Imagine this: It’s fall. You’re on hands and knees, digging holes eight inches deep and four inches apart. Your fingers, though protected by gloves, are sore, maybe even bloody. You drop bulb after bulb in the ground, making sure the pointed end faces up, cover with soil, tamp it down and then water.
Repeat this process a mere 7 million times, adding to it some additional labor like building wire cages to fend off rodents out to pilfer a cheap meal of tasty bulbs and you too will have your very own Keukenhof.
It was April and Mother Nature was busy working on her spring masterpiece. Songbirds flitted from branch to branch, seeking and serenading potential mates and furnishing nests. Flowers pushed through the cool, dark earth, colorful faces unfurling, seeking the sun. Nowhere was this more evident than Holland’s place of tulip pageantry, Keukenhof Gardens, near Amsterdam.
Like a flower unfolding its secrets, Keukenhof reveals its beauty for only a short period each year. For many years I hoped to one day fulfill a dream – to witness nature paint the earth on a grand scale – to view thousands of tulips in a palette of pink, white, yellow, purple, lavender, red and white.
Sunshine brightened a cloud-patched blue sky and warmed the cool early April afternoon. Strains of fairground-like music drifted through the air. Following the sound, I noticed an old-fashioned calliope holding court on the patio, the invisible grinder pouring out welcoming mechanical tunes. Crowds of visitors milled about, photographing hyacinth-filled pots, the pond, Dutch-costumed maids and each other.
Serpentine paths led past tinkling brooks, Mallard ducks snoozing on banks of grass and patch after patch of crocus, hyacinths, daffodils and tulips.
In the Juliana pavilion an exhibit explained the history of tulips and offered flower arrangements for examination and souvenirs for sale. It was Easter weekend and displays reflected the holiday.
The path sloped towards a wind-rippled lake, edged with grassy patches and more beds of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths and trees still in bud. Snow-white swans swam, preened, fluffed and floated along, oblivious to the sounds of clicking cameras and admiring oohs and aahs.
Late afternoon the wind returned, bringing with it a chill and enticing aroma.
“Special. Hot Chocolate and Apple-cake with Whip Cream”
announced the sign at the Wilhelmina cafe. Like seagulls in the wake of a ship visitors, including us, headed in droves towards what promised to be a warm Dutch welcome and sure satisfaction.
“Down-to-earth” is also a trait attributed to the Dutch. I didn’t expect this to be so literal. At Keukenhof the gardeners pick weeds on hands and knees; others cut grass the old-fashioned way, wheeling about push-mowers on the already immaculately manicured lawns.
Children squealed with laughter while adults pretended to be blossoms ready for plucking from fields of flowers. The largest of the pavilions, Willem-Alexander, housed thousands of tulips, hydrangeas, daffodils, — blossoms in a rainbow of color in pots, boots and baby carriages, enthralling visitors from all over the world.
Near the Willem-Alexander pavilion, at the entrance to a children’s gift shop, a kid-sized rabbit statue and Bigfoot-ready clogs provided a fun photo-op, one that proved difficult to resist.
The sun moved behind clouds as the afternoon drifted towards closing time. For us it was time to return to Amsterdam. But not before Dave and I made a whistle-stop to peek into the Oranje Nassau pavilion – the guide indicated a floral tribute to one of Holland’s most well-known nineteenth century artists, Vincent Van Gogh. A room-sized rendition of sunflowers graced the wall and provided a cheerful backdrop for modern-day photographs.
With a final sweep through the garden maze we said farewell to Keukenhof.
Once, I had a vision of burrowing myself in a cornucopia of tulips. Keukenhof, with acres and acres of tulips in every color fulfilled this wish. The garden was an intoxicating never-ending, enchanting floral parade. Less charming was Keukenhof’s meticulous attention to detail, what seemed to me a tight-fisted approach to gardening. Since I don’t adhere to the “no-dandelion-left-behind” school of thought, I found its perfection too rigid.
I happen to think that dandelions are flowers too. A flower-addict, I enjoy peeking over the fence to see what’s growing in my neighbors’ garden as well as admire landscapes such as Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania and Winterthur in Delaware. Formal like Keukenhof they also differ; in them you can still find a few corners where nature is allowed to be wild and untamed, albeit in moderation.
Nevertheless, Keukenhof also inspired.
Once again, I am determined to plant tulips this fall, even though I’m sure I will have to outwit my resident squirrels. I enjoy watching their shenanigans in my backyard. Nevertheless, they can be exasperating. Those bandits are very adept at blithely digging out and stealing in a flash what took considerable effort on my part. Despite this ongoing battle however, I find that the effort is worth it.
The infinite variety, bounty and beauty of nature and flowers in any setting is an intoxicating mix of details and scents, one that allows me to meditate on life’s blessings and brings solace in a hectic world. For me flowers are a simple pleasure to treasure.