The best time to visit the Keukenhof flower gardens is usually in late April/early May. So, this little essay will be published too late in the current season for it to inspire you to arrange a trip there this year. Please accept my sincere apologies for such poor timing on my part.
In my defence: the Keukenhof is NOT open this year, as the COVID19 situation has closed the gardens for the first time in their 71-year history. This means the only people privileged enough in 2020 to experience their beauty in person are those already privileged to work there. However, these fortunate souls have kindly produced a video tour of the Keukenhof’s wonders (which you will find on the link to the Keukenhof website at the end of this article), so we can all see what we are missing. My photos should afford you a further tantalising foretaste.
I discovered the Keukenhof many years ago on my first trip to the Netherlands. A week based in Amsterdam, prompted by a desire to explore my Dutch roots on my Dad’s side of the family. During those seven days I took a half-day ‘Windmills and Tulips’ coach tour to the Zaanse Schans open-air museum and … the Keukenhof.
Unusually for me, I had read nothing about these show gardens in the Duin-en Bollenstreek (Dune and Tulip Region) of the Netherlands, some 40 minutes’ drive to the southwest of Amsterdam, so had no expectations. Which made the brief hour we were allocated there even more unforgettable for me. One hour from 5.30 to 6.30 pm, a ‘magic hour’ for photography, when colours are richly saturated and shadows deep and mysterious. Breathless with excitement – and running back and forwards to view and capture as much as possible in such a limited time – I took dozens of photos, at least half of which featured row upon row of magnificently backlit tulips.
The photos here are not from that first visit. Those were all Kodachrome slides – how I loved my Kodachrome – and it was easier to use later digital pics. On further trips to the Keukenhof over the years, I have since realised that it is always ‘magic hour’ for photography in the gardens, as their many mature trees create diffused lighting situations in which colours are invariably saturated, even at high noon.
The grounds occupied by the Keukenhof once formed part of the Teylingen Castle estate and were mainly used for hunting. In the fifteenth century Countess Jacoba of Bavaria established a kitchen garden here; hence the name. In 1638 the estate was acquired by Adriaen Maertensz Block, a governor of the Dutch East India Company, who built a large manor house, now known as Castle Keukenhof. The landscape of lake and trees was created in 1857, by landscape architects Jan David Zocher and his son Louis Paul Zocher, who also designed the Vondelpark in Amsterdam.
The present gardens were created in 1949 by a consortium of bulb growers and flower exporters, to showcase their products, and were opened to the public in 1950.
The Keukenhof now covers 79 acres in which some seven million bulbs, donated by over 100 growers, are planted annually. Every autumn 40 gardeners begin work in early October, usually finishing the job by December 5 (St Nicholas’ Eve). To ensure continuous flowering, they bury three bulbs at different depths in each spot.
While the Keukenhof is mostly famous for its tulips, the gardens are also filled with many other kinds of flowering bulb, including a wide range of daffodils and narcissus.
Waxy hyacinths fill the air with their scent.
The latest trend – mixed beds with various bulb types flowering at the same time – showcases many lesser known bulbs, detailed in the accompanying signs.
A magnificent display of azaleas is a permanent feature at the northeast end of the gardens.
Rivers of Delft-blue grape hyacinths run between the trees.
The Keukenhof is a photographer’s dream, with irresistible subjects everywhere you look.
Rainbow arcs of brightly hued tulips:
Variations on a colour theme:
Studies in contrasting colours:
And intimate close-ups:
So, be sure your camera batteries are fully charged (or you have extras with you) and there is plenty of room on your photo card. You might even consider taking a back-up device with you, in case of camera failure. Happened to me once; Mr P25 kindly loaned me his camera – one of nature’s gentlemen, my Mr P25 – and switched to taking photos on his telephone.
I took all the pictures in this article on a FujiFilm XP.
Do remember a notebook to record new planting ideas. And all the names of the gorgeous blooms you’d like to see in your own garden.
Arrive early, if possible. If you are travelling by car, do NOT park in the main carpark by the front entrance. This will take you into a large plaza where you will rapidly lose the will to live, for it is enclosed by gift shops and filled with irritating crowds, their horrendous hubbub clashing unpleasantly with the raucous tunes of a barrel organ and extremely noisy fountains. Consult the map on the link to the Keukenhof website (see below – Discover the park -> Map), and go to the car park at ‘Entrance extra’ (location changes from year to year); this will take you straight into the park where you will instantly be surrounded by stunning flowers. Some coach tours also drop you at this secondary entrance. Not sure about local buses from Haarlem, Leiden and Schiphol train stations. Check the website for travel information.
The map on the Keukenhof’s website also shows the location of the park’s four exhibition halls with indoor displays, which Mr P25 and I usually skip as there is just too much to see outside. Orchids and amaryllis are certainly among the plants featured in these, as well as the latest bulbs, many of which have yet to be named.
The Keukenhof is normally open for eight weeks, from mid-March to mid-May. During the opening season, the park receives an average of 26,000 visitors a day, so be prepared for crowds in some areas. However, the grounds are so extensive you can always find plenty of quieter spots to absorb their beauty.
There are cafés of varying sizes throughout the park when you inevitably need refreshment. The one I like the most is the smallest, housed in a greenhouse lower right on the map (see link below), with views of the bulb fields from the rear and splendid displays to the front.
My favourite visit to the Keukenhof? When I made a supreme effort to arrive at opening time, 8 am, and had the glorious gardens entirely to myself for nearly an hour – apart from a few members of staff going about their business and industrious thrushes prospecting for worms or filling the cool morning air with their melodies.
God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.
© Persephone25 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file