,000 a year and a manager, Marian Kathmann, who studied botany at university.

The Hague, Amsterdam and other Dutch cities have similar school garden schemes and in one such place Carla’s stepson, Tjerk, is now mayor. His city, Vlaardingen, has been named the greenest city in the Netherlands. Does all this gardening help the multicultural ideal that the Netherlands used to publicise? In Leiden a plot in the north of the city has been taken over by Moroccan women who cultivate their own vegetables. Pupils of all backgrounds take to gardening, the most inclusive of crafts. Our picture shows a young Dutch girl of Peruvian origin whose green vegetables are so much healthier than mine. The scheme has even branched out to include an old people’s home with a garden plot. Once a year the director treats the workers to what Carla calls a “hotch-potch dinner”, made from the garden’s produce.

In Dutch-English, even “veeding” does not sound like a chore. Do Dutch pupils try to use the ground for greenery that has narcotic, Amsterdam-like properties? Certainly not, Carla retorted, “but we try to steer the young ones from planting difficult things like beetroot. This year, the signature crop is sunflowers.” I envy the young sunflower-growers their soil. Leiden lies on seven islands in the Rhine and the earth is naturally the most luscious dark loam. The waterways, meanwhile, are a barrier to the menace of uninvited wildlife.

On one morning a week, the volunteers spread out under the direction of a senior volunteer and a schoolteacher. Many of the plots have their own little house in which tools and clothing are kept. The system is well rooted in a Dutch view of growing up in a city but it has needed the co-ordination of volunteers to make it work. Even in their school holidays, some of the children return regularly to cultivate their plots.

In short, Leiden is a pointer to how community schemes can work. There is one important proviso: “volunteers” are paid a small fee, a reward Carla sees as crucial. I told her that in Britain this sort of scheme is now being named the “big society.” “How nice,” she replied. If the prime minister starts to despair of the attacks on his slogan, he should visit the Netherlands, take a spade and enjoy being appreciated.

Dutch dig big society
By Robin Lane Fox
Financial Times, 15 de Abril de 2011

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