(Editor's Note: This article was originaly published on April 23, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
I visited the Netherlands in late March and had the privilege of spending time with head gardener Andre' Bleijk, who has been with the Keukenhof for 22 years. In talking with him, I learned that even in a garden with such a singular seasonal focus, a gardener's job is never done. In addition to the massive effort of the fall planting season, the thirty full time gardeners find plenty to occupy their time the rest of the year. For more about the garden during its public season, see this overview of the Keukenhof's spring display.
How do you maintain perfection?
During the ten weeks that the Keukenhof is open to the public, the gardeners don't simply kick back and enjoy the display. They work continually to keep the beds and exhibits at the peak of perfection. Andre' notes that when he is working with the flowers, people get curious and ask questions about what he's doing. Answering questions is part of his job, and he clearly enjoys educating people about growing flowers.
While most bulbs are dug up at the end of the season, some are pulled up or cut back on an almost daily basis as their blooms start to fade. The gardeners inspect the beds continually, culling any diseased or imperfect blooms and clearing away any damage from birds, insects, or other garden pests.
Where do seven million bulbs go after they bloom?
They are dug up and thrown away. That seemed heartless and wasteful to me, until Andre' explained. In the perfection of the display beds, bulb foliage isn't permitted to "ripen" after the blooms have faded. People want to see flowers, not yellowing foliage. So the bulb uses all its resources to produce a bloom and is pretty well depleted when it's dug up. Even if replanted in a grower's field, these tired bulbs would never recover their former size and vigor.
Immediately after the gates close for the season, the digging begins. The bulbs that took two months to plant are removed in about five weeks. Then, preparation for fall planting begins as and the tractor-tillers move in to turn the soil. Smaller tillers are used in some areas, but the digging is all done by machine. Using hand tools or even handheld tillers would simply take too long. Each planting area will be tilled several times, until the sandy soil crumbles into silky smoothness.
What happens the rest of the year?
After fall planting, the gardening staff doesn't just sit idle until spring sprouts appear. Hundreds of mature trees in the gardens drop an astounding number of leaves, all of which must be removed from the beds and lawns. The leaves are hauled off into great piles to be composted for a couple of years. Most of the compost goes to top-dress lawn areas. Some of the compost will enrich the indoor display beds. The majority of the beds don't get compost or fertilizer, because the bulbs contain everything the flower needs to bloom for its single season.
February finds the gardeners tending to the expanses of grass that make the garden so lush in spring. The older, shadier part of the garden is reseeded each year in late winter. The newer part of the garden is sunnier, so the lawns aren't replanted each year, but they still need attention. Weeds and moss must be eliminated, and bare spots filled in.
On cold, wet days they turn their attention to the indoor growing areas and facilities. The growing beds in the Willem Alexander pavilion need additional preparation. An organic fertilizer is added to give the forced blooms an extra boost. The soil is also treated with a fungicide, to help prevent the spread of disease from an infected or damaged bulb. The daffodils and tulips growing in the pavilion's warmth will already be blooming by the end of March, weeks ahead of their counterparts in the beds outside.
An estimated 800,000 visitors each year means additional preparations are needed to keep the garden looking good during the entire season. Strips of sod are installed along the walkways. The thick roots of commercially grown sod can tolerate more foot traffic. A week or two into the season, the sod will be hard to distinguish from the rest of the lawn areas.
Just before the gates open, there's a flurry of final preparations. Beds are tidied to perfection, grass is mowed and trimmed, informational exhibits are readied, facilities are cleaned and polished. Everybody watches the weather and waits for the first crocus blooms. The spring weather doesn't always cooperate. One year, the first two weeks of the Keukenhof's season passed without a single bloom, and then everything bloomed at once for a remarkable show.
I asked Andre' his favorite time of year, wondering if he enjoyed the crowds or preferred one of the quieter seasons in the garden. He loves the gardens best when the tulips are at their peak and the garden is filled with excited visitors. Looking around at the displays and seeing people enjoying the flowers he helped make possible gives him a great sense of accomplishment. After all, he says, this is what they have worked for all year!
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Thanks to Ron Stouffer for sharing the photos he and nutmegnana took during the height of the bloom season at the Keukenhof. All other photos by Jill M Nicolaus.
Thanks to AnneMarie Gerard and her staff at the Communications Office and to Andre' Bleijk for an unforgettable tour. Beyond appreciating his behind-the-scenes insights, it was a pleasure to spend time with a man who so clearly loves what he does.