Photo by Melody

Big Gardening in Small Spaces: Amsterdam's Nooks and Crannies

By Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologistApril 15, 2010

The dense population of big cities means little space for yards and gardens. But Amsterdam's love of flowers will not be denied! Every tiny spot that could possibly hold a plant seems to have at least two plants in it. Take a walk through Amsterdam with me, and pay special attention to its nooks and crannies...

Gardening picture


Bright primroses and evergreens planted against side of steps

Beds measured in inches


Vine starts in less than a square foot of space to arch up and  over window

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.base of shrub set into space between pavers barely wider than its  trunk  Even when the diameter of a trunk or stem equals the width of the space between wall and cobblestone, the plants seem to thrive.

construction area with pile of bricks and hole in sandy soil


white and purple violas and base of woody vine in small space  between paversThe 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.

close look at clump of blooms in a sea of purple crocus 

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.


two tufted top trees by small canal with windmills



bamboo frames support freestanding espaliered treesMake 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. dormant vine pruned to perfect square against brick apartment building


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.



courtyard with bike, flower border, and tiny raised bed
Brick courtard with bike, bench, curved planting bed


Balconies & Courtyards


Vine trellised tied and pruned next to black iron door

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.  Evergreen shrubs and vines adorn balconies on a 3 story apartment building


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.



 Back deck of houseboat is crammed wtih colorful pots of flowers

Crocus and pansies in pretty containers by a doorstep

Small entrance area crammed with terra cotta colored plastic containers holding herbs and more


Containers galore

 bonsai in pot on sidewalk


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. Greenery on top of brick railing with yellow flowers in tubs  belowContainers 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.

yellow daffodils in a stone planter next to a gray foundation










  About Jill M. Nicolaus  
Jill M. NicolausBetter known as "Critter" on DG, Jill lives in Frederick, MD, where she tries to fit as many plants as possible into a suburban back yard. The birds are mobbing our feeders lately, so Sunshine Girl and I have a job keeping the Flyby Cafe' open for business! This year, we put out a special feeder just for the squirrels, filled with a seed & corn blend. We still see them acrobatically snatching food from the other feeders, but at least now they let the birds get a beak in edgewise! (Images in my articles are from my photos, unless otherwise credited.)

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