Floriade: the Netherlands’ once-in-a-decade flower show
by Rhiannon James
Participants from all over the world have completed their preparations, the buildings are up and the huge park is finished so now it’s time for some sport, right? Not in the Netherlands. All British eyes might be on the Olympics this summer but for the Dutch, 2012 is a Floriade year. This giant horticultural happening, which is held in the country just once every decade, opened last month in the city of Venlo. Running until the autumn, it’s an event that’s part flower show, part world fair, part interactive exhibition and part just glorious bonkersness.
The 163-acre Floriade park is a landscape of woodland and water punctuated by five ‘worlds’ each with a different theme. These contain a bewildering variety of show gardens, and structures of all shapes and sizes housing gardening-related displays. Some of the exhibitions have a particularly quirky charm – the Netherlands’ agriculture pavilion, for example, has a sushi bar-style conveyor belt that whisks around trays of Dutch produce to taste, touch or smell. While four of the ‘worlds’ cover broad themes such as the environment and innovation, the fifth, called World Show Stage, is dedicated to the pavilions of participating countries. The most spectacular of these has to be China’s which recreates a classical garden, complete with a pavilion, covered corridors and a lake.
And if that’s not enough, there’s also a cable car, waterside cafés and all sorts of strolling entertainers – from traditional Thai dancers to local brass bands.
One of the glories of the show though is the indoor displays. The Villa Flora pavilion, in the Green Engine zone, is apparently the largest indoor flower exhibition in Europe and it certainly makes the most of the space. The current displays bring another meaning to the word ‘outsize’: giant towers of painted sticks brandish cheerful displays of bromeliads and huge sculptural containers spill over with hundreds of bulbs. Orchids get their own gallery and are displayed in individual alcoves like high-end handbags and shoes. There are also show garden-style areas which are roughly divided into three sections: one full of eye-popping colour; another a more restrained combination of succulents, palms, slate, steel and rock; and a third with a romantic feel created by chandeliers, Medinilla magnifica and the heady scent of hyacinths. Despite the scale of the show, there is still inspiration for more compact rooms and gardens. Scaled-down versions of the container combinations would make a big impact in smaller spaces. There are also some interesting ideas for vertical surfaces such as Vanda orchids, which can survive happily without soil; stackable containers to create walls of plants and clusters of hanging vases to display cut flowers. Probably the biggest message of the pavilion though is that plants used en masse pack the biggest punch.
Next door in the Environment zone, there’s a smaller but no less imaginative show garden that’s succinctly named Leven (Life). The idea of the space is to draw attention to the increasingly topsy-turvy relationship between houses and gardens. While outdoor spaces are becoming increasingly like living rooms with lots of hard surfaces, furniture and gadgets, living rooms, in the Netherlands at least, are turning into gardens (rather amazingly, the average Dutch home has 7.8 house plants).
The design takes this idea one step further and shows a house that has been taken over by plants – they creep out of the kitchen drawers, burst out of the lounge furniture and cover the walls. The dining table is particularly covetable – the surface is planted with sedums while the crockery blooms with thrift and Tillandsia cyanea, and ivy dangles from the lampshades. Outside meanwhile, all is grey and lifeless, with a stony seating area, fake grass and plastic plants.
Another huge glasshouse in the Education and Innovation section takes you deep into the jungle. It has been designed to appeal to children as much as to adults so there’s a river with a boat, curious cabins and a treasure hunt but also lots of dramatic tropical planting. Displays from individual countries such as Indonesia and Kenya are blended into the landscape – Thailand’s array of brightly-coloured orchids, pitcher plants and ferns cascading down from bark baskets and bamboo stumps is a highlight.
Sustainability is a big deal at the Floriade. The site has been designed to preserve elements of the original landscape, such as areas of woodland, and in turn, some of the Floriade buildings and planting will form the basis for a new business park when the show finishes in October. The permanent buildings have also been designed to push the boundaries of eco-friendly construction. The Villa Flora glasshouse, which is due to become an office complex and exhibition venue, is able to be self-sufficient in energy terms thanks to elements such as solar panels and a facility to turn organic waste produced on site into electricity.
