Gardens under Big Skies – Noel Kingsbury & Maayke de Ridder

This has been my most enjoyable gardening read in ages and certainly one of my top books of the year. It is one I recommend without hesitation.

A large format book crammed with excellent photography showing wonderful gardens.

Noel Kingsbury has been a frequent visitor to The Netherlands since the mid-1990s, initially to follow the work of Piet Oudolf but over the years his interests in Dutch gardens and garden design broadened and lead to this study on what has influenced today’s cohort of garden designers in The Netherlands. The result is a fascinating and insightful assessment of today’s Dutch gardens, looking into the influences of history, tradition and environment along with the personal journeys of today’s cohort of designers and the gardens they have created. I have found it a fabulous read, informative, insightful and so perfectly enjoyable. Yes, I loved it!

“God made the earth but the Dutch made Holland” is an old saying but until I read this book I had not realised just how true it is. The Netherlands is an engineered landscape, a created land, a country formed of reclaimed ground now defended by the wonders of dykes, canals and all that goes with keeping the land and the people safe from the surrounding and higher water. This is part of being Dutch, part of the essence of their identity and a central influence on how they live their lives and how, among other things,  they design their gardens. Noel Kingsbury writes, “In a landscape that was being increasingly planned and engineered, it was natural to plan and engineer the plants too; avenues, plantations, roadside trees, all were increasingly disciplined into straight lines with trees at regular intervals” and the gardens at Het Loo are the perfect representation of this transfer of engineering, design and essential discipline into garden design. A flat landscape is the perfect location for a formal garden.

This leaning towards formality, towards control, continues in most suburban gardens to this day, a reflection of the nation’s culture and history, a miniature and artistic version of the engineered landscape though nowadays often with a little artistic flair – perhaps, “foaming masses of Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ enclosed with a neat box border”. Gardens reflect and reinterpret elements of their surroundings and their history and oftentimes react to them. Today’s Dutch gardens are a product of landscape, history and culture and also of a reaction to these.

There has been a reaction over the years to this almost total control of the landscape, something amplified by the almost industrial Dutch agricultural practices – despites its small size The Netherlands is the second largest exported of agricultural produce in the world! Many wondered if there was any room at all left for nature. Have recent moves in Dutch horticulture and garden design been a reaction to this artificial landscape with gardens leaning towards naturalistic plantings and wildflowers? Pierre van der Heiden, one of the garden designers featured in the book, says that gardens can be “a microcosm of the tension between the nation’s attitude to its engineered landscape and a yearning for something of a freer and more unregulated nature.” Indeed, many have seen a need to go beyond sustainability towards environmental amelioration and Dutch designers have lead the way in the development of green roofs, roof gardens, urban drainage, urban forestry and the use of sustainable material. It is in this tension, that Pierre van der Heiden speaks of,  that creativity emerges and perhaps explains why Dutch garden design is to the forefront around the world.

In this volume Noel Kingsbury, with photography from Maayke de Ridder, presents gardens from this range of influences with some reflecting historic Dutch gardening, others the engineered landscape or the natural landscape and others represent the conflict between the engineers of nature and those who would rather let nature take its course. Of course, looming larger than life are the two giants of Dutch gardening design, Mien Ruys and Piet Oudolf and many modern designers will acknowledge the contribution they have made to their own education and their continued influence on modern Dutch gardens.

It is all a very rich, exciting and wonderfully interesting mixture of influences, solutions and the creation of beauty and for this reader it was most enjoyable and informative read.

[Gardens Under Big Skies – Reimagining Outdoor Space, The Dutch Way, Noel Kingsbury, Maayke de Ridder, Filbert Press, 2021, Hardback, 263 pages, ISBN: 978-1-9997345-9-6, £40]