|Seed mix, sown last year, created by Piet Oudolf using seed from Cruydt Hoek|
Garden tours are always special experiences, but our recent tour to the northern Dutch provinces, which Jo and I led for Gardens Illustrated readers (and run by Distant Horizons) was a particularly special one. We had ten garden designers from Argentina, most of whom had never been on a garden tour before, along with people from the US, Germany, New Zealand, Italy and the UK. It was a very special experience for the Argentinians, to visit somewhere where gardening is a mainstream activity, and where there is such a long history of growing plants and making gardens. They explored, photographed and discussed each garden with a passionate intensity. For them this was a very special experience, to come such a long way, to make a trip in difficult economic conditions – I was very moved that so many should choose to join us. They were a wonderful group to travel with.
|The new meadow style area at the Oudolfs' - created three years ago: perennials with Dutch wildlflower mix sown between.|
The three provinces of Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe were a very good choice. They make up the bump at the top of the country and form one of those regions which feel very remote. You get the feeling that not many people go there (apart from holidaymakers on the way to the sandy Frisian Islands. Its not on the way to anywhere else, and at first sight you wonder whether there is anything more than fields of potatoes. What it has are the big open skies typical of the Netherlands but with a much sparser population, and some wonderful historic villages and towns; in places there are remnants of traditional landscapes where small fields are bounded by hedges with rows of alder trees. There is also a lot going on culturally and Groningen is famous for its contemporary architecture.
|Aruncus and Rodgersia at Kwekerij Jacobs|
Some of the gardens we visited were made by people who had always lived in the area, but others by those who had moved out of the cities and the crowded Amsterdam to Rotterdam strip back in the 1980s. With cheaper property prices it was a good place to make gardens and open nurseries. The result is an area with a huge variety of private gardens to visit, and – frustrating for most of us, nurseries with very good ranges of plants. One of our party, a designer from Lake Como in Italy, kept us amused by constantly buying plants, which would all get crammed into her luggage and flown home.
|Thermopsis carolina at Jacobs|
We actually started off further south with a workshop at the Oudolfs, where it was interesting to see some new developments where Piet has been using seed mixes rather than only just planting. One was a seed mix based on the lists of a supplier of Dutch native species and the other was the old nursery area which is using native grasses/wildflowers amongst perennials and Calamagrostis Karl Foerster grass - so far so good - the sandy soil here is low fertility so it looks as if a good perennial-grass balance is developing.
The garden and nursery of Henk and Dori Jacobs in Drenthe was one of our first stops. This does not feel like a consciously designed garden, which perhaps is its secret. Perennials planted across wide areas, one area very much dominated by the house and some light shade and featuring many lush rodgersias, aruncus and geraniums and the other much more relating to the local landscape and a large pond. Views out into the landscape (always flat and mostly agricultural) were to develop as one of the themes of the week. Intimacy and openness combined.
De Kleine Plantage is a wonderful nursery near the north coast, run by Fleur van Zonneveld and Eric Spruit, who I first met years ago. Here we first see the crisp hedging we get so used to on this tour but as a framework for lush perennial planting. Fleur's colour-themed arrangements of pots, of both annuals and perennials are always a special feature.
|We like our group to colour co-ordinate - Amalia Robredo with one of the plant selections at de Kleine Plantage.|
|Sculpture exhibits are always a strong feature at de Kleine Plantage.|
|Aristolochia macrophylla on the magnificent late C19 Landhuis Oosterhouw.|
Lunch at Landhuis Oosterhouw was an event. Beautifully presented food followed by a wander around the garden. A truly extraordinary place - formal, but getting pretty wild and unkempt in places, deeply mysterious, oddly decadent, deliberate faded glory?, creepy in places, a forgotten world. The house (in which you can apparently stay) stuffed with antiques and enigmatic paintings. "A monk came one day.... and never left" said the owner. One of the most distinctive places I have ever been. Unforgettable.
|Very Mien Ruys this. Modernist quirky hedging at Tuinfleur.|
Tuinfleur is a bravura performance of a garden created by a middle-aged couple, who obviously devote their lives to the garden. It's extraordinarily long and narrow, and you move from room to room, with a range of garden themes. The view above is of a watergarden with a bit of a slope displaying lush wetland plants with their leaves tumbling towards the water. The hedging here must be a major job to cut every year - it's crisp and (particularly compared to what we are used to in Britain, creative).
