Appeltern Gardens, Netherlands reviewed by Wanda Oprea

September 30, 2011

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

Is there an inherent problem with show gardens? And can you have too much of a (maybe) good thing? Does quality shine in the most challenging circumstances? These are some of the questions raised by this piece by Wanda Oprea in her review of the permanent exhibition of show gardens at Appeltern in the Netherlands.

Anne Wareham, editor

Appeltern Gardens in the Netherlands is a bizarre place as far as the gardening world goes.  Essentially, it’s a permanent exhibition park for show gardens that features an astounding 200+ individual model gardens. Exhibitors range from large suppliers in the horticultural and construction trades, to various landscape firms, to individual designers. At first glance, the concept sounds amazing. I was picturing a permanent Chelsea Flower Show with fewer crowds, more designers, and real, walk-through gardens. Unfortunately, while there are some interesting and worthwhile things at Appeltern, overall it just doesn’t work. At the end of the visit, I was left with the awful feeling that I don’t want to see another model garden for as long as I live.


Appeltern-1 copyright Wanda Oprea

Let’s start with the good things about Appeltern. The first, which may seem terribly superficial, was the maintenance. However this is managed, it’s working – the entire place was absolutely impeccable. Formal areas were perfectly trimmed and clipped, while the more natural gardens had just the right balance of contained wilderness.

There were also a few gardens that managed to rise above the crowd – an especially impressive feat in a crowd this size.  One of them was Ton ter Linden’s effort (pictured below). I walked into the space not knowing the designer, and immediately loved it. It is a simple, rectangular walled garden enclosing a still, dark pool.   Maybe because it is shut off from the rest of the park by tall brick walls, or maybe because it is slightly messier than its neighbors, this garden just felt more real.   I was struck by the fact that it still managed to make an impression, despite being buried among countless ordinary gardens.   I take it as definite proof that a good garden can succeed even in the most challenging circumstances.

Appeltern-2   copyright Wanda OpreaNow to the bad part. It’s difficult to put a finger on what exactly is wrong at Appeltern. As I think some of the pictures show, there are some nice things here, and in fact none of the gardens were obviously “bad”. But at their core, my impression was that they all suffered from an unshakable feeling of artificiality, of “fakeness”, if you will. Clearly, the gardens are fake because of the very premise of the park. In some gardens there were obvious tacky elements, such as perfectly set entertainment areas, or a sponsor’s latest mammoth barbeque.   But even gardens that tried to break the mold by offering something new and creative just seemed to be copying the latest trends.

Appeltern-3   copyright Wanda Oprea

The fact is, gardens don’t exhibit easily.  Unlike other visual art forms, such as painting or sculpture, you can’t just plunk a garden down in front of a neutral background and expect it to captivate viewers.  I can speculate that it’s because gardens need a link with the greater landscape, the often quoted “sense of place”.   Or maybe we need to feel the presence of a real owner or creator, somebody who sits out there in the evenings with a glass of wine and dirty finger nails.  Whatever the case may be, show gardens face a tough challenge, though not an impossible one as the ter Linden garden illustrates.

But perhaps the biggest downfall of Appeltern, ironically advertised as its biggest attraction, is the sheer size of the place. At 13 hectares (32 acres), it took a few hours at a brisk pace to get through it. At the end, I was simply too overwhelmed to care. Nobody can absorb this many works in one sitting (or walking), whether they be gardens or paintings.   Gardens, especially, require effort to examine and experience, something we only have a finite capacity for.  By the time you stumble your way to the exit, Appeltern just seems like a blur of impersonal, assembly-line show pieces.  As a source of education and inspiration for the gardener, I suppose Appeltern teaches us that true gardens can’t simply be achieved with some nice paving, a few plants and tasteful outdoor decorations.

