Paul MorganAmsterdam’s secret: an enchanted forest and gardens

For a lifelong cyclist Amsterdam is heaven – once you get your bearings that is.  That skew-whiff grid of canals is totally bamboozling at first. The initial 24 hours completely did my head in. Utterly lost. Embarrassing for someone who prides himself on being able to find his way around. Since then however, the cycling has been sublime.

Absolutely the way to see Amsterdam. The town is small enough for all the highlights to be easily accessible by bike, and a very relaxed place. I think those sedate canals really do calm things down.

Sedate canals and cycling make Amsterdam a relaxed place

Sedate canals and cycling make Amsterdam a relaxed place

Whether motorist, cyclist or pedestrian, it seems the attitude is relax and consider the other road users. Rolling around on my bike, the feeling of being quite at ease is tinged with a delicious sense of freedom and adventure, what travelling should be like, but rarely is for me, a travel stress-head.

My wife and I have decided to visit the parks. This is the first warm sunny weather seen in a month. And as we roll through the parks, Amsterdam Bos, Vondelpark, Oosterpark and Westerpark, anybody who can be is out here, a parade of colour and movement, kids splashing through water features, people playing ball games, flying kites, dancing or just soaking up the sun.

At Westerpark, buoyed by our high spirits we just keep rolling on, right out the end of the park, past the old gasworks, to infinity and beyond! We find ourselves riding along a dyke looking out over a canal. On the low ground across the canal, what’s that… a forest? gardens? a suburb? a canal development? Little cottages and flower gardens peek out from under the eaves of a forest of deciduous trees across the canal. We have to explore!

What's that across the canal beyond Westerpark Gardens - a forest

What’s that across the canal beyond Westerpark Gardens – a forest?

I struggle to find the words to describe what we have found. And photographs on this day of bright sun and deep shadow just won’t capture the magical atmosphere in here, this paradise of dappled sunlight and shadow on leaf and twig all wrapped in the fragrance of rotting leaf mould. God, I love that smell! This place is so unusual, so beautiful, so completely entrancing, I feel like we have stumbled into the enchanted forest, a giant woodland threaded with small sunny meadows of daisy-strewn lawns, tiny cottages and bright gardens, all subdivided by a network of paths and tiny canals.

A place so unusual and so entrancing I struggle to describe it

A place so unusual and so entrancing I struggle to describe it

Along the canals, yellow iris, ferns, astilbes and phragmites reeds have naturalised, but are deftly managed to prevent them choking the waterways.

Amsterdam canal with naturalised yellow iris, astilbes and ferns

Amsterdam canal with naturalised yellow iris, astilbes and ferns

On the water, ducks, moorhens, and assorted waterbirds glide, wade and waddle through their own version of paradise.

Waterbirds enjoy their own version of paradise

Waterbirds enjoy their own version of paradise

Paths are lined and shaded by informal avenues of trees beneath which dappled sunlight falls on rough hedges and a random mix of woodland herbs, wildflowers, weeds and self sown seedlings in deep leafy mulch, long corridors of wildness at the heart of the city. These truly are nature strips!

Amsterdam's secret gardens - woodland gardens shaded by avenues of trees

Amsterdam’s secret gardens – woodland gardens shaded by avenues of trees

Beyond these verges where nature runs wild, through rickety gates and occasional breaks in the hedges, you catch flashes of forest glades, sunny flower gardens and bright cottages. It is these forest glades, half glimpsed, then glimpsed again from the rolling bike, a flashing dance of sunlight and green shadow, that give the forest its enchanted feel.

Amsterdam's secret gardens - glimpses of sunny flower gardens

Amsterdam’s secret gardens – glimpses of sunny flower gardens

 

SLOTERDIJKERMEER

Sloterdijkermeer is a community allotment garden club. There are a number of these large allotment gardens dotted around Amsterdam, where they are seen as being part of essential green belts or ‘lungs of the city’. This site was used to harvest peat in medieval times, before being reclaimed for pasture by walling out the water in the Renaissance. The allotment garden was established to provide an area for workers to grow vegetables on reclaimed swampland in the Great Depression. It appears that as times became more prosperous in the second half of the 20th century, there was a shift away from vegetables to ornamental gardening.

Amsterdam's secret gardens - Sloterdijkermeer

Amsterdam’s secret gardens – Sloterdijkermeer

There are hundreds of allotments rented by members of the club. Most have small cottages in which the members live between April and October, a kind of country summerhouse, 10 minutes from the city centre. Once rent is paid, the only requirement is that you tend your garden for your period of residency. And clearly, the members love tending their gardens, which were overflowing with peonies, roses, foxgloves, late spring in full flight at the time of my visit.

