I went to the Netherlands in August. I’ve been there before, but never explored beyond Amsterdam. It was a great treat to be able stay in the eastern part of the country at a Dutch friend’s family place and make day trips to visit various gardens.
Holland is about the same size as the state of Maryland. There are no fallow fields or areas of neglect; roadside plantings though wild looking, are managed. Old school forms of mowing – sheep – eat the grass and weeds along the roadside. Roundabouts are planted in a variety of garden styles. Every square inch has been touched by man. There is order here!