Appeltern-4    copyright Wanda Oprea


by Wanda Oprea blog: The Garden Wanderer


Portrait of Wanda Oprea copyright Wanda Oprea

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Jason Carty May 12, 2014 at 2:12 pm

Hi Wanda,

I haven’t been to these gardens, but I’ve seen plenty of show gardens via Chelsea. Maybe the thing that you feel is missing is presence. I have found all but less than a handful of Chelsea gardens in the past five years or so seriously cold places in terms of atmosphere. I think that is something that might’ve come over time if the gardens were actually used, but often I think a sense of place, or a presence, or some kind of special feeling is something that is almost impossible to design – it’s either there or it isn’t and a lot of luck seems to be involved. Or, just ignore all of that, because to my eyes, even though I’ve only seen photographs, Tuinen Mien Ruys looks packed to the gills with atmosphere. Bit of a head scratcher, non?

Martie Roodenburg July 24, 2012 at 3:55 am

well, after all these comments of how things should be, could be, or whatever .I would like to add my simple observation from my point of view: Just loved the set-up, the philosophy, the person ( Ben ) who made this all work.
After a whole day of pulling weeds and re-designing my little acre of rocky soil on the West Coast of Canada, I can only say I was totally inspired by the Appeltern Gardens in the Netherlands. My first visit to this wonderful. lovely, inspiring place and I will come back again and again. If I lived near, I would take a membership and live there, right in the Gardens !.Thank God for people who do, rather than talk about gardening. :).

annewareham July 24, 2012 at 8:54 am

Think most people who talk about gardens do them. Wish more people who don’t do them were interested enough to talk about them!

Yolanda Elizabet September 30, 2011 at 11:35 am

Not quite sure why you think Appeltern bizarre. You are perhaps unfamiliar with the concept of permanent showgardens but in Dutchland it is par for the course. Apart from Appeltern there are the show gardens of Mien Ruys and there used to be the show gardens of Rob Herwig as well, but they folded in 2000. Mien Ruys’s show gardens are still going strong.

Appeltern was set up by a garden designer who got tired of clients not understanding his drawings so he created a few gardens to show them exactly what he meant. And it snowballed from there.

You feel it’s too big, I agree, but I’ve just heard that there are plans to extend it ever so slightly with another 7 hectares. 😉

If you’d like to see the Dutch equivalent of Chelsea you should visit the Floriade in 2012. That’s a bit more Chelsea like, as in Chelsea on steriods. With bells on!

Not surprised that you liked the garden of Ton ter Linden best, he’s an artist (painter) who is well known in Dutchland not only for his paintings but his fab garden designs as well.

Personally I’m not that keen on show gardens or model tuinen as we call them in Dutchland, but they serve their purpose in letting novice gardeners see what is possible garden wise.

Wanda September 30, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I’ve been to the Mien Ruys gardens and loved them! I wouldn’t quite put them in the ‘regular’ show garden category though, as they’re really examples of one designer’s experiments and tell the story of her developing style. And I’ve heard about Floriade – will try to visit in 2012 🙂

Felicity Waters September 30, 2011 at 9:56 am

I dont think you need to feel the precense of a real gardener (that would mean all public landscapes fail) nor does it really need to connect with the wider landscape (nothing more captivating than an out of context garden).

someone must draw inspiration from these gardens if there is funding to support the maintenance program …..? perhaps this is a type of marketing campaign delivered by some organisation like Tesco (gone alfresco)?

blame it on the brief not the format

to see some great show gardens I highly recommend Cranbourne Botanical Gardens in Australia

Wanda September 30, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Thanks for the comment Felicity. To me show gardens, which are meant to model small private gardens, are different from public parks. And I do have the feeling that gardens work best when they consider their wider environment, whether it’s a suburban street or a natural landscape (and of course contrast can work as well as harmony). I don’t have an answer as to why show gardens don’t completely satisfy me, but it seems to be the case most of the time. I would love to be proven wrong with a trip to Australia though 🙂

Felicity Waters September 30, 2011 at 10:18 pm

yeah true public scapes are not usually about domestic … …I’ll do some snaps for thinking gardens on Cranbourne …no point waxing lyrical with no show and tell…

to answer you issue ….i reakon its the brief – nothing like a well informed project manager

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