Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Other People's Gardens: Amsterdam and the Netherlands

To remark that the Dutch love their gardens is akin to observing that the British love their tea. One need only think of the famous Keukenhof Gardens; tulips; and the tulpenmanie (the Tulip Craze) of 1636-1637 to understand that I only state the obvious.

But so too do the omnipresent gardens in the Netherlands speak to the obvious. Gardens came in multiple forms:

in window boxes adorning the facades of the quintessential tall, narrow Amsterdam canal houses;

in the microscopic front plots of city properties (Hollyhocks seemed to be an Amsterdam favorite);

on balconies and rooftops--pitch permitting;

on houseboats--yes, on houseboats; and,

around country and farm houses.

My favorite manifestation of the Dutch love of gardening, however, comes in the form of what I call the "summer garden community."  These small communities made very efficient use of the land. Neatly laid out on a grid pattern, diminutive houses were surrounded by luxurious plantings, each garden more spectacular than the next. Some even had greenhouses attached!

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture these garden communities from "above," as we sped by many of them on the train. But one day while biking from Delft to Den Haag, Viet and I veered off a primary bike path and explored a less traveled path through the woods. We happened to come upon an idyllic garden community, surrounded (as most things are in the Netherlands) by a canal.

Immediately I dismounted and was plunged into another world, a mysterious world, a world in which the garden expresses the experience of time--not (as I later found with Sissinghurst) as an homage to time, a snapshot almost of a time long passed, but as living time, a remarkably bold announcement of being in time.

I was struck by the prevalence of these communities; they seemed to proliferate like hollyhocks on Amsterdam streets. If Americans splurge on beach, lake, and mountain houses, so many Dutch, it seemed, splurged on 5x7 or 6x8 garden homes--the garden plots bigger than the houses themselves! And many appeared to be quite lived in: an ordered and aesthetic life, the efficient use of space dictated by smallness. 

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