Well here we are. Another slightly lonely night in the camper van. I'm trundling around The Netherlands researching a possible book on contemporary Dutch garden design. It was an idea the leading Dutch garden photographer Maayke de Ridder and I thought up some time ago. We think we have a publisher now but it is all still a bit speculative. Anyway a great way of meeting people and learning more about a dynamic gardening and design culture.
I come here regularly anyway, but it is a long time since I spent so much time travelling the country's highways and byways. Part of the concept for the book is the background of the Dutch landscape, so I'm popping into various places along the way to explore this theme. I think I'm getting off the beaten track alright – my first night here after crossing over from Belgium was in a campsite, where my arrival caused a certain amount of consternation. I don't think they'd ever had a non-Dutch visitor. Eventually, a girl of around 13 was hoiked out of a swimming pool and deposited in a towel in front of the computer to book me in in halting English, stabbing her fingers at the keyboard with dripping fingers.
Of course, it was back in the mid 1990s when I first started coming here, but my focus then was naturalistic planting, which matured into the so-called Dutch Wave. But since then I have become so aware of how designers here are very good at working with small spaces. Not surprisingly perhaps. But I also like the way they have a certain air of modernity about them that means they could not possibly be British. Its difficult to decide why, and the funny thing is that Dutch colleagues find it difficult to accept too, but there is a certain way in which forms and shapes are distributed that no British designer would do. It's something to do with the fact the British desingners still seem often to be still stuck to a kind of Renaissance geometry in the way they use structure, whereas Dutch ones don't. Instead there is a kind of chunky modernism, a Bauhaus gene always in there somewhere. I find it refreshing, somehow freeing up the use of clipped woody plants to more uses.
I'm not going to name check every designer in the book, and in fact I have not met them all yet. Frank van der Linden (www.vannaturetuinarchitectuur.nl) is one of those consummate plantsman who grows some of his own plants for jobs. He is, I suppose, on the Piet Oudolf wing, endlessly exploring the possibilities of the huge range of plants, mostly perennials, now commercially available. Some fantastic perennial plantings sprout from the drawing board of Pierre van der Heiden and Monique Donders too (www.denkersintuinen.nl), although as I discovered things get a little complicated here. Monique is front of house, meets clients, checks out sites, Pierre designs, but does not always visit the site. Yes really! They have a very successful practice, with a huge range of gardens on their website, and in reality too. Monique took me to eight. Complex planting however they delegate to a planting specialist. How sensible! I wish British designers did that more often. Ruurd van Donkelaar is also employed by Noël van Mierlo (how nice to meet another Noel) who creates adventurous gardens with a more informal character (www.vanmierlotuinen.nl). He took me to one, in Eindhoven, which was beautifully and sensitively maintained, particularly as regards the handling of self-seeding perennials.
Ruurd van Donkelaar is that planting specialist (www.ruurdvandonkelaar.nl). I visited him and his wife Deyke, in their cottage in Drenthe, their garden embedded in a nature reserve. His family have run nurseries or botanic gardens for good on 200 years. The nature reserve around the house was interesting, for the light it showed on an aspect of Dutch landscape which I am also keen to explore in the book. He and Deyke live surrounded by a 'new' nature reserve, the result of tree planting some thirty-odd years ago. This was compensation for woodland destroyed during a 'countryside rationalisation' exercise at the time. Overseen by government, dykes, ditches and field boundaries were straightened out to make everything easier (and more profitable) for farmers; but this being more enlightened times, nature had to be compensated by the creation of some new and more rationally-situated nature. I could never imagine this happening in Britain! It typifies an attitude to land and resources that I hope to explore more in the hoped-to-be book.
As well as Frank, the other real perennial specialist I met up with on this trip was Arjan van Boekel, who definitely sees himself as inspired by Piet Oudolf's work. He is much more open to integrating shrubs into his work with perennials though, as well as wildflower meadow planting. Definitely a young guy to watch to take the Dutch Wave forward. (www.boekeltuinen.nl).
Talking of which, it was very interesting to talk with Nico Kloppenburg (http://nicokloppenborg.nl)about woody plants, perennials and the Dutch Wave. Of the twelve or so designers we have in the book, he is the most focused on both history and the use of woody plants. Nico is frequently involved in restoration projects, which he regards as a kind of creative editing (he is not one for exactly replicating a particular period) and is particularly inventive in his use of clipped woody plant material. He sees himself as very much inspired by Mien Ruys, the garden architect who dominated landscape and garden design here for much of the 20th century, and who transformed clipped woody plants from their traditional role into something much more modernist – that Bauhaus gene I mentioned earlier. His gardens develop slowly; he is not in sympathy with big perennial schemes, which he argues are a kind of instant gratification for the client who can spend out on thousands of perennials for an effect which will be nearly complete within two years. Real gardens, he would point out, take much longer to grow and develop, and in the long term are far less dependent on skilled maintenance. This is perhaps not an argument against perennials as such, more about their commissioning. Food for thought, most certainly. Visits here always provoke and make me think.