Thursday, May 21, 2015

Balcony Gardening

from 2014
Since we planned to live in an apartment, I expected to have very little so-called "yard work". We are not responsible for mowing the lawn outside the building, trimming hedges or snow and ice removal. However, there is more outside work than I anticipated.

Our first spring, we bought a variety of plants for the balcony and definitely experienced sticker shock, especially for the planters. The only thing we knew we wanted for sure were two evergreen trees that we could decorate for  Christmas. Otherwise, we chose plants based on the way they looked only asking whether they were hearty enough to stay on the balcony over the winter.  At first, we evaluated planters based on their appearance, but quickly switched and chose based on price tag. For example: 600 CHF for one pot and I need how many? I don't think I'll buy the pretty ones. The plain plastic ones will be good enough. Over the next two years, I have learned that I know even less about plants than I thought I did. 

more from 2014
Luckily, we found a nursery in a neighboring town that is very helpful. We are now their faithful customers. By asking them"Why do these leaves look burned?" , we learned that hydrangea (called hortensia here) does not like full sun. Another helpful tidbit: saucers under planters are fine when they are inside, but on a balcony they are not recommended. I was actually drowning one of our plants because its roots sat in water after several consecutive days of rain. Question: "Why do you sell the saucers if they kill the plants?" Answer: "We don't." (I bought the saucers somewhere else.) We've also been able to show them pictures of our plants or bring them a leaf for them to diagnose the problem. In this way, they saved our lemon tree. We have to bring it inside over the winter and it is happily outside again. We are hoping this will be the year it actually bears fruit. At least it's healthy and looks good.

view from inside the kitchen

can you spot the nearly invisible lemon tree?

Our balcony is on all four sides of the building; therefore, there are very different amounts of sun exposure. After removing all the saucers and moving plants to a more or less sunny spot depending on their preference, things got better. Being able to move the planters to a different location is definitely an advantage - no digging necessary. 

One side of the balcony has no furniture and no plants either. It just does not make sense to decorate all that space. 

We also hung flower boxes on the balcony railing. I had a mixture of plants the first year, but the geraniums were the ones to thrive. They are not my favorite flower, but I do appreciate the bright color that we can see from inside or from the street. They are a very popular flower around Switzerland. And why not? They're red! 

street view on a gray day

Standing on the empty balcony and looking towards the European headquarters of DOW chemical, I have a good view of our geraniums.

The ongoing maintenance is of course, watering and dead-heading, but also collecting the leaves that accumulate in the corners and weeding! That was quite the surprise. Weeds sprout in the pots and also in the cracks between the balcony floor tiles. Weed killer helps, but they come again. 

By the time March rolls around, I am ready for Spring. I always get some small pansies to brighten things up until it's warm enough for the others. 


Pansies don't like the heat so they never last through the summer, but they are perennials. Somehow, they are still able to seed themselves and I have some "volunteers" (term thanks to Lynn) popping up every spring. I love it.

Little white flowers are another very welcome arrival in early spring.
white flowers gone - all leaves now

I also have a small amount of herbs. I use quite a bit of basil and had great luck with it in NJ, but for some reason I can't grow it here. I have to keep buying another pot of it when I've used it all.

I'm ready for the hydrangea to bloom

The big planter was not originally intended for flowers. I failed at making a bed of rhubarb. The planter is very big (and heavy), but it's not enough space. These are the same kinds of flowers I planted last year and they did well. I don't want only geraniums!
looking towards the farm

view from our dining table - Denali loves to "hide" among the hydrangea
Every year presents challenges, but knowing where to go for answers is a huge improvement.  Hopefully everything we planted this year will do well with little effort. Is that too much to ask?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


I love tulips. This is no surprise to many of you. When we were based in Belgium, I had the opportunity to go to the Netherlands every spring. I didn't always get to drive around the flower fields, but always went to Keukenhof which describes itself as the most beautiful spring garden in the world. I believe it! Since returning to Europe, the tulips have been calling to me for a return visit. I gladly answered their call and they delighted me by being in peak bloom. The weather cooperated too.

WARNING: Continue at your own risk. It was very difficult to choose which pictures to include since we have so many beauties. There are going to be a lot here. 

We took a short plane ride to Amsterdam and then rented a car. We based ourselves in Haarlem while visiting the main flower area. The first priority was to find the tulip fields. 

