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GardenSMART :: Garden Hopping in Western Europe via Luxury Riverboat

Garden Hopping in Western Europe via Luxury Riverboat

By Phillip Ballard
Photographs by Phillip Ballard


GardenSMART has produced gardening shows broadcast across the country on Public Broadcasting stations for 20 years. Until now we've only visited gardens in the U.S. because there is so much to see. Because of the milestone, and as a sort of birthday present to our audience and ourselves, we decided to branch out and go overseas. We'd heard about river cruises and decided to visit some beautiful gardens with a cruise ship as our guide.

And what a ship. We were on the MS Amadeus Silver III. Although over 400 feet long, it carries just 168 passengers. The small number made it possible to meet and talk with many of the guests, and it was an eclectic, interesting mix. 

Amadeus is a traditional family company with award-winning ships and a 40-year history of providing culturally engaging cruises and programs. By tapping into decades of destination knowledge they introduce guests to the hidden gems of Europe and the comforts of river cruising that include itineraries spanning the breadth of Europe from Amsterdam to the Black Sea.

It was an amazing trip, although we worked hard along the way. We'll produce 7 shows to be broadcast on your local Public Broadcasting stations the next few months. We hope you enjoy them. We enjoyed the experience and filming these episodes.

We met Phil Ballard on the trip. Meeting him was a true pleasure; he's a gentleman, an avid gardener and GardenSMART viewer and as we now know, a very good writer. The following are his impressions of the trip.

– The Cast and Crew of GardenSMART


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As a home gardener, I enjoy puttering around in my yard, experimenting with plants, and trying ideas that I have learned on TV gardening shows or in books and magazines. I also love seeing world-class gardens up close and personal. Even though I know I cannot achieve that level of excellence in my own yard, I enjoy trying to apply the same techniques the experts use. Consequently, I welcome the chance to visit professionally landscaped and well-maintained gardens for both information and inspiration.

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Last October, I learned about an Alki Tours riverboat trip through Belgium and the Netherlands scheduled for May of 2018. GardenSMART's host, Eric Johnson, would be filming some episodes from one of my favorite TV gardening shows, so I signed up. The itinerary suggested that we would visit some amazing gardens but would also learn about the history, art, and culture of these two important countries. I researched the places we would visit and became even more excited about this rich educational opportunity. I'm glad to say my great expectations were not disappointed.

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First, the riverboat experience itself on the Amadeus Silver III made the trip a pleasure with plush rooms, excellent service, and delicious food. I enjoyed Eric's pre-dinner talks on what we had seen each day and appreciated his willingness to answer gardening questions on matters great and small. Experts also spoke on related topics such as flower arranging and the basics of bonsai gardening.

The tour organizers did a great job with the daily excursions that wove together local art, history, and architecture. Free time in various cities gave us the opportunity to explore personal interests and to sample the local cuisine. However, gardening was the major emphasis of the trip.

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Our first opportunity to visit an A+ garden came in Amsterdam, the beautiful city where we began and ended our riverboat trip. Hortus Botanicus is one of the oldest public gardens in Europe. Though not large, it contains an impressive collection of rare plants arranged in well-designed garden rooms and greenhouses. It affords urban dwellers a beautiful green space for some much-needed nature therapy.

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No space is wasted in this garden surrounded by cityscape. On one side the garden is bordered by one of the many beautiful canals that crisscross the city. Even the narrow strip of land between the canal and the conservatory is planted with ornamentals. Elsewhere, every nook and cranny is home to a beautiful plant or landscaping feature. It reminds us that even small spaces take on importance when planted thoughtfully and compactly.

I was inspired by the "pollinators' hotel," a rustic structure made from dried limbs and other natural materials where bees and other insects that pollinate garden plants can find shelter and hatch the next generation. I came home determined to build my own hotel and to apply some of the landscaping ideas employed so successfully at Hortus Botanicus.

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We then visited the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, where millions of flowers and ornamental plants from around the world are auctioned off each day in the world's largest flower market. The enormous building housing these treasures is one of the largest on earth and covers 10.6 million square feet or 243 acres.

