Q&A with Dutch designer, Carien Van Boxtel

How did you get into horticulture?

I’ve been gardening and cutting flowers since I was four, as both my parents and grandparents were keen gardeners.  We had vegetables from our allotment and our ornamental garden at our 1930s house was impeccable - my father, grandfather and I have always been great admirers of the late Mien Ruijs.  My first career was as a barrister but I started to design gardens for friends and colleagues in my spare time.  After marrying a keen gardener and moving to the countryside where we created a wonderful ornamental and kitchen garden, I finally left the law and, after having my three (now grown up) children, trained as a landscape and garden designer, graduating ten years ago. 

What style of gardens are you inspired by?

When I close my eyes, I am in my childhood garden, where I could play and discover something edible, something popping up from nowhere.  My parents were so inspirational and thrifty, I am forever thankful for having such a wonderful childhood in which the gardens were key.  My absolute favourite garden however is Great Dixter- I love the sharing of knowledge, the skill, the quirkiness, the clashing and daring colour schemes and the fact the spirit of the original maker is still very present.  I also admire The Dutch Heemparken, with native plants and a lot of bulbs, The Nuttery in Sissinghurst, a small but elegant naturalistic woodland, and the garden of my friend and colleague Sarah Raven 'Perch Hill'.  She’s given me so much inspiration particularly in terms of garden colour and combinations, from the first moment I opened (by chance) her very first book 'The Cutting Garden.’

You’re well-known for naturalising of bulbs. Can you give us any tips on spring bulbs for woodlands? 

Plant drifts of bulbs and tubers that will give you flowers from January until May and interplant them with perennials, woodland plants, and ferns.  Keep things simple: better to plant a lot of just a few varieties: buy 100 bulbs and not 10. A simple scheme could be Galanthus nivalis (I love S. Arnott), Anemone nemorosa or lavender blue Anemone robinsoniana, Erythronium 'Pagoda' (dogstooth), Hyacinthoides non-scripta (English Bluebell), a wonderful cut flower, too.  By the time the bluebells are in flower time your woodland garden has become too shady for bulbs and other shade loving perennials with their wonderful foliage can take over!

How do you manage to fit being a flower farmer into your busy schedule?

Well to be honest, sometimes I just don't.  But I can’t help myself.  My FlowerCabinet is what the allotment was to my parents, my 'garden away from my garden', my sanctuary and my experimental plot.  Especially after having long covid first and cancer later, I rediscovered the healing power of gardening and growing and I will continue to grow flowers until I am ready for the compost heap myself.  And in this phase in my life when my youngest has just left the house, I am making the most of the extra time.  Sometimes my garden design clients need to be a little more patient, I guess. 

Do you have any advice about starting a cutting garden?

Compost is your best friend. I use it as a mulch on my no-dig beds on very difficult clay soil.  Grow only plants that suit your location and soil.  I advise my clients to invest in 25 packets of seeds of easy summer flowering annuals - sunflowers, cosmos, zinnia, Phlox drummondii, grasses, cardoon, amni, sweet pea, calendula - my absolute favourite is Tagetes 'Linnaeus', it flowers for ever, and Lathyrus 'Piggy Sue'.  Then buy 25 dahlia tubers (they are all lovely really, but I can't do without Josie, Molly Raven and Sarah Raven) and a lot of daffodils especially the poeticus varieties.  Leucojum aestivum, and of course tulips, early mid-season and late season, but you need quite a lot.  And as a rule, they’re not perennial.  Plant good shrubs for foliage and don't forget to grow perennials too (Astrantia, Hellebore, Baptisia, Grasses, Clematis etc).  And some of your favourite roses. And a good pair of flower snips. It will bring you so much joy!

You often collaborate with other plant people - what do you enjoy most about that?

I have recently created a perennial meadow in collaboration with Rijnbeek perennials and JUB Flowerbubs for Keukenhof: so exciting as 1,4 million people will come and admire it.  It’s interplanted with absolutely fantastic tulips in blue, black and mauve.  Keukenhof opens this week for the 75th time.  It’s a place that is very close to my heart, obviously. And this summer, I will work together with friend and colleague Arit Anderson on her 'Peat Free Garden' for the RHS Hampton Court Garden Festival 2024.