Boskoop is Europe’s oldest and best known tree growing area. According to historical records, the growing of trees started here in around 1220. At that time, the Boskoop farmers were predominantly self-sufficient: they grew the trees they needed, for example, as hedges and wind shelters. There was no such thing as arboriculture at that time.
In those days, the Boskoop area belonged to the noble Convent of Rijnsburg. This Convent wanted to expand and improve its orchards, so it made sense to grow more trees than were needed by the farmers themselves. The Convent likely played a major role in the expansion of tree growing. The first evidence of commercial arboriculture dates back to 10 November 1466, when Jan de Backer sent an invoice to the Convent for the supply of ten grafts of apple and pear trees. Probably without realising it at the time, in doing so, he laid the foundation for an important and specialised line of business that brought Boskoop fame and glory.
Jan de Backer’s invoice dated 10 November 1466.
The establishment and growth of tree nurseries in Boskoop has everything to do with the soil conditions in the region. Just like the rest of the present-day Randstad, Boskoop was built on marsh land covered with a thick layer of peat. When the Convent of Rijnsburg was the owner of Boskoop, the town people discovered that after digging and drying, this peat could be used for heating. For the people of the town who did not yet have coal, oil or gas, this peat was of great importance. In the beginning, the uppermost layer of peat was dug up all around the towns. Later, digging went deeper and deeper. As a result, ponds and lakes formed around many of the towns. A good example of these are the ponds of the Reeuwijkse Plassen. Boskoop was too far away for the town people, who at that time could only travel on foot. As a result, the peat in Boskoop remained untouched. In addition, the Convent of Rijnsburg did not allow peat cutting. Boskoop is still benefiting from this fact even today, because Boskoop’s pristine peat soil forms a perfect substrate for trees and plants.
For a number of centuries, arboriculture focused predominantly on fruit crops, such as fruit trees and bushes. Boskoop and the surrounding area was regarded as the Convent’s orchard. In between the orchards, there were strawberries that were sold in the neighbouring towns and villages.
Boskoop was none the worse for the Convent of Rijnsburg’s prohibition of turf cutting. The demand for trees and shrubs grew enormously during the Golden Age. Boskoop benefited greatly from this, particularly from the demand for roses and boxwood.
The book ‘Boskoop, vijf eeuwen boomkwekerij’ [Boskoop – five centuries of tree nurseries] by Aart Vuyk Sr. written in 1966 describes the wheelings and dealings of the first merchant in England in the 18th century. The parents of Pieter Brakel (born around 1756) were of humble descent. After some education at the village school, as a young boy, he started working at his uncle’s tree nursery. In later years, his uncle, Jan van Nes, took him with him on business trips, in particular to Rotterdam, where he traded on the market and in coffee houses with farmers and other clients from the islands of Zuid-Holland and Zeeland. There Pieter learned more about civilised conduct and developed an interest in travel and trading. At 21, he married the daughter of a wealthy vegetable grower from Gouda and established his own tree nursery.
Not long thereafter, he started to look for trading opportunities. In Rotterdam, he got to know merchants from England who recommended that he should grow plants for which there was a great demand in England. He took their advice and indeed found an outlet for his products there.
When, in 1781, the fourth Anglo-Dutch war broke out, Brakel’s export business collapsed and the trees that he had grown for England could not be sold in the Netherlands. Pieter Brakel was the first exporter to be confronted with an export risk – something that many a Boskoop exporter would also become familiar with in later centuries.
Around 1860, the demand for the growing of ornamental plants accelerated. New plant species were introduced, thanks to visits by botanists to the Far East and other parts of the world. Growers turned to the growing of shrubs and perennials, predominantly rhododendrons, azaleas, roses and lilacs, and later also conifers. The very broad range of plants that were grown in Boskoop gained international recognition. The phenomenon of the commercial traveller arose. In the latter half of the 19th century, the export of nursery products started in the Netherlands, and hence also in Boskoop. The first foreign customers were Germans. Exports to the eastern states of the USA also started around 1890.
Ditches and small plots
The tree nurseries in Boskoop are just above sea level. In order to keep the nurseries dry, the peat was dug out between the plots and deposited on the land, creating some 2000 kilometres of ditches. It was not until after the war that the laying of drains for groundwater lowering started to channel off the excess water. Later, transport by water became too complicated and therefore time-consuming. For this reason, around half the ditches were filled in, small nurseries were merged and developed with new access roads. Nevertheless, present-day Boskoop is still characterised by the large number of ditches.
World’s largest consolidated ornamental plant growing area
Nowadays, with around 1800 hectares of nurseries, Boskoop is still one of the world’s largest consolidated ornamental plant growing areas and Boskoop nursery products can be found all over the world. A large proportion of the population of Boskoop is also employed by tree nurseries and the associated companies, such as exporters, transport companies, suppliers and service providers.
Pot and container plants
The Boskoop peaty soil is still important for arboriculture in Boskoop. The growing of pot and container plants also plays an important role. This method of growing evolved after the war in response to the demands of the market. During this period, the number of private house and garden owners grew, and the newly established garden centres started to serve the private market. That created the problem for suppliers and customers of nursery products that trees and plants could only be replanted during the winter dormant period. As a result, the 'pot culture', or the growing of products in pots and containers, evolved. In Boskoop, these containers are generally referred to as 'pots'. The tree in the pot containing an appropriate soil mixture is above the ground and no longer has contact with the peat. The pot is supplied with water and nutrients using a computer-controlled pipe system. Thanks to this method of growing, the Boskoop trees can be delivered throughout the year, except during frosty weather.
Crossing the bridge ...
The Dutch saying 'crossing the bridge' meaning to cough up and deliver what’s due is said to have been coined in Boskoop. Once a year, directly after the delivery period, the debts were paid to the Boskoop middle class who lived predominantly on the western side of the drawbridge. The tree growers from the eastern part of Boskoop then literally and figuratively 'crossed the bridge'!
Do you want to know more about the history of the tree nurseries in Boskoop?
Book 'Boskoop vijf eeuwen boomkwekerij 1466-1966' by Aart Vuyk Sr. Published by Plant Propaganda Holland (PPH Boskoop), April 1966.
Read and watch:
Historische Vereniging Boskoop [Boskoop Historical Society], www.hvboskoop.nl
Visit and experience:
Tree nursery museum Opening hours and further information can be found at www.boomkwekerijmuseum.nl
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