Spectacualr pink peonies bloom in Sloterdijkermeer

Spectacualr pink peonies bloom in Sloterdijkermeer

What an incredible idea! You lump all the gardeners together, give them some fertile land, and tell them to go for it. This inspired idea has resulted in the Garden of Paradise, the most delightful woodland garden I have ever seen. It’s all the more special for having been created collectively, over generations by ordinary gardeners, rather than being a grand estate created at the behest of one privileged individual. This is truly a community garden of the first order.

White peony in Sloterdijkermeer

White peony in Sloterdijkermeer

If someone had described this social experiment to me beforehand, I think I would have expected a series of overly manicured, prissy gardens. Not so! There is a broad range in the intensity of management across the various allotments. Some look as though they are barely touched, weeds pushing through lawns.

Sloterdijkermeer community allotments allow a wide variety of gardening styles

Sloterdijkermeer community allotments allow a wide variety of gardening styles

In Sloterdijkermeer, the overall touch is light

In Sloterdijkermeer, the overall touch is light

Others have the close attention to detail you might expect to find in a Japanese garden.

Japanese-style garden in Sloterdijkermeer in Amsterdam

Japanese-style garden in Sloterdijkermeer in Amsterdam

Overall however, the human touch is light. Nature is given plenty of scope to express herself freely. And Nature is verdant, fecund here! Because the domestic gardens are barely glimpsed through the nature-strips-run-wild under the trees, you really do feel that you are in a woodland or forest. These ‘nature strips’ running through the entire community bring not only wildness, but also a sense of unity to the whole.

Humans and nature collaborate in Sloterdijkermeer

Humans and nature collaborate in Sloterdijkermeer

I just love the balance of Nature and culture that has been achieved here in this forest-garden, or whatever you want to call it. On land that has been used by humans for nearly a thousand years, a balance has evolved organically through a delicate interplay of open-ended ecological and social processes, rather than being constructed according to a predetermined design. Nature simply would not be here in her velvet green woodland cloak without the engineered land reclamation work from centuries ago. Humans and Nature in true collaboration! The result is perhaps the most enthralling integration of human culture and Nature I have seen, certainly in a city. It’s biophilic city life at its best.

Amsterdam's sectret garden - a biophilic city at its best

Amsterdam’s sectret garden – a biophilic city at its best

Why didn’t anybody tell me? Why didn’t anybody say? I had thought the gardener in me had lost out to the cyclist when I chose to give Keukenhof, The Netherlands’ top garden attraction, a miss. Massed bedding displays are not really my thing. (Who would have guessed?) Plus I’d missed the big show, which happens in early spring. And it meant getting off the bike and onto a bus. And then this, surprised by beauty. What a fortunate choice!

Suprised by beauty in Amsterdam

Surprised by beauty in Amsterdam

 

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Paul Morgan

About Paul Morgan

Paul Morgan is a gardener who left the horticulture industry to become a clinical counsellor and psychotherapist. He remains an enthusiastic amateur gardener and bush regeneration volunteer, and now combines these interests writing about the why of gardening, the psychology, cultural meanings and science behind gardening and the human relationship with Nature.

18 thoughts on “Amsterdam’s secret: an enchanted forest and gardens

  1. How wonderful it has been Paul, to ride alongside you in this adventure into Amsterdam’s community gardens. Not something I had ever imagined existed in the land of mass tulips, Het Loo Palace and the huge, robotic Aalsmeer plant market.
    I shall carry your image of a fecund “Nature in her velvet green woodland cloak” in my head for days.

    • Hi Catherine
      It has been a pleasure for me to able to share my delight with you and your readers on your website. I still can’t believe my luck to have just stumbled across this green treasure by accident. I hope that the article might help put these wonderful community gardens on the garden-tourism map for some. Others of these community gardens around Amsterdam are under threat from development, and I hope that the article encourages those from the gardening community heading off to Europe to enjoy the continent’s rich garden heritage to put these ‘peoples’ gardens’ on their list. Nothing like a few international tourists showing interest to make local government re-evaluate their plans and appreciate their own good fortune.

  2. Louise McDaid on said:

    I thoroughly enjoyed being transported to the magical green places you found on your cycle around. They seem very mystical and hidden away, for me that added to the ‘secret garden’ atmosphere – and all that greenery to be immersed in. My idea of fun! I didn’t realise there were such places in Amsterdam, although shouldn’t be so surprised as it’s a beautiful city. Thanks for finding these gems and sharing your words and lovely images!

    • Thank you for your lovely words Louise.
      It really was my pleasure to take you to this delightful woodland, and immersed is the right word for being in these gardens. The surrounding city completely disappears from awareness. I felt like had wandered into a fairyland except that all the elves were just ordinary everyday Dutch gardeners, many of whom got on their bikes to commute to the office each day. We could learn a bit about how to do cities from these green thumbed people.

  3. Such a good read! I felt as if I was on holidays too. I’ve glimpsed similar gardens from the train in Germany wishing I could leap off at the next station and explore, but these sound as if community gardens have reached an entirely other level. Back on your bike Paul – find some more wonderful places for us to explore!