Many of the show gardens also explore different sides of sustainability. Leading Dutch designer Nico Wissing has teamed up with celebrity gardener Lodewijk Hoekstra to showcase the potential for using green technologies in an urban garden. The space, which includes areas for living, working and food-growing, has solar panels galore as you might expect, but also many more intriguing elements. A pool with aquatic plants produces enough energy to charge mobile phones; a pavilion doubles up as a giant rainwater funnel and underfoot is a mineral called olivine which can extract carbon dioxide from the environment. The garden is sustainable in other ways too: striking green walls maximise growing space, the prairie planting is both low-maintenance and drought-tolerant and materials such as timber and stone have been sourced locally. The garden is part of a wider mission by Nico and Lodewijk to encourage the production and use of more sustainable materials in gardens. “We don’t need to buy tropical timbers or natural stone from India and China because we have good, local materials in Holland, Germany and Belgium. We would like people to stop using those products that are made far away, have a negative impact on the environment or are produced using child labour – and that is part of what we wanted to express in the garden,” says Nico.
In the Wilde Weelde Wereld garden, the focus is on increasing biodiversity in both cities and rural areas. The garden provides a range of different habitats for wildlife including a pond and dry stone walls but perhaps the most interesting area for urban gardeners will be the contemporary city border which uses a mix of perennials and annuals such as campions, wild carrot and scabious that provide food for butterflies and other insects. “The planting is inspired by a wildflower meadow,” says designer Jasper Helmantel. “The plants are spread randomly through the border and some are planted in larger quantities than others. This way of planting is a process – the border is not static, it will look different every year.” There’s some nifty multi-functional seating too – benches double up as compost bins and bee hotels – a great idea as long as you’re not too disconcerted by a bit of buzzing around the bottom.
The Bee for the World garden offers a more hands-on approach to learning about wildlife with the opportunity to have a go at being a bee. A small scanner is provided at the entrance to the garden and the mission is to collect as much pollen as possible – by beeping barcodes attached to likely-looking plants. When you’re finished, a report card tells you how many grains you collected and rates your success (or otherwise!) as a worker.
A little further down the path, a giant seed-shaped pod called My Green World houses an exhibition on the future of food production. Urban farming is represented by displays on guerrilla gardening and vertical agriculture and there are also examples of emerging technologies that could help to make city spaces even more productive. Special LED lights, which make it possible to grow crops indoors without sunshine, cast a strange glow over shelves of basil while algae- a possible food and energy source of the future – grows in a curtain of cultivation units.
The 15 show gardens in the Environment section range from the stylish to the slightly surreal. Although they’re intended to provide greenery next to offices, some would work just as well in a domestic setting. Kawaguchi City’s offering is a beautifully planted Japanese garden with a grove of Phyllostachys nigra and Phyllostachys reticulata var. aurea leading to a delicate dry landscape garden of white gravel, dark rocks and Ophiopogon japonicus, surrounded by cloud-pruned trees. The Stichting Tuinpromotie Nederland area is really two spaces, apparently representing two potential garden trends in 2013. Let me glow is a sleek monochrome space with highlights of neon while Be Happy is a low-maintenance family garden with a natural feel and lots of food plants. Other rather more bonkers ideas include a garden full of trampolines where workers can boing themselves out of their afternoon torpor and the Ebben Inspyrium garden where the trees wear dresses to symbolise Mother Nature.
There are many more gardens, exhibitions, displays and happenings to make the Floriade well worth a visit and unlike the Olympics, it’s actually possible to get a ticket.
Floriade 2012 (www.floriade.com) runs until 7th October and is located just outside the city of Venlo. The park can be accessed by car but it’s also easy to get there by train. Entrance for one day is €25 for adults and €12.50 for children aged 4 to 12 (a trip on the cable car is extra).