Keukenhof: the Crown Jewel of European Gardens

20150423AAIf you ever travel to Europe in the spring, there is one garden you should not miss: Keukenhof. This fabulous garden in Lisse, right near Holland’s main airport, Schiphol, is unique in its kind: 32 hectares dedicated solely to one category of plants, spring flowering bulbs. Moreover, the garden is only open during their flowering season: mid-March to mid-May. In spite of its very short season, it is the most visited garden in all of Europe, with more than a million guests a year. And it’s replanted annually with over 7 million bulbs!

History of a Garden

20150423BKeukenhof as we know it today is a fairly modern garden, but it nevertheless has a long history.

It was built on the former hunting grounds of Teylingen castle and served as a vegetable garden to the Countess Jacoba of Bavaria, hence its name (Keukenhof means “kitchen garden”). It became a public park in 1840, but it was only after the Second World War that the mayor of Lisse, WJH Lambooy, came up with the idea turning the park into a bulb garden.

20150423AThat’s because Lisse is right in the heart of the “Bollenstreek” (the region where most Dutch bulbs are produced) and Mr. Lambooy was looking for a place to showcase the main local product while promoting the idea of gardening with bulbs. In 1949, he asked 20 local bulbs growers to present their latest hybrid tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, etc. in the park, each caring for his own flowerbed. Already that first season, in the spring of 1950, 236,000 visitors came to see the garden and its popularity has not declined since. Today, more than 100 growers participate in the event, each showing off its best varieties.

An Orgy of Color

20150423CKeukenhof is best known for its massive tulip beds in almost every imaginable color. But there are also beautiful narcissus, scented hyacinths (you can smell the garden before you even walk through the gate!), anemones, crocuses, fritillarias, and all sorts of other bulbs. Some flower beds are geometrical –  rectangular, triangular or round – but most follow the contours of the beautifully landscaped park, designed in the English landscape style, with its tall trees, woodlands, rhododendrons, meandering streams, and even a lake with the obligatory graceful swans. Photo op!

20150423HOne classic element of Keukenhof is the “blue river”: an undulating ribbon of blue grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) that seems to flow between mass beds of other bulbs.

20150423DKeukenhof also includes several pavilions that host exhibitions of orchids, anthuriums, bromeliads, amaryllis, hydrangeas, lilies, cut flowers and much more. There is also a windmill from which you can get bird’s eye view of the gardens and neighboring tulip fields full of colorful bulbs. There are also souvenir shops, of course… where vendors will take your order of bulbs you saw in the gardens, then ship them to your home just at the right season for planting!

Keukenhof is easily accessible from almost anywhere in the Netherlands. Hop a flight to Amsterdam and deposit your baggage at Schiphol Airport, because there are already buses there ready to pick you up to take you to the garden!

You’ve already visited Keukenhof? The gardens are entirely redone every year. After all, since they are closed from mid-May to mid-March, there is ample time to redesign them: about the only thing that doesn’t change are the trees! That means each time you visit, you’ll discover a totally new garden!

When to Visit?

20150423FKeukenhof’s team of about 30 gardeners make sure that the garden remains spectacular throughout the opening period (March 20 to May 17, 2015, March 24 to May 22, 2016), but to make sure you see the tulips at their best (and they are the garden’s main attraction), aim for a visit from mid-April to early May.

Dutch weather is unpredictable any time and certainly in spring. It can be hot or cold, sunny or gray, dry or rainy: you have to dress accordingly. Allow yourself at least 4 hours to visit the garden and grab a snack; all day if you are an avid gardener. Too many organized bus tours to Keukenhof (and these are offered everywhere in Holland!) offer only two hours in the garden, meaning you to have to run if you want see everything. You’ll do better with an return bus ticket good for the day: then you can leave whenever you want.

Bring a camera, several memory cards and spare batteries: you’ll need them! Finally, to complete the portrait, there are plenty of cafés and snack bars on hand, so you won’t starve. Or bring a picnic lunch!

Other Gardens to See

Keukenhof may be Holland’s most famous garden, but there are dozens of others, easily enough to fill a one-week tour to the brim… and the other gardens are open much longer, from spring to autumn or even all the year, so you can visit at almost any season.

Geelvinck Museum’s garden in the heart of Amsterdam.

In Amsterdam itself, there is the Botanical Garden (Hortus Botanicus), Van Loon Museum , Willet-Holthuysen Museum, Geelvinck Museum and the vast and popular Vondelpark, among others.

Het Loo Palace’s baroque garden.

And if you want, you can stay in Amsterdam and  radiate out to other cities from there: the Netherlands is a small country and getting around is fairly fast and painless. Among the choices: Trompenburg Aboretum in Rotterdam, Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, Clingendael Park in The Hague, Hortus Haren in Groningen,  Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn and the Kasteeltuinen Arcen (Castle Gardens) in Arcen.

20150423IThe Aalsmeer flower auction is not a garden in itself, but is well worth the trip if you have the time. You have to get there very early in the morning, certainly before 9 am, to see see it in action! This is the world center for the distribution of cut flowers: you’ve never seen such a vast building (it’s the largest building by footprint in the world, covering 518,000 m²/ 243 acres) nor so many flowers all at one time. Fascinating!

Finally, thanks to excellent intercity rail and bus systems, you can go anywhere in the Netherlands without having to rent a car. So, relax, enjoy the view and let someone else do the driving!

What are you waiting for? Book your trip today!

3 comments on “Keukenhof: the Crown Jewel of European Gardens

  1. Pingback: The Tulip Fields of Atlantic Canada – Laidback Gardener

  2. Timely post – we’ll be there on May 1st. 🙂

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