    • Ah Jennifer,
      That’s the beauty of a bike. You can always leap off at the next station. As far as I am concerned it really is the way to see both city and country because of the freedom it allows. As I said in the article, my wife and I could see this wonderland across the canal, and on the bikes it was just so easy to explore around until we found the way in. Oh, and you couldn’t see it from the road, only from the shared bike/footpath. Mind you, I have been on those trains through Germany, and some of those community gardens alongside the tracks do make the emergency brake look an attractive option!
      And I certainly intend to bring you some more of the fascinating gardens and landscapes I came across on my recent trip to Europe.

  4. Helen on said:

    Paul, I love your writing. You have a great gift for creating the picture and the atmosphere of a place with words. And how exciting for us all to read about such a special place, discovered off the beaten track. More please!

    • Thank you for your kind words Helen. I am so pleased you liked the article, and I will post some more soon.

  5. James Beattie on said:

    Hi Paul. What a great read! The thing that struck me in your pictures is the dearth of road signage and the abundance of vegetation. The two together have a mellowing, almost seductive effect. It’s like they’ve replaced city stress with a sense of romance and enchantment. I’m all aflutter!

    • Well that’s lovely James! I hope you get a chance to flutter by over there sometime. It really is worth seeing in the flesh. (Hmm, not the right word, but somehow in the wood doesn’t quite get it either. Perhaps in the leaf.)

  6. Joe on said:

    What a ride! Great story Paul. Just goes to show that the big, fancy tourist trap gardens aren’t the best or most interesting ones to see.

    • Yes Joe,
      I hope to talk about the ‘well-marketed garden’ in my next post. Some of the big fancy ones are actually quite wonderful, well worth the visit, while others are definitely over-hyped. However, I also find it does have a lot to do with my mood and state of receptiveness on the day of the visit.
      Also, the entrancing atmosphere of Sloterdijkermeer would be quite different if there were lines of coaches disgorging hoards of tourists at the gate. Mind you, the gardens would work well as the setting for one of those little snow-storm globes you buy at the gift shop on the way out!

  7. Arno on said:

    Hello Paul

    I really enjoyed your article. Your words and images made me want to get on a bike and see this very special side of Amsterdam. I am also intrigued by this combination of nature, culture and time – a distinctive feature of many urban European landscapes. These slightly wild and natural but tended areas, small or large, seem to have an indefinable sense of stability, layering and timelessness. You certainly captured these qualities in your article.

  8. Ahh Arno,
    I could talk about cultivating the wild all day. I find this interface between Nature and culture the most fascinating territory to explore, to be in really. And yes we could certainly learn a lot from the Europeans about how to do cities better. But we have also retained some extensive tracts of bushland in some of our Australian cities. They might be weedy, and in some areas a bit polluted, but they are precious ground where with a bit of cultivation and protection, Nature’s resilience is able to reassert itself, and we all benefit. But I love this idea, manifest at Sloterdijkermeer, of gardeners as custodians of Nature, wrestling with the challenge of how heavy or light-handed to be in our interventions with Nature.

  9. So do I Paul and my thanks too – diverting. On the list. Your image of Australian cities’ fringe bushlands and weeds/cultivation triggers the stimulus of reading Bruce Pascoe’s wonderful ‘Dark Emu – Aboriginal Agriculture’ book – such rich imagery in there about the every-day dietary abundance that a bit of regular cultivation (yams, for instance) can ensure. I’m delighted that a grant has just been awarded to Aboriginal community members to re-engage with yam (daisy) cultivation on the Bundian Way in south-eastern NSW – a mountains-to-the-sea pathway(s), with cultivation pastures as part of it. A good omen and precedent we city-slickers might ponder and emulate? Hope so!

    • That’s great news Stuart, and thanks for alerting me to the Bundian Way project. I hadn’t heard of it, and am mightily impressed now that I have had a bit of a look into it. The sort of project we need so much more of in Australia. It seems a lot of the good stuff is happening in remote corners, while we continue to foul the nests where most people want to live – cities, oh and anywhere there’s a bit of coal underground. I fervently hope we can learn how to value-add to the natural heritage bequeathed to us by Aboriginal custodians, and our colonial forbearers, rather than squander the lot on shortsighted gains. I reckon gardeners have a lot to offer here.

  10. What an incredible place and fascinating that people have chosen such different paths with their individual plots of land. Even more amazing that you managed to stumble across it! I haven’t been to Keukenhof but I’d certainly now put Sloterdijkermeer much higher on my list. As a passionate fan of gardens that closely relate to nature, I’d love to see this place; thanks for sharing it with us!

    • Paul Morgan on said:

      My pleasure Janna. I hope you do get to see it. It is very accessible from central Amsterdam.

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