Our first find was actually daffodils, but we didn't know that until we got up close. These colors could be either flower. 

We found tulips, but there was a fence in the way. I knew we could get closer and eventually we did.

this yellow field is all tulips
Hyacinths not only create beautifully colored stripes, but they smell heavenly!

 There are so many varieties!

standing in tulip heaven

We found a row of shops along the road. They knew tourists were going to be looking at the fields and hoped we'd buy bulbs or other things from them. I didn't buy anything - bulbs are a challenge if all you have is balcony containers. 

Tom is not the only one who knows how to be silly!

Flowers are big business in the Netherlands! I admit to not remembering everything we were told about the process, but the flower fields that look beautiful are too far gone to be harvested and sold as cut flowers. I believe they may be next year's crop of bulb sales. We witnessed these men harvesting flowers with buds that hadn't opened. These will be sold as cut flowers. 

With a bit of difficulty, we found our way to Flora Holland where the daily flower auctions take place. To say the place is massive is an understatement. There were huge trucks (18 wheelers) from all over Europe in the parking area or on their way out full of what was just purchased. With even more difficulty, we found the tourist entrance. The auction begins at 6:00 am so by the time of our arrival, it had been over for hours. We were still able to walk through and read the signs about how it works. Very interesting. 

one of the many huge trucks

This photo shows what the auction room would look like when in use.

auction clock

these racks were being pulled through the warehouse


Flora Holland is so big their employees need bicycles to ride around inside the facility! 

Along the roads, there are also a very large number of greenhouses to make sure that the flowers can grow and be harvested plenty early for the customers.

rows of greenhouses with random sheep outside
We went all the way to the Netherlands to eat lunch in Westport! At least it's closer than Massachusetts!

If we're in the Netherlands, there must be windmills! It was fun to see them when we were driving around, but not always easy to get a picture.

As recommended by a friend who visits Keukenhof annually, we were there by 8:15am. It was so nice to have the gardens to leisurely enjoy before it got crowded - which it did. Most, but not all, flowers on display come from bulbs. They are planted in three levels to maximize the bloom period. It also gives a blend of flowers that isn't normally seen. I'll let you judge for yourself, but I think the gardens are stunning. 


Here are a few pictures showing the bulb layers.


The gardens are meticulously maintained. With long opening hours, the work has to be done while people are visiting, but it is done silently.

colorful rejects

something for everybody?

Back to the gardens

Remember those empty paths? They're not empty anymore!

indoor display


not sick anymore

Keukenhof even has a windmill for the tourists

Tom was a good sport and did not rush me along. He had fun taking pictures with his new camera and because of that, we have beautiful souvenirs. Most of the flower pictures are his.

Believe it or not, we did have some time to explore Haarlem.

When it's time for flowers to bloom, making an ice cream cone out of hyacinth is reasonable. It smelled wonderful, but did not make me want to eat it!

Unfortunately, there was a carnival going on in the main square which blocked a good sight line of the beautiful buildings. We were in the Netherlands just a few days in advance of the annual King's Day celebration.

I'd forgotten cannabis is legal now in the Netherlands. I have no idea what kind of restrictions there are, but guess there must be some. We did smell it while passing some people on the street a few times. Smoking out in public seemed to be allowed.


The same friend that advised us to get to Keukenhof early, also recommended some traditional foods to taste. The meatballs in this assortment are called "bitterballen", but were not bitter. We got to check them off the list, but didn't think they were anything special.

Small pancakes are called poffertjies and usually come 10 at a time with a sweet topping. I had strawberries and Tom had cherries. Both were very good although the amount of whipped cream was excessive.

This is how they make the small pancakes.

Large Dutch pancakes (pannekoek) are the size of a dinner plate. They are available in sweet or savory options. Since this was a lunch stop, we chose bacon and ham/cheese.

We had quite a surprise finding Brussels' most famous citizen in Haarlem. We did not eat at this cafe. 

canals are not only in Amsterdam

old city gate

draw bridge can be crossed by pedestrians when in this position

street level of cathedral is now shops!

