“But the tulips won’t be blooming,” remarked an acquaintance when I told her that my husband, Price and I were joining The American Horticultural Society on a study tour of gardens in the Netherlands this past June.
I, too, was a bit skeptical about what the gardens would be like as we left a scorching Charleston for a cool Amsterdam. There were 18 participants, including our remarkable leader and a delightful couple from Tennessee who represented the AHS. We assembled at Schiphol airport early the morning we arrived in Amsterdam and drove several hours towards Groningen, the provincial capital of Northern Holland.
We crossed the Afsluitdijk, a 20-mile barrier dam and causeway and stopped on its viewing platform to look at the tidal mud flats of the vast Waddenzee flanking the North Sea. To the south was a freshwater lake created by the dam, bordered by miles of reclaimed land. Ahead of us to the east lay Friesland.
A canal at Pabeema. All images courtesy of the author.
The language and customs of the Frisians are unique; Frisian is the second official language of the Netherlands and said to be the language that most closely resembles English. The symbol of the province is a black and white cow; we drove past farm and pastureland spotted with cows of several colors, sheep, goats and the gorgeous black Frisian horses that are bred here. Windmills turned lazily along the canals.
When we stopped in Franeker and walked through the village to lunch at a canal-side restaurant, we noticed something that we would remark on with delight and photograph over and over — the Dutch decorate their windowsills. Pots of orchids and plants were the most popular, but there were also arrangements of sculpture and art, kitsch collections, rococo frames and travel souvenirs. One window had a plastic figure of Queen Elizabeth, whose battery-powered and gloved right hand repeatedly gave the royal wave. After lunch we visited the world’s oldest functioning planetarium, completed in 1781, located in the center of town.
The next morning, our first visit was to Tuin Fleur, one of the most amazing private gardens we had ever seen. Our welcoming hosts, who do all the gardening themselves, offered a homemade apple tart and coffee as a start. The house is a modest brick structure with peonies and roses in the front and reminded me of a Burns Downs cottage, so we were expecting a sweet little Dutch flower garden.
The surprises began with the first garden “room’” we entered — formal hedges in a grid enclosed an elegant display of summer bulbs. Room after room followed for a total of about 10 completely different gardens, each hidden from the next by artistically clipped high beech tree hedges that surrounded, defined, decorated and separated the gardens for a total of more than two miles. Paths ran on both sides of the wide gardens and ended at an elevated deck overlooking the garden on one side and a lake and fields on the other.
As we made our way under beech arches and columns into a display of deep perennial borders rivaling any English garden, the owners and a translator answered questions about the varieties and cultivars on display. This garden was giving us a show
of everything that could possibly bloom in the area in June. We saw astilbe, dogwoods, clematis, columbines, delphiniums, roses, iris, purple monkshood, poppies, primulas, wisterias and indigos. The seedpods and branches of plants that had finished their show added additional interest.
There was a room of clipped parterres of copper beech full of just giant alliums. The contrast of the purple-leaved hedges and the lavenders of the blossoms waving above them was stunning. Beckoning us to move along, the paths curved around an eight-foot high free-standing hedge blocking the view into the next room, which made us gasp. A marble table in the center of a stone patio was flanked by white pieces of modern sculpture set on red and grey plinths surrounded by clipped green beech lozenges. Topiary shrubs were the center of attraction in the middle of a sunny flower-bordered lawn in a verdant garden that had featured spring bulbs. Then the path led into an area where a wooden “tea room” overlooked a shade garden full of rare plants ordered from the Orient. Another garden had an impressive display of hostas.
To our astonishment, a miniature canal shaded by an avenue of tall trees, green with duck weed and edged with dozens of different types of shade-loving plants and a multitude of ferns segued into yet another garden featuring a curving stream with iris trespassing onto the gravel paths. Flowering or variegated vines, such as the green, white and pink-tipped kiwi, twirled up onto trellises. Many of the plants were unfamiliar, but our hostess knew them well and patiently gave us the botanical names to jot down in our journals. She also told us they plant 30,000 bulbs each year, replacing them annually instead of trusting that they will re-bloom. It is a garden that will stand out in my memories.
Our mid-morning stop was for a tour of the Hermans Dijkstra Oldambster farmhouse with its “slingertuin.” It was fashionable in the mid-1800s for wealthy farmers to plant these me
andering gardens in front of their handsome houses and barns. This one had a small pond and gravel walks along display beds. The farmhouse is also a bed and breakfast, as well as a fine restaurant. The owner is the chef and we dined under a tent al fresco on guinea fowl and fish, with hens and a rooster clucking and wandering in the nearby farmyard. In Friesland, the farmhouse is directly attached to the barn, which often has a thatched roof.
Over the next two days we were immersed in the talents and heritage of the Dutch. We visited Pabema, near Groningen, a moated manor farm with a neoclassical garden. The owners received an award for the best restoration in the Netherlands for their incredible work there. They have an apple and pear tree orchard with varieties dating back to the mid-18th century. The most outstanding feature of the garden is a 12-foot-tall beech hedge that has been cut and trained over many years in a slightly gaping shark’s tooth pattern. I had never seen anything like it.
One of my favorite visits was to a local nursery, De Kleine Plantage, located in an area of the oldest reclaimed land in the Netherlands. There had been an exhibit of modern garden art in the spacious area adjacent to the greenhouses and sale areas and we walked under a willow stalk arch with a huge sun or moon disc hanging from the center, past stone sheep and bronze sculpture and gorgeous display beds. All the plants were beautifully arranged and labeled and I made a wish list before purchasing a charming celadon-colored vase.
We toured another early moated manor house, Dakema State, in Jelsum. The house has a fine collection of portraits and is furnished in the style of the period just prior to World War Two. The grounds feature a stately drive of “candelabraed” lime trees, an orchard, a small apiary, access to a main canal, a medieval church, a woodland walk and an ornamental garden. Mantgum was our destination after our sumptuous lunch, where garden designer Nico Kloppenburg not only gave us a tour of some of the private gardens he designed, but also gave us refreshments at his home and a wander through his unusual sloped garden.
Our last two visits were to Kasteel Menkemaborg and the
private garden of Els de Boer in Warffum. The properties differed vastly and were both a delight. The Kasteel, another moated mansion open to the public, is surrounded by gardens recreated from a 1705 design. We wandered after our tour of the house through formal gardens and the promenade along the moat, admiring the roses and the parkland flowers under the belt of tall trees that provide shade and a windbreak. The brochure states that this shelter belt is “rich in wildlife and provides a home to a heronry, songbirds and bats.”
Els de Boer is a published garden designer who, along with her husband, has maintained an astonishing garden for over 40 years. It is open to the public on certain days for a small fee. The couple dug out a pond to water level, piling up over 16,000 bricks to make a wall around the sunken area and using the dirt to build up berms and multiple levels. When we arrived, this main part of the garden was a riotous mass of blooms, including many bright geraniums. We strolled through an enviable kitchen garden, a path along a canal planted with fragrant shrubs and through a little formal garden with a most amusing topiary called “the pigs’ conference.” Mrs. De Boer’s book illustrates how she shaped and coaxed the boxwoods into four pigs lolling over the hedge in the center to “confer.” More of her talent is displayed in an elaborate box knot in front of her sunny glass-enclosed porch. This was our last of a plethora of places to visit near Gronigen and we were fortunate to be able to see some of the best.