What I learned about beer in Belgium: Don’t reach for Chimay Blue unless you plan to drink it.
I’m not a beer drinker—left that grand experiment in my college years—but when I opened the refrigerator and said I was about to take a bottle of Chimay Blue into the patio garden, I heard Koen groan. “Take the Maes.”
Marina and I had sunken a plastic container into the soil near a nasturtium that was chomped the night before. We were determined to get those slugs with our homemade beer trap. All we needed was beer. So, Maes it was.
In the morning, there were seven dead slugs at the bottom of the slug pub—and no more nibbling on the nasturtium. I eventually figured out what the fuss was about. The Maes was left over from a bachelor party weekend; the Chimay Blue is the good stuff.
While planning my trip to Belgium, I had two gardens on my mind. The one at my mom’s house, which I abandoned, leaving transplants of tomatoes, peppers, basil, celeriac, and who knows what else for my sister Lee Ann to plant. (She did a great job!) The other was the garden Marina and Koen began planning when they moved into their house in Ghent last October.
But Belgium held many more horticultural surprises.
The most formal garden I visited was Ghent University Botanical Garden. Established in 1797, the garden has been at its present location, not far from Ghent city center, since 1902. The 7-acre spread has more than 10,000 species, and includes tropical, subtropical, Victoria, and succulent greenhouses.
Other times, the gardens or plants I discovered were simply by accident. The wisteria trained along the building across from Marina’s place was painstakingly pruned and a work of art; a beautiful foxglove growing out of a chink in the sidewalk, a fortunate fluke. I was just walking down a boulevard when I came across a stunning water garden entranceway, and rounding a corner when I was jolted by the brilliance of a golden chain tree at a neighborhood bar.
I never expected to see so many barge gardens docked along the canals and rivers of Ghent. Many of these floating gardens were practical: potted herbs or privacy vines surrounding the dinner table; others featured low-maintenance ornamental grasses or high-maintenance sculpted topiaries.
When I rode my bike along the canal into Ghent, I always parked near the office building where Koen works. I knew if I ever got lost, anyone could point me toward the building with the silver Xs, squares, and diamonds. Across the street from that building, I was drawn to a window-well garden under the sidewalk. Day after day I admired it, plump hydrangeas and healthy basil growing under my feet where I expected sidewalk cement, not glass.
On my next-to-the-last day in Ghent, I brought my camera—but construction dust had covered the windows. Never fear, I know Belgian women. Throughout my visit, I saw them outside with buckets, mopping, wiping, and scrubbing sidewalks, door stoops, and windowsills. I knew the windows would be clean by the next morning. I returned, and not only were the windows washed but the gardener was there.
She told me the one window-well garden was outside her basement kitchen, so she planted herbs. The other, outside her living area, was for the blooming hydrangeas. At Christmas time, she replaces those with a miniature Christmas tree and lights. “I can open by basement apartment windows and have the garden inside,” she explained with pride. (Unfortunately, my photos didn’t do these gardens justice.)
My favorite garden was the patio garden Marina and Koen created. It was the garden I woke up to each morning and the last one I saw in the evening. Koen built a planter across the back of the walled patio with wooden pallets, and Marina filled the planter with vegetables (and sunflowers) they grew from seed—heirloom tomatoes, fava beans, salad greens, kale, etc. On a side wall, Koen’s father made the coolest planters out of metal roof gutters for herbs. My contribution, besides occasional weeding, was an Italian jasmine plant, next to the patio table, sharing the lovely scent I have at home in my mother’s atrium. Laurie Lynch
And More: Al Haring, my country neighbor when I lived in Maxatawny Township, is an email buddy. We often exchange photographs—his are artwork; mine are snapshots of his son Keith’s work that pops up in places like Venice or Brussels. Well, in our last exchange, Al told me that the solo Keith Haring exhibit The Political Line is at the Kunsthalle in Munich through Aug. 30. Better yet, The Political Line moves to the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, Sept. 19 through Feb. 7, 2016. I’m hoping Marina and Richard will make a daytrip to see the exhibit of our Kutztown-raised artist.