Keukenhof: The Garden Where Bulbs Are King

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I’m lucky enough to be able to visit gardens all over the world and one of my favorites is Keukenhof.

This fabulous garden in Lisse, right near The Netherland’s main airport, Schiphol, is unique: 80 acres (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 well over a million guests a year. And it’s replanted annually with over 7 million bulbs! 

History of a Garden

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

Drawing of Teylingen Castle in about 1595. Ill.: Symon Aentszoon van Buningen, wikimedia Commons

It was built on the former hunting grounds of Teylingen Castle and served as a vegetable garden to the Countess Jacoba of Hainaut, 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, W.J.H. Lambooy, came up with the idea turning the park into a bulb garden.

That’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 flower bed. 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 their best varieties.

An Orgy of Color

The Keukenhof windmill. Photo: http://www.bollenstreek.nl

Keukenhof is best known for its massive tulip beds in almost every imaginable color. But there are also beautiful narcissus, scented hyacinths (on a warm day, you can smell the garden before you even walk through the gate!), anemones, crocuses, fritillaries, 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!

The famous blue river. Photo: http://www.weinerelementary.org

One 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.

Keukenhof 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 a 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 (yes! even overseas!) 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!

The landscaping of the garden is changed annually. Photo: http://www.weinerelementary.org

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 things that don’t change are the trees! That means each time you visit, you’ll discover a totally new garden!

When to Visit?

Keukenhof: always spectacular! Photo: Dguendel, Wikimedia Commons

Keukenhof’s team of about 30 gardeners make sure that the garden remains spectacular throughout the opening period (March 21 to May 19 in 2019), 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 a 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!

What are you waiting for? Book your trip today!

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