Friends of Wester-Amstel: Annemie van Hamel and Fleur Poots

As I stepped through the gates of Wester-Amstel, I knew that it was going to be a lovely day to chat with some of our volunteers. The sun was shining through the foliage in streams, the plants were bursting with new life, and the birds were singing to one another in the treetops above.

Without wasting any time, I set off to find the two women I was set to interview. It didn’t take long until I spotted them, already gearing up for an afternoon of working in the garden. But before their therapeutic work in the soil began, it was time to chat.

In this edition of Friends of Wester-Amstel, we are joined by two very special volunteers: Annemie van Hamel, our longest-serving volunteer, whose experience and dedication have been invaluable to the gardens of Wester-Amstel; and Fleur Poots, our newest volunteer, who is still full of wonder as she experiences her first season with us.

Spoiled with choices of where to sit, we finally decided to settle on one of the green benches in the ornamental garden at the back of the house. And let the interview began…

Photo: Annemie van Hamel and Fleur Poots in action.

Taylor: Good morning! Thank you both for being here with me today. Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Annemie: I'm Annemie van Hamel. I have been a volunteer here for 25 years. I live in Amstelveen.

Taylor: Are you retired? Working?

Annemie: I’ve been retired… for a long time now. [laughs]

Fleur: My name is Fleur Poots. I live in Amsterdam, in the Rivierenbuurt, and I write for a magazine. It's called Vind Magazine and it is about antiques, history, and archaeology. I have a background in arts and culture.

Taylor: How did you happen across Wester-Amstel?

Fleur: I moved to Amsterdam 20 years ago to study. I have always felt the need to get out of the city, so I often just grab my bike and cycle along the Amstel River. I've always cycled past Wester-Amstel and thought, "Wow, what is that?" I visited Wester-Amstel once during Open Monuments Day, and yeah, ever since then, whenever I passed by, I always thought, "It's such a nice place." It makes me happy to just look at it. And then, yeah, I was looking for a volunteer job, something healthy to do, and I saw they needed volunteers in the garden... which was exactly what I wanted to do.

Taylor: Wester-Amstel can certainly provide on that front. Working in a garden seems like it just has to be good for your physical and mental health.

Fleur: Exactly. It can be so easy to stay at home, indoors. But even if the weather seems horrible, when I come here, it's always nicer than I think it will be. There's hardly any wind in the garden, so it feels warmer than elsewhere. I always enjoy being here.

Taylor: And Annemie, how did you find Wester-Amstel? Afterall, you began volunteering here more than 25 years ago!

Annemie: One day I was cycling past Wester-Amstel and I saw that they needed volunteers. I applied and now it is 25 years later… Back then, the part of the garden that we, as volunteers, had to take care of was much smaller. It was only the stinzentuin. and the kitchen garden, which consisted of eight beds.

Taylor: And when you first started volunteering, was this before or after the house had been repaired?

Annemie: No, it was before it had been renovated. It was when the house was being leased (and restored) by Groengebied Amstelland, and they took care of the rest of the estate grounds. We didn't even have the shed back then.

Taylor: How many volunteers were there when you first started Annemie? Has the number of volunteers increased over the years?

Annemie: When I first started volunteering, I think there were around eight of us. And now, when everybody's here there are about 12 .

Photo: View of the house next to the stinzentuin.
Photo: There's always something growing in the stinzentuin!
Photo: Hard at work in the kitchen garden.
Photo (E.Hulsing): The butterfly garden looking beautiful.

Taylor: What days of the week do you volunteer on?

Annemie: I come here every Thursday.

Fleur: I volunteer twice a week. We have volunteer shifts on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Some people only come on Tuesday, some on Thursday, and some on both... But you also have people like, Aleid, for example, who comes here almost every day.

Taylor: Does the garden group also manage the other areas of the park? So for example, the trees, bushes, or waterways?

Annemie: No, that is what the Park Group does. They take care of the trees and so on. They come on Saturday.

Taylor: Do the volunteers from the different groups ever help out in the other? Or is it quite separate?

Annemie: No, it used to just be one group ... When there were fewer volunteers, but then, I think around the time of COVID-19, we started coming on different days of the week. It was too crowded otherwise. It was difficult to share the tools... and it was difficult to all take coffee or tea at the same time.

[Fleur mentions that she hasn't had a chance to meet many members of the Park Group yet, but we assure her that this would change as there are a few volunteer gatherings organised each year that are lovely to attend.]

Taylor: What do you enjoy doing when you aren't at Wester-Amstel?

Fleur: Luckily I have a balcony, so I'm stuffing it with plants. I like to do things at home like read and fix up my house, go to museums and the movies. I used to go on the water a lot, but I don't have a boat anymore so now I do more cycling and go for swims.

Annemie: I have a balcony, but I can't do anything with it, because it's too high. That’s why I like working in the garden here, in the open air, especially when the weather is nice. It is nice being able to watch everything growing. And, of course, the people are nice!

Taylor: I think I say this in every interview, but that is one of the best parts of volunteering at Wester-Amstel. The other volunteers are lovely. It is a really great community.

Fleur: Yeah, exactly. It is a really nice group that makes you feel at home. Coffee time is one of the nicest times, because that's when we sit together and we talk about everything. We mostly talk about the environment, and you know, how bad things are going for nature. And everyone's really sad about it, but anxious to do something about it too. It connects all of us, you know, this love for nature and for life. Everybody has their own specific kind of knowledge, but the whole group is equal.

