There is a painterly quality to nearly everything that comes from Belgium. It’s a region that for centuries has felt the influence of its opinionated neighbors. In almost any Belgian garden there is evidence of geometrical classicism (from France); the springtime exuberance of the Italian Renaissance, and the naturalism of English cottage gardens. The result? Gardens you would not see anywhere else in the world. The lesson? Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Sandwiched between the northern and southern climates of Europe, Belgium is home to gardeners who for centuries have tested other cultures’ ideas–to create an inimitable style. Here are 10 ideas to steal from Belgium–from dark, moody paint colors to velvety green backdrops–that will give any garden a luxurious Old Masters air:
Paint with Green
Use the color green as a backdrop. Dense foliage has the same effect as a velvet lining in a jewelry box. Everything else you plant will pop out like a diamond displayed on rich fabric.
Put on a Springtime Show
Nothing says winter’s over like a clump or two of spring bulbs–tulips, daffodils, alliums, hyacinths, and more tulips is our recommendation. See 10 Favorite Tulips to Plant This Fall for inspiration and Gardening 101: How to Plant a Bulb for step-by-step instructions.
Plant an Orchard
In the 18th and 19th century, few Flemish gardeners could afford the luxury of purely ornamental plants. Instead, they grew fruit. Large gardens had orchards. Small gardens had a dwarf fruit tree or three. In addition to the fruit, a lovely side benefit of fruit trees is that they blossom in spring and gnarled tree trunks and branches take on a dramatically sculptural look when covered in snow.
Autumn is the best time to plant fruit tree; for step-by-step instructions see DIY: Plant a Fruit Tree to Bloom Next Spring.
Cover Walls with Espalier
Fan-trained fruit trees take up little space in city gardens but blossom and bear fruit exuberantly. For more ideas about how to cover a fence with something green, see Design Sleuth: Vines as Espalier.
Use Hedges for Definition
In Belgium, where the terrain is a rolling flat expanse without natural features such as mountains or valleys, creating a relationship between a garden and the surrounding landscape can be difficult. As a solution, Belgian gardeners use hedges to create a distinct perimeter. Some of our favorite hedging shrubs are Hornbeam, Boxwood, and English laurel.
Planted at the edge of a garden, tall-growing shrubs–pittosporum, hornbeam, boxwood, and laurel are a few examples–will grow together to create a dense privacy screen that also absorbs and blocks noise from traffic and neighbors. A hedge of green shrubs always looks better than a fence.
Flemish gardens often have austere, simple palettes of green on green with an emphasis on texture, shape, and size instead of bright colors. Evergreen shrubs have year-round appeal and can create a sense of symmetry and balance that makes seasonal flowering plants feel chaotic in comparison.
Impose a sense of balance with trees planted in a row, identical topiaries, or closely pruned shrubs that echo each other.
Paint with Moody Colors
Black or gray fences, facades, and other architectural details black or gray will emphasize how very green the greenery is.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow,” the poet John McCrae wrote after seeing the resilient flowers swaying on their skinny stalks in the battlefields of World War I just months after fighting had turned the landscapes to mud and blood.
Poppies want to please. Self-sowing, they are wildflowers that will spread widely and provide sanctuary to pollinators.
N.B.: This post originally ran on September 30, 2014.
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