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13 March 2024

Amsterdam’s city gardens are a potted paradise

The city’s attitude to urban greening – with its window boxes, community gardening and allotment culture – keeps me coming back.

By Alice Vincent

I spent a long weekend in Amsterdam lately. It’s one of those cities in which, for a few days, you can try on a different kind of life. We turned a blind eye to nutrition and fed the baby almost entirely on pancakes, pottered around the Vondelpark on a Saturday morning and marvelled at the chic little play areas that are tacked on to most museums’ cafés. I’ve cycled in cities for nearly half my life, and nothing makes me wistful like watching a gentle trickle of cyclists own the roads with kin and caboodle in tow, nobody wearing a helmet because it’s too safe to need one. 

We find ourselves in Amsterdam every couple of years (the Eurostar makes it an especially relaxing little jaunt) and one of the things that got me hooked on the city was its attitude to urban greening. As someone who learned how to garden in a city, I always find it interesting to observe how other people do it. In Berlin they plant vegetable seedlings in tree wells and create sprawling, utopian community gardens in car parks. The balconies of central Barcelona are swagged with tentacle-like succulents. In Tokyo and Kyoto, and Japanese cities beyond, urban gardens are unfussy – and exquisite as a result. A shemozzle of containers line the edges of homes and buildings. They feel gloriously rebellious in a country that is so keen on rules.

Amsterdam’s urban gardens blend these elements. There’s a healthy community gardening and allotment culture in the city. Hortus Botanicus is one of the world’s oldest botanical gardens; the secrets to the Netherlands’ legacies of trade, coffee and colonialism lurk in its elaborate glasshouses. 

But I always go to Amsterdam in the winter, and I always fall for its street gardens. The enormous wisterias that manage to scale a building from a hole barely a foot wide between two front doors. The narcissus tête-à-têtes that appear, somehow, in the cracks in the pavement, and in buckets of neatly planted bulbs atop narrowboats on the city’s canals. The roses that scramble around the iron bannisters of stoops in the Jordaan neighbourhood – all courage and new scarlet leaves at this time of year, of course – and the swish, smart tubs of Fatsia japonica, creeping ivies and grasses. 

It’s not that British cities aren’t capable of this kind of planting: there are several mews in London’s Zone One where I will potter for a hit of green, pavement-based goodness, and south of the river Vauxhall’s Bonnington Square is one of the greatest triumphs of domestic urban guerrilla gardening anywhere. But it’s the sheer persistence of it in cities abroad that makes the difference. British gardeners are among the most enthusiastic in the world, but we’re also pretty determined to keep the real horticultural parties going in our back gardens. It’s difficult to think of any streets as equally bothered by tourists and plant pots in this country as half a dozen I strolled along in Amsterdam. 

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I gardened in containers for nearly a decade before I got access to land in the form of my back garden in Brixton. It’s a fine way to start learning: container gardening offers controlled conditions – you take a pot, you fill it with what you like, you water it and prune it as you see fit. Once you’ve mastered the basics, containers present enough challenges to encourage creativity. A garden comes with various heirlooms – dying trees, for instance, or bindweed – but also the freedom of space to grow.

These days most of my containers – still the ones I grew in on my very first balcony, largely with the same mixture of ferns, Persicaria and Muehlenbeckia that I planted then – look after themselves, but there are a handful that need some attention. I’ve been deliberating about doing so because the notion is one to be savoured. These old chimney pots and tubs have become jewel-like: I know that whatever I plant will need to settle in for the long haul, while providing the instant gratification of the new. I’m taking my time in choosing wisely.

[See also: After disregarding the simple snowdrop, I now see its beauty]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul