Dutch growers are efficient, dedicated, and creative

The Almshouse courtyard. — Photo by Tony Higgins

A recent June visit to the Netherlands, a nation of compelled engineer/agriculturalists, as guests of my brother and sister-in-law, provided me with endless observations. The trip’s ostensible goal was Floriade 2012, the World Horticultural Expo, which is organized once every ten years in the Netherlands, and is being held this year in Venlo, southwest Netherlands. With an expected number of two million visitors, Floriade is the largest event being staged in the Netherlands in 2012.

However, before we set foot on the 66-hectare (163-acre) Venlo expo site, many other indelible images had formed, beginning with the aircraft’s approach from out over the North Sea to Schiphol Airport. The cloud cover parted, and not one but two vast wind farms materialized through the dawn mists as I gazed down onto the waters below. Banking to the right we came in over IJmuiden and the Noordzeekanaal, and began our descent.

All jumbled and interspersed with each other, below lay giant industrial complexes with billowing smokestacks, green fields under cultivation or dotted with dairy cattle, modern business developments, roadways, lines of enormous wind turbines, canals, housing developments, traditional windmills, railway tracks, tree-shrouded farmsteads with tiled roofs — and then the runway and touchdown.

Breezing through customs, we jumped on a commuter train and were shortly and smoothly delivered to Santpoort-Zuid, just as the Dutch day was starting. By forenoon we found ourselves on bikes pedaling into Haarlem, the city of Frans Hals, and trying to adjust to several realities: how the country — horse and cows, manure smells — goes right up to the city; and just how neatly the bikeways (fietspads), with their own traffic lights, transport thousands and thousands of cyclists going about their business in this flat land: commuting to work, grocery shopping, hauling, traveling to and from school, toddler transport — in short, everything bike-related, except recreation. No helmets.

Entering the city and traversing the medieval market square with the grand St. Bavo church and Stadhuis, we parked the bikes among a couple of hundred others, and wended our way through an open-air market well-stocked with gorgeous spring crops, such as broad beans, asparagus, lettuces, carrots, and a wide variety of mushrooms.

The streets are narrow, clean, of edge-laid brick, often herringboned; again, commercial areas, residential ones, churches, and small quiet squares, are fitted in side by side. Compact plantings and containers spilling over with lush annuals feature colorfully in every streetscape; and roses seemed to be everywhere, planted in a little square of soil, formed by removing a couple of bricks, and fastened to the downspout.

My brother and sister-in-law were particularly eager to show us the Haarlem almshouse societies, characterized by diminutive houses clustered around sheltered courtyard-gardens, built centuries back for the care of the needy. Eighteen of these societies still exist in Haarlem, their housing nowadays coveted by a wider demographic of the city’s residents.

The almshouse interior courts are paragons of repose, often with several majestic shade trees around the perimeter and centered with lawn and boxwood-edged beds. The householders’ own plantings — window boxes, pots, and roses — brighten the outer edges of the courtyards.

The multitude of towering bloom-covered planters we saw everywhere piqued my curiosity. The stylish low, concrete pots contained pyramids of scarlet pelargoniums (hortorum-interspecific Caliente types), trained up rebar and bamboo frameworks like so many bean towers. The plants were well tied in, and their bloom and foliage density was such that I could not discover how many plugs were used. I wondered how much lead time is necessary to produce such a pyramid.

On our return to Santpoort we cycled past an extensive layout of allotment gardens that we were to pass often in the next ten days, which belong to area residents. Wherever we went in the Netherlands we spotted these pieces of land filled with allotment gardens. Glimpsing the style of the plots over the fence and through the beautiful windbreaks (clipped hawthorne, hornbeam, and Acer campestre among others), it was apparent these gardeners mean business.

When I stated earlier that the Dutch are a nation of compelled engineer/agriculturalists, I should have explained that they have made their country, creating everything they have got through persistence and ingenuity. The Netherlands is geographically low-lying, with about 50 percent of its land lying less than one meter above sea level and 25 percent of its area and 21 percent of its population located below it.

The Lowlands and their population would not exist were it not for a dogged ability to take a crap non-land, pump it out and wrest it from the sea, learn to make it productive, save it through countless disasters and near-disasters by inspired engineering gambits, and become prosperous in the process. Talk about lemons to lemonade: globally the Netherlands is ranked 60th in population, 134th in land area, 2nd in food production/export, and 9th in per capita income.

Never have I seen so much grown, so carefully, in spaces of approximately 50 by 50 feet. Every square foot producing: dwarf fruit trees; peas and pole beans strictly tied in and supported; potato and onion patches; carefully netted berries of many kinds — currents, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries; peony beds; tiny greenhouses holding trained tomato and grapevines above, strawberries below, and small trays of seedlings balanced along the plate. These plots are like fairyland!

In North Holland, manures from varied nearby livestock sources are everywhere and abundant, and the plants and soils in the beds look as if they have received their share. I am guessing that is commonplace throughout the country. All green waste of every description and from all sources is collected and composted municipally, then made available to residents.

Throughout our stay, the growing season very closely matched our own here on the Vineyard. This represents a big change: historically the American climate lags two to three weeks behind that of northern Europe and the British Isles.