A small garden made by Alie Stoffers, a garden designer, playing with colour schemes in the way people have rather given up on back home. What I was particularly interested in, and this applied to some of the perennial planting at Tuinfleur too, was how dense the planting was – this would have been unthinkable a few years ago, one impact of the naturalistic planting movement has been, I suppose, that people are much more relaxed about cramming plants in and letting them spread. A lot of perennials actually work better supporting each other and the result is a kind of generous quality to the planting, although there is an unpredictability to it which needs confidence in managing. One of the things I do bang on about in lectures and workshops is how much greater plant density is in nature, compared to garden conditions, so its good to see garden designers getting in more plants per square metre.
A new prairie style garden, laid out three years ago, by Jaap de Vries, was good to see. Jaap is a keen member of a facebook gardening community who were in touch with each other before the trip. It's an incredibly ambitious garden, and will take time to fill out, but a good rhythm of planting has already been established. You need rhythm on this scale.
A day with Nico Kloppenburg, who is a well-established designer in the historic village of Mantgum. It is interesting to see his work, as it is more dependent on clipping foliage than on perennials. Very clever much of it: hedges that gradually taper, hornbeam drums to block a view rather than use a solid hedge, beautifully shaped columns, wavy-topped hedges, common enough material but endlessly re-invented into new forms. So exciting.
|Roberta Ketzler discovers a hedge to lean on.|
One of Nico's best inventions is a new way of treating lime to form a hedge, bending it around rather than cutting, so that you end up with a dense interwoven mass of branches. The result is very strong, so you can lean against it without either falling through or damaging it.
|The Ton ter Linden garden|
|The prairie garden made by Lianne Pot, mostly lupins at this time of year.|
Lianne Pot's prairie garden and Ton terLinden's garden were two more we visited. Both are actually at their best later. Ton's garden has particularly big views over the local landscape, with a pond making a romantic foreground. Tractors cutting silage purring away in the background – its amazing how fast modern agricultural machinery work. Lianne's prairie garden aims to show what can be done with later flowering prairie perennials - in combinations. This it does very well, with some good input too from Michael King.
Back just outside Groningen, we go to Hortus Haren, a botanic garden which I had heard was going through rather a rough time – shortage of funding. I'd chosen to go there though because of the Chinese garden, which is supposed to be one of the best and largest in Europe. One of our party had been with me in China a few years ago, and we agreed, it was pretty good. with all the various elements that makes Chinese gardens so distinctive in their use of space. Even its being a bit run-down didn't seem to matter, as the gardens we had been to in China were all a bit over-maintained. Surprising number of spontaneous marsh orchids popping up.
|Not actually a member of the party turned to bronze.|
Museum de Buitenplaats has a 'modern-baroque' garden where formality is given some real twists or segues into wild masses of ferns or lush Darmera leaves; lots of brick which contrasts so nicely with the foliage. Part of its function is as a backdrop for a collection of contemporary sculpture. Unfortunately, they have just lost their head gardener to financial cutbacks by the provincial government on cultural spending.Very imaginative design here, we all thought.
|A small town garden in Groningen, we visited on our last night|
We end on a high, the Mien Ruys garden at Dedemswaart. This is about the third time I have been and I'm delighted to see some serious fund-raising has brought them a new study centre, and even some new areas of garden. The veteran 20th century Dutch garden designer worked and experimented here for all her adult life, the best part of 70 years. It feels like the birthplace of the modern movement in gardening, something which has made a real impact in the Netherlands, but which didn't in Britain. Its combination of obvious love of plants with a clear graphic sense made a fitting end to a remarkably stimulating trip.
|Nico Kloppenburg explains|
The group feeling generated on the tour was so good, a facebook page has even been made to share memories and information.
Next year, I am planning trips to gardens in mid-Devon and New York. Keep a look out!