Amsterdam’s open gardens


Last weekend Naomi and I hopped on the Eurostar for a garden nerds’ getaway. We went to Amsterdam for its open garden weekend (Open Tuinen Dagen), when around 30 gardens open to the public. There aren’t many people I could drag around 30 gardens, but Naomi is definitely one of them.

We managed to see around 25 of the gardens in two days, and it was fun. We got to snoop at some pretty impressive┬ácanal houses, galleries and museums (the Dutch seem shamelessly nosy, so we were too). We discovered streets we wouldn’t normally have walked down, stopped off in some nice cafes, and in true garden visiting tradition, ate a lot of cake.

Box is most definitely the dominant plant in Amsterdam, and many gardens, such as the one at the Museum Van Loon (above), are formal parterres. They’re found in even the smallest of gardens, filled with roses and bedding. They’re lovely, and a novelty at first, but we were soon hankering to see anything that wasn’t a box ball, hedge or block.

Fortunately around half of the gardens were virtually box-free. All of them had a design idea or planting combination to take inspiration from. Here are my favourites.

The garden at the swanky Canal House Hotel on Keizersgracht was designed by a couple of Brits, Rose Dale and Laura Heybrook of Dale and Heybrook. The contemporary black and white theme matched the interior of the hotel perfectly, and the abundant, lush planting and gentle water features made it a peaceful retreat. The hotel is pretty posh, but the staff were more than happy to let everyone lounge on the outdoor sofas, drinking free iced tea.

The garden at Amnesty Internation HQ (above) was a tranquil, contemplative space: a canopy of robinia trees underplanted with Luzula nivea and campanulas.

My prize for the most original garden went to the Canal House on Herengracht (above). In a bold take on the traditional parterre, oodles of box were confined within a grid of corten steel. The effect was loosened by blowsy, cow parsley-esque valerian (Valeriana officinalis).

The garden at Kerkstraat 67 was extraordinary. Huge hedges of perfectly sculpted privet swept down the garden and pooled at the bottom in big fat blobs.

The private garden above was delightfully romantic and pretty, and a great lesson in how to break up a square space.

And my favourite? The garden at La Cuisine Fran├žaise. It didn’t have the wow factor of some of the other gardens, but it felt the most loved and lived in.

Its layout could be adapted to any long, thin garden and the planting was a happy mix of edible and ornamental – towering herbs including lovage and sweet cicely, standard gooseberries and wisteria, foxgloves, tons of salad and alliums – plus a huge dining table. Its English owner, Patricia, was on hand with plant advice and Dutch poffertjes. Many Amsterdam gardens have a garden house, and Patricia lives in hers.

Too many papayas

La Gomera

I’ve just spent a sneaky week in La Gomera, a boat ride from Tenerife. It’s the perfect island if you’re a hippie, a rambler, a plant afficionado or a nudist. I score on three out of four of those counts, so I loved the place.

We spent the first few days communing with our inner hippie at the Finca Argayall. It’s a laid-back retreat-style place that has simple rooms, wooden huts and tents amid a lush garden that sits between cliffs and the sea. It’s not luxurious (or expensive) but it’s a lovely place to be.

The place is impeccably and discreetly run by 22 people of varying degrees of hippie-ness. Five of them are responsible for the garden, which is run along permaculture lines. It’s incredibly lush and home to an astounding array of plants, many of which I didn’t recognise, and many that I did – yuccas, aloe vera, hibiscus, bamboo, ferns and bananas to name but a few.

The garden is a work in progress, and the team are continually looking for ways to improve it. They planted lots of papayas and mangoes… only to find that they ended up with too many papayas and mangoes. It’s hard to imagine a glut of tropical fruits ever being a problem, but on La Gomera they can’t sell them as everyone else has a glut, and there is only so much pureeing, juicing and preserving that one can do. As a result, some papayas and mangoes have been cut down in a bid to introduce more variety. In their place the team are trying to establish some citrus trees, although they’re a little high maintenance – they need a lot of water and don’t take too kindly to sea winds.

The garden also has a veg patch that provides some of the kitchen’s food. It’s a surreal mix of produce – alongside bananas, papayas and avocados are more banal and familiar crops such as cabbages, potatoes, chard, salad, herbs and edible flowers (the latter adorn most of the delicious vegetarian dishes).

It’s possible to work at the Finca on a three-month trial. If I ever get the urge to permanently turn on, tune in and drop out, I’ll be contacting them straightaway.