Taylor: Can you tell me a bit more about your roles in the garden group? What do you do when you are here?

Annemie: I have done a lot over the years. When I first started, I took care of one of the garden beds. Back then, the beds in the front had vegetables in them, but now they are all located behind the shed. I then spent a few years working in the stinzentuin and that was very nice. I worked with Jan.

Taylor: Do you have a particular task you like doing the most?

Annemie: No, just so long as it isn't too heavy.

Taylor: I want to ask you the same question Fleur, but... How long have you actually been volunteering for?

Fleur: Since March.

Taylor: Oh, so you're BRAND new then!

Fleur: Yeah, but it is nice because when I first came here there was hardly anything growing and it has all exploded since then. I help Aleid out in the kitchen garden mostly. But I will do anything that needs to be done. I don't really have any favorite chores right now, because everything feels really... like... zen. Just listening to the birds and putting my hands in the dirt.

Taylor: With 25 years under your belt Annemie, do you have a favorite fruits, vegetables, or herbs you like to take home?

Annemie: I take home whatever is ripe. I take home beans, sometimes apples. The harvest is distributed evenly amongst everyone.

Taylor: Oh that is nice, so everyone has a chance to take home a little bit of everything.

[We discuss all the delicious things other volunteers have made from items they've grown at Wester-Amstel - ranging from chutneys to jams to vinegars to pestos.]

Wester-Amstel vegetable and flower seed packets, sitting on a table in rows
Photo: Tea made by our volunteers.
Photo: And apples from the orchard.

Taylor: Fleur, have you learned or seen anything that has left you shocked, confused, or delighted in the two months you’ve been here?

Fleur: Of course.I really love all the birds. So when we hear a bird, Aleid is teaching me who it belongs to. I love the sound of the European green woodpecker. It sounds like he's laughing. I didn't know that before. So now, when I'm somewhere else, like walking in the woods with my mom. I'm like, "Oh, you hear that? That's the green woodpecker." So yeah, I'm learning something every time.

Taylor: Ah, the birds of Wester-Amstel! We’ve mentioned them quite a few times in articles for De Buitenplaats.

Annemie: We used to have chickens too. And in one of the big trees, we had hawks.

Photo (Charles J. Sharp): A European green woodpecker.
Photo (F. Bongers): The father hawk.

Fleur: Did you know there are pheasants here AND they are stealing the crops?

Taylor: What! No, really?

Yes! Suddenly one day, we came to the garden and all the bean plants were beheaded. But we found their feathers, so we knew who was guilty! So now, we have to fight and fend off slugs and pheasants. [pauses to think] We could use chickens or ducks, preferably, to eat all the slugs in the garden, but then we would need to have someone to take care of them.

Taylor: Can ducks be used for natural pest control?

Fleur: Yes, there is a specific type of duck that is good for that. It is a tall duck... it is called an Indian Runner Duck.

[Visions of sheep, chickens, and ducks at Wester-Amstel fill our minds, before we shift directions over to a new topic.]

Photo (J.Macou): Indian Runner Duck

Taylor: Fleur this question is for you because you have an interest in history. Have you done any research on the history of Wester-Amstel yet?

No, not yet. You know, I've been completely submerged in the whole garden thing. But I did come here because of the combination of Wester-Amstel not just having gardens, but also being a historical place.

Annemie: There is a very nice book about the history of the house, who lived here, and so on.

Fleur: That's one thing I forgot to mention... But I love flea markets. It would be very interesting for me if there were still some old objects in the house I could look at. I love artifacts, old items. Apparently, there's a cupboard with some archaeological findings. Items that volunteers dig up, like old clay pipes or pieces of tiles. I haven't seen it yet, but I would love to!

Annemie: We used to have exhibitions in the hall. It was nice, different paintings and sculptures every three weeks or so.

Fleur: Oh, so I missed that! That sounds like it would have been nice.

Taylor: Now they are organising jazz concerts in the park hall. The concerts usually take place on the first Sunday of every month. They are currently figuring out the schedule for the upcoming season, but I definitely think everyone should try to attend them. They sell out every time and for good reason.

Photo: Estrella Acosta performing at Wester-Amstel.
Photo: Ronald Snijders performing at Wester-Amstel.

Taylor: Have either of you convinced anyone else you know to come and volunteer with you?

Not yet, but I would recommend this place to anyone. We need the extra hands actually, because there is too much work for the amount of people that are here.

What do you think a place like Wester-Amstel adds to the local community?

It is simply a nice place to come to and visit. To be outside, to enjoy the garden, to have a picnic… All of it.

For me, Wester-Amstel allows you to imagine what the Amstel used to look like... It used to only be lined with old country estates with gardens, like Wester-Amstel. Now it is filled with huge mansions, black cars, security cameras, and gyms encased in glass and that saddens me.

I think it's very important to maintain this, because it's beautiful and people can come to relax. It's historical and says something about how the world looked a few centuries ago. I think this is one of the prettiest parts along the Amstel.

And for my final question and perhaps the most difficult one to answer… Do you have a favourite spot at Wester-Amstel?

For me, it is the area in the back, behind the kitchen garden. We call it the Bird Forest. There is a little bench there, where you can sit. It is a little more wild and when you turn around you can see the whole kitchen garden and I really like that.

I don’t have a favorite spot. I like every part of Wester-Amstel!

I must admit that I have not had a chance to walk everywhere yet. There’s so much to be done in the garden that I haven’t had a chance to wander around yet.

Taylor: Well, there will be plenty of time in the future for exploring.

By: Taylor Blades