Dutch Travels

Plant assemblages like this, made up of both hardy and half-hardy perennials, are a real feature at de Kleine Plantage nursery.

A trip to Holland earlier a week or two ago. Years ago, a terrifying fifteen years ago in fact, I had an interesting week up to the north, around Groningen, visiting gardens, nurseries and landscapes, with Rob Leopold, now since sadly passed onto the Elysian meadows. He was a generous host, but exhausting, as he talked his home-spun philosophy from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to bed, except when he wasn’t talking plants. The northern part of The Netherlands is in a way the most attractive part, relatively empty, and very agricultural, but in a less obsessively tidy way than along the densely populated, and if not built-on, intensively farmed eastern coast. A lot of folk who want space and can’t afford much of it on that coastal strip have come up here, so this is very much where to find good gardens and nurseries.

My companions for this trip were Zoe Weston, a graduate of the Garden Design course at the University of Falmouth in Cornwall, and Dani Coray, who I’ve known about a year, now doing a Masters in Art and Landscape at the same institution, and who had just won the RHS Young Garden Designer of the Year award at the Tatton Park Flower Show. So, aren’t I good at spotting talent!  She’s good at navigating too, as I discovered when we decided to plunge headlong into the suburbs of Antwerp rather than spend hours in a traffic jam.

Amazingly crisp hedges are a real featue at de Kleine Plantage

De Kleine Plantage is a nursery very near the north coast, with amazingly crisp hornbeam hedges and a series of garden rooms holding amazingly well-labelled plants – all stock beds for the nursery, but planted up as a decorative garden. Color-themed assemblages of pots line the entrance to the nursery and around the house and the very impressive range of plants in the nursery are arranged by color too. I realise that I had forgotten how cheap plants are in Dutch nurseries – it all helps that they are nearly all in sensible 9cms pots, not the 1 and 2 litre pots that so many British nurseries have gone over to.

The Jacobs nursery has a vast plant collection in a garden around a traditional north Dutch house.

The Jacobs nursery in the far east of the country has a particularly fine collection of plants around a charming old cottage and a big central pool, and a well-stocked nursery, lots of unusual plants.

Coen Jansen's stock beds contain many exciting new plants

Coen Jansen has long had a reputation as one of THE sources of exciting new plants, he’s a lively character with a nursery where it was very difficult for the three of us to avoid completly filling up the car with plants. Coen has been making selections from Baptisia, Sanguisorba, Phlox and others. We didn’t get to Hans Kramer at Hessenhof

Lianne Pot's prairie

but he is apparently also very good. This makes me wonder – are the Dutch going to take over as the main sources of perennial innovation in Europe? There was a time, about 20 years ago when the reputation of Dutch nurseries was of getting other people’s good plants (UK and German), mass propagating them, muddling the names and selling them back to us at rock-bottom prices. There was even the accusation that Vine Weevil came from Holland. Of course there is nothing like the squeals of an inefficient industry (in this case the British nursery industry) being faced by one with superior working methods (the Dutch), just as US and UK manufacturing gets replaced by Chinese and Korean. Wise up, the world moves on. Now it looks like there is a whole new sector of innovation in Holland, with dedicated plantsmen as well as efficient mass-producers. The Brits had better sharpen their act up otherwise we’ll end up with the nursery equivalent of a rustbelt.

One of Michael King's modular perennial mixes

Another area where Dutch efficiency, and co-operation too, where we might see a future impact is in the production of perennial mixes for modular randomized planting schemes – originally a German idea. Lianne Pot’s prairie garden which includes some of the very striking Michael King perennial mixes are an example. I was not in fact convinced that these would work long-term, however good they look – whereas the German work with mixed planting is incredibly rigorous and involves many years of trialling.

The old Oudolf nursery area planted up as a stylised meadow

Meanwhile the old nursery area at the Oudolf garden is turning into an interesting prairie-meadow hybrid, with a sown meadow wildflower mix between perennial clumps, so it’ll be interesting to keep an eye on that as it develops.

