We all know Amsterdam as a city arranged along tree-lined canals. Some are fronted with fine houses, others modest ones, but all share similar characteristics – lofty edifices, punctuated by vast windows and topped by fanciful gables. Less well known are the gardens, which linger in the long shadows of the buildings to which they belong. On one weekend each year, twenty nine of these hidden gardens, many of which belong to private individuals, fling open their heavy doors to the public. Whilst the gardens may be secret, the open days certainly are not. Visitors clutching their bright green passepartouts throng the quays of the three main canals where most of the gardens are to be found.
In the 17th century, Amsterdam’s gardens were productive ones, devoted to the cultivation of vegetables and fruit trees. Enlightened legislation ensured that only a certain proportion of each new canal-side plot could be built on. As the city’s elite grew in wealth they acquired country estates which were better suited to providing food for their household. Town houses were principally occupied during the winter months and their gardens became ornamental; structured spaces to be appreciated from the comfort of indoors. Originality was not considered a virtue at the time and city plans of 17th century Amsterdam show remarkably similar layouts repeated from property to property.
By the mid 18th century, early formal styles had given way to the English fashion for ‘landscape’ gardens, characterised by serpentine paths, lawns and majestic trees. Grander households constructed fine summerhouses, guest lodges and stables at the end of their plots, often giving them the appearance of much grander buildings. The best example of this can be seen at the Museum Van Loon, a double-fronted townhouse, still partly occupied the Van Loon family, where the coach house and stables were disguised as an ornate villa. The gardens here, having been much simpler at the turn of the 19th century, have been returned to 17th century formality. The roses in the radiating beds are Rosa ‘Gruss an Aachen’.
Nearby, another of Amsterdam’s most distinguished and cultured couples, the Wilett-Holthuysens, created a typically baroque garden bounded by pleached limes. All the gardens of this period were designed to be appreciated from the first floor (or bel étage) where the family had their most elegant reception rooms. The result is impressive at a glance but not especially engaging to stroll around. Control, rather than exuberance, was the order of the day.
At the Museum Geelvinck on Herengracht the garden has two very different moods. The plot immediately to the rear of the glamorous mansion has been returned to elegant formality, sporting a long pool and fountain designed in 1991 by Robert Broekema. The area to the rear of the coach house, which fronts Keizersgracht, has a very different feel; a shady refuge composed of diamond-shaped box-edged beds filled with hostas, geraniums and more roses.
The garden specialises in roses and has a fine collection of hybrids old and new. I was especially taken with a climber named Rosa ‘Citronella’, which has sweetly scented flowers not the least reminiscent of citrus. A good selection of heritage roses was offered by Belle Époque Roses of Aalsmeer.
Ships registered in Amsterdam sailed around the world bringing back goods from the Dutch colonies. As in England, the city’s gardens soon brimmed with exotica from the furthest corners of the globe. Quite what happened to Amsterdammers’ enthusiasm for the rare and unusual I am not sure. Today’s town gardens for the most part adhere to the same palette of hydrangeas, hostas, philadelphus, ivies, camellias and box, with the odd plume of aruncus or shower of blue campanulas to brighten the composition. Some of this is born out of necessity. Gardeners have had to seek out plants that will tolerate the dry shade created by vast trees that their predecessors planted in pursuit of the landscape idyll. It’s an issue experienced across the city as copper beeches, horse chestnuts, oaks and elms reach maturity. From above, Amsterdam’s gardens appear almost wooded, a far cry from their tightly corseted origins. Despite the constraints of shade, with which I sympathise, I was surprised at the lack of variety and experimentation with plants, which is in stark contrast to English gardens. Perhaps something of the 17th century resistance to uniqueness lingers on in 21st century Dutch gardeners.
Several of the gardens on the tour have been laid out within the last decade. They tend to make better use of hard landscaping to form seating areas, especially in areas of the garden that catch the sun. This would have been a horrifying concept for the residents of old Amsterdam, who looked for every opportunity to protect their noble skin from the sun. Brick paviours are most commonly used, a narrow profile allowing for refined curves and patterns to be created. This gave me a few ideas for our garden in London where this treatment would be perfect.
The garden at Amstel 216 appears modern, but struck me as a contemporary take on traditional Dutch style, incorporating many features that would have been familiar to earlier inhabitants. A guest lodge-cum-office simply breathes new life into the idea of an ornamental building to admire from the main house. An armillary sphere sundial, de rigeur in the 17th century, occupies an open part of the garden and acts as a focal point. It’s mirrored on the other side by a fine sculpture of a horse. Not visible in the picture below are two juvenile trees, a copper beech and a tulip tree, continuing the English landscape garden tradition of planting trees which will ultimately outgrow their welcome. The use of dog woods was the only deviation from the tried and tested palette of hydrangeas, hostas, box and geraniums. Curiously for such a watery city, pools and water features are a relatively new development in Amsterdam and would not have appeared in early garden designs. The Netherlands have a complex relationship with water, it having enabled immense power and encouraged the rats which transmitted the dreaded plague. Hence stagnant water was rarely welcome in the city of old. Other new features in this carefully composed garden are the bicycle shelters, secreted behind blocks of yew hedging so that they cannot be seen from the house.
Amsterdam’s open garden weekend is a unique opportunity, not only to visit some very special gardens, but also to delve into the city’s fascinating history. For small gardeners a glimpse of these shady, often overlooked gardens reveals a host of clever ideas for maximising the appeal of a small space. I for one came away inspired by the owners’ ingenuity and encouraged to keep experimenting with our own shady, awkward city garden. Practicalities Most of the open gardens are situated on Amsterdam’s three encircling canals, the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. Walking between them is easy, although bicycles are always an option in Amsterdam. A passepartout which gives access to all the gardens can be be purchased for €15 from four key gardens, including Museum Van Loon and Amnesty International. Be mindful that some of the gardens are accessed via low doorways and worn stairs and mind your step. To see all the gardens in one day requires something of a route march, so I’d recommend spreading them over two or three days, noting that one or two do not open on all three days. We found Sunday to be the quietest day, and Saturday by far the busiest. Many gardens offer refreshments, ranging a glass of wine to sandwiches and homemade apple cake. Also worth a look, but not part of the open weekend, is the Hortus, Amsterdam’s historic botanical garden. The 2015 garden open days will be June 19, 20 and 21. Click here for more details For a more in depth history of Amsterdam’s fascinating canal house gardens, track down ‘Canal House Gardens of Amsterdam, The Hidden Green of the City’ by Saskia Albrecht and Tonko Grever.