Beds measured in inches
Suburban foundation beds in the US tend to be four feet wide or more. Foundation beds along Amsterdam's old sidewalks might be only four inches wide! That doesn't keep them from being planted to the fullest, whether with spring blooming bulbs or with tall, well-pruned trees and vines. Even when the diameter of a trunk or stem equals the width of the space between wall and cobblestone, the plants seem to thrive.
The sandy soil definitely plays a role in what's possible in Amsterdam's tiny spaces.The cobblestones and bricks of the city's streets are set into an under-layer that's more sand than soil. A couple of small construction zones revealed the depth of this very sandy soil layer. Seeing that, it made more sense that large plants could fit into such small bed openings. Clearly, their roots had plenty of opportunity to grow downward and outward below the city pavements.
Spring flowering bulbs love good drainage, and they definitely find it here. Roadway medians boast colorful ribbons of crocus blooms or sparkle with sunny daffodils. Small clusters of blooms pop up in any small section of exposed soil. I even spotted a single tulip sprouting up in a gap where half a brick was missing from the sidewalk. I smiled to imagine somebody finishing up a pot on their front stoop, having a single bulb left, and planting it in that tiny space.
Make it fit!
Espaliered oaks, gnarled willows, and ruthlessly pruned vines demonstrate that you can grow almost anything in a small space if you have a sharp pair of pruning shears and a fearless hand. Ancient willows along some canals have been repeatedly topped, until they look like knobby mushrooms sprouting a wild head of hair. This keeps them tidy, without trailing branches that could block progress along the canal.
I don't think there's a tree that the Dutch are afraid to espalier. If you've only considered espaliered fruit trees along a fence or a wall, think about a different approach. Oaks and other large trees can be espaliered in a free-standing fashion, using a framework of metal or bamboo. An entire row of these two-dimensional trees may occupy a small strip bed along a sidewalk, defining a front yard and perhaps screening off unwelcome views.
Mature vines can be pruned year after year, to keep them from blocking a walkway or from taking over an entire building. Some walls are decorated with squared blocks of ivy, while other corners are accented with narrow, gnarled wisteria vines. Since most vines were still dormant when we visited, it was easy to see just how severely they'd been pruned.
Balconies & Courtyards
In outlying areas with a bit more space, small entrance courtyards are common. These spaces incorporate walkways, bike parking, seating, and storage. Yet somehow they also manage to make the most of every possible inch of planting space. Even when you're not aiming for a formal effect, gardening in tiny spaces means careful planning and spacing so that each plant has maximum impact.
We spent several days near the convention center, in a neighborhood with hundreds of apartment buildings sporting balconies of every size. Although spring daffodils had barely begun to bloom, and summer color was still far away, some of the balcony plantings were impressive. I hadn't considered the need for structure in a balcony garden, but it really makes a difference. Just as in a backyard garden, shrubs and evergreens can provide garden "bones" and winter interest. Balconies with barely enough room for a single chair still boasted tidy shrubs and cascading vines, creating a backdrop for blooming pots of flowers to come.
You can never have too many containers in a small space, not if you love plants. Along Amsterdam's canals, I saw basement apartments whose entry steps were so packed with containers that the door was barely accessible. Seldom was a single container displayed on its own. Containers crammed together like sardines can look a little cluttered. But by putting a little thought into their arrangement, varied combinations of containers and plants can have an impressive combined impact.
I hope you've been inspired to make the most of your own nooks and crannies. For additional ideas, visit DG's Container Gardening Forum (subscribers only).
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus. Move your mouse over images for pop-up captions.