Visitors can watch this beehive of activity from bridges built above the warehouse floor. It's the perfect vantage point as hundreds of workers move thousands of boxes filled with flowers. A small army of drivers uses electric trucks to move the colorful merchandise around. Remarkably, they drive through the cavernous space at what appears to be high rates of speed without collisions or traffic jams!

At the heart of this organized chaos is the auction room. Scores of buyers sit in front of large digital screens on which numbered lots of flowers and bids are displayed. When sales are transacted a flurry of activity ensues on the warehouse floor. The merchandise is moved to dozens of loading docks, where hundreds of freight trucks haul the flowers to stores throughout Western Europe, or to Schiphol Airport for distribution to markets around the world. Our tour group stood transfixed by this otherworldly sight and happy to be above the fray. Seeing so many beautiful blossoms in one place whetted our appetites for the amazing garden we visited that afternoon.

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Keukenhof Gardens is known as the Garden of Europe, and it deserves this lofty title. Located near Lisse, South Holland, about 20 miles from the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, it dazzles visitors each spring with almost 80 acres of display gardens, planted primarily with tulips of every imaginable size, shape, and color. To make this annual spring miracle possible, 40 gardeners spend three months each autumn planting seven million tulip bulbs.

The tulip is king here, but the garden also contains hundreds of thousands of other flowers, including daffodils, hyacinths, alliums, lilies and fritillaries presented in an idyllic setting with water features, mature trees, and indoor flower displays. We can apply some of the same methods in our gardens that the Keukenhof gardeners use.

For example, they use the "lasagna" method of planting bulbs to extend the spring blooming season to eight weeks and make maximum use of a bed. They do this by planting the bulbs in three layers. First, they remove and destroy the bulbs from the previous year and then prepare the beds for the new planting. Next, they plant the bottom layer with late-flowering varieties that appear in May. The middle layer is planted with bulbs that flower in April, and the top layer contains bulbs that flower in March.

The Keukenhof gardeners use the en masse planting technique, and they plant bulbs of dramatically different colors side-by-side to draw the eye from one bed to another. Our tour group was flabbergasted by the sheer size and utter beauty of the Keukenhof Gardens, and some of us came away determined to put a little "Keukenhof" into our own yards.

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As the riverboat wound its way through a vast network of canals and rivers into the charming country of Belgium, the group's next gardening adventure was a visit to the National Botanical Garden near Meise. Once a large estate with Bouchout Castle at its center, today it is the home of a 230-acre garden and research facility. It boasts about 18,000 species of plants and one of the world's largest greenhouse complexes, the 2.5-acre Palace of Plants.

The National Botanical Garden is so large that its landscape designers faced the challenge of drawing visitors into the vast, park-like space. One way they achieved this was by placing focal points—sometimes of a work of art, sometimes a building, and in some cases, a stunning tree. This set me thinking about how I might use focal points to lead visitors from one area to another, perhaps with a dramatic fountain at one end and a large statue or planter at the other end of the 200-foot axis that forms the backbone of my garden.

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Near the end of our trip, we toured the Muiderslot Castle and Gardens, where home gardeners can find great ideas for improving the layout and function of their own piece of terra firma. In front of the charming castle a tall hedge surrounds a two-part garden enclosure. The vegetable garden sits on one side of a beautiful covered walkway and the herb garden sits on the other. The vegetable garden is full of ideas for creating microclimates, composting garden debris, and attracting the right kinds of insects. The impeccably maintained herb garden demonstrates the importance of herbs in the 17th century for medicinal, culinary, and decorative purposes. The large arbor at the center of the herb garden provides an inviting place to rest. Both sides of this garden will inspire visitors to make the most of color, texture, symmetry, and variety in their own gardens.

All too soon this exciting trip came to a close, but it was gratifying to come home with so many good ideas for improving my own garden and a new appreciation for the numerous ways in which horticulture impacts our lives. Kudos to GardenSMART, Alki Tours, and the Amadeus riverboat company for putting together such a wonderful travel experience!


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