This is the door to the Corrie ten Boom House which is also a museum. The family patriarch was a pastor and was leading others in prayer for the Jews decades before WW2. We took a tour of the inside which was fascinating. Since they were already praying for the Jews, it was a natural transition to become part of the Dutch Resistance. They hid many Jews in a hiding place in Corrie's bedroom. They were eventually betrayed by neighbors and the whole family was arrested. Corrie is the only one who survived the concentration camp. There were people hiding in the secret space when the apartment (above the family watch store) was searched, but they were not found.

Corrie is the youngest - far right

the hiding place


This is the entrance to the hiding place. They've made a hole in the wall allowing visitors to see inside and how small it is. Imagine several terrified people trapped in there for an unknown length of time. The family practiced preparing for a raid reducing the time it took to get the vulnerable into hiding and everything else cleared away. No evidence of extra people could remain. It was a great tour and made me wonder how I would have reacted in that situation. Would I have helped people at such high risk to myself? I like to think I would have, but I also hope I will never be in the situation where I need to make that choice. I also bought the book "The Hiding Place" (which included the bookmark at right) written by Corrie that I look forward to reading. 

Bicycles are modes of transportation in the Netherlands not just for leisure or fitness activities. Bike lanes are everywhere and we learned it is very important to look both ways before crossing. Most people have a basket or box in the front and a flat area in the back where goods can be strapped on. In some cases, we saw it used as a seat. Parents carry children in front or back - amazing how many at once! The lack of helmets was very noticeable - only worn by people who were dressed for racing. We had already been pointing them out to each other while driving around - we decided to sit on a bench at an intersection at rush hour. It was so entertaining. Here are some photos, thanks to Tom. I just sat and laughed. 

talking on a cell phone

dog on leash runs to keep up

girl holding onto Grandma most likely - no minimum or  maximum age for bikes

got beer?


this kid is a bit big for the box in front - must be uncomfortable

carrying two children in official seats

boy in the back definitely not on a seat - unsure about boy in front

riding side saddle

saddle bags, basket and backpack - he has a lot of gear!

kids riding to and from school are often three across and totally in sync

cellists arriving at rehearsal venue


We saw several bikes outfitted with a wooden carrier in the front. Children of varying sizes and ages were riding along. This woman is carrying four children! She had to stop at a traffic light and getting the bike going again was not easy. At some point, the kids must transition to riding their own bike. There are plenty of other pictures, but I think that's enough to get the idea.

We spent our last day in Amsterdam. Before heading to the Rijksmuseum, we went to what is advertised as their daily floating flower market. It was not really floating, but stalls along the side of a canal. They were selling cut flowers and bulbs, no surprise there, along with tourist trinkets.  

back side of the very large flower market

cannabis assortment is hanging above the flowers

grow your own cannabis

tulip bulbs in cans - who knew?

cut flowers too
After walking along the market without purchasing anything, we made our way to the Rijksmuseum. There was a long line to get in - I bought our tickets on my phone to save us some time, but I should have done it before we got there. Like museums in other major cities, it is huge and we only scratched the surface of what is there.

 museum interior


We always spot the chess sets!

At the Louvre, the Mona Lisa is a "must see". Here Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" draws the biggest crowd. The painting is huge!

people trying to see Night Watch

As former residents of Waterloo, we were drawn to the Waterloo room which included this large painting of the battle, but the museum isn't all paintings.

Religious sculptures

the last supper

model ships were very intricate

I am not particularly a fan of this style vase, but wanted to show its size. The detail view shows that the individual blossoms are held in faces. There was one in the shop with flowers. It's definitely unique.

tulip cappuccino at museum cafe

Tom's only request for this trip was to go to an Indonesian restaurant for a rijstafel. We always had one when we went to the Netherlands, but it'd been a very long time. It is an assortment of meats, vegetables and rice. Some are more spicy than others. There is always toasted coconut to help cool off any of the hotter dishes. To start, they gave us chips with three kinds of salsa. We were told to choose the heat (spiciness) of our food based on the salsas. After we chose, they recommended which rijstafel they thought we would enjoy most.We recommend Sampurna if you're traveling to Amsterdam.

very tasty!

 I'll leave you with some sights of the traditional Dutch architecture of Amsterdam.

We find the angles on the buildings very interesting and don't understand the purpose.  This is not an optical illusion.

leaving the Netherlands

It was a fantastic short trip. I hope I can return some day. I can't resist...I have to end with one last picture of tulips!