Finally, some rather bad news from Germany, the country where they usually get things right. Piet Oudolf designed a vast and very imaginative planting scheme for an old water treatment works turned public park – the Berne Park in Bottrop-Ebel in the Ruhr, as part of Essen’s European City of Culture events. We went to see it. Disappointing. While from the distance, its strong plan is very evident, close-to, we were horrified by the weeds. Clearly the soil is full of weed seeds, and possibly roots too. I find it astonishing that a project should spend public money on a project where the ground is not properly prepared. When I did work with Bristol City Council contractors on public plantings, they knew the maintenance would be minimal, so they always made sure that the ground was completly weed-free, which at least means everything gets off to a good start and perennials can resist a lot of weed incursion if they don’t have to face it for a few years. Start off full of weeds, and the perennials will never properly establish without serious competition. GAFÖG – the public-private partnership responsible are going to look distinctly foolish in the years to come as the weeds continue to grow. The Germans don’t always get it right!

The Oudolf planting at the Berne Park

Oh dear, we forgot to supply weed free soil.

There’s more about the Dutch trip on my own blog – a visit to the garden of artist Ton ter Linden, as well a post about a remarkable archive of material i have been working on for the last few years – the Andrew Chatto Papers.

 

 

About Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

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7 Responses to Dutch Travels

  1. Catharine Howard August 29, 2011 at 6:30 am #

    Interesting, most interesting to have your list of excellent Dutch nurseries to visit in particular like the look of De Klein Plantage which has a deeply inpenetrable web site!

  2. Saxon Holt August 29, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    Nice tour Noel. I am always interested in seeing how grasses and meadows are used in Europe and must say I am saddened though not surprised to see the Oudolf Berne Park site full of weeds. It is such a common problem with “natural” gardening; and especially with municipal installations where funds may be available to start a project but on site staff untrained to sustain it.

  3. Rasa August 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    Wow, Noel, great minds do think alike :) I did the same route at the same time, visiting the same nursieries, too (except for the German bit). Just like you I enjoyed the trip enormously, especially stocking up on wonderful finds. And De Hessenhoff nursery is a MUST for every plantsman or woman – a veritable playground for plantspeople

  4. Patrick's Garden August 30, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    WOW What a wonderful trip for you. I enjoyed every nursery description. Loved to see the highly manicured hornbeam hedging. Thanks for sharing your stories.

  5. Jack Holloway August 31, 2011 at 6:06 am #

    Hmm. this post deserves a special storage space for future reference! I too go back over 15 years to my stunning 1995 visit to the area. Unfortunately all my photos were lost (back then there were only about 20 of them anyway) when my camera was swiped :(

  6. Hoover Boo September 3, 2011 at 12:28 am #

    Wonderful place, loved seeing it and reading your description, but must disagree somewhat with:

    “Of course there is nothing like the squeals of an inefficient industry (in this case the British nursery industry) being faced by one with superior working methods (the Dutch), just as US and UK manufacturing gets replaced by Chinese and Korean. Wise up, the world moves on. ”

    US manufacturing at least, is very efficient–it has to be these days. (I do not know the UK situation.) The difference between it and China is the cost of labor and the cost of environmental protection, the Chinese being willing to work for $100/month and to be tolerant of poisoned soil, water, and air. If “efficiency” means appallingly low wages and a toxic landscape, then all but a few of us are doomed.

  7. Noel Kingsbury September 3, 2011 at 1:33 am #

    China’s record on environment is bad but that of the US and UK at a similar stage of development was actually a lot worse. China is now making more per capita investment in green tech than the US (not sure about UK). I dispute that US industry is efficient, look at the greedy fools who ran General Motors, incapable of adapting to new technologies and investing in the spectre of the finance industry instead of redesigning their cars. Chinese working conditions are not good but often the choice is between a factory and a life of backbreaking labour on muddy farm in the middle of nowhere, for Chinese women the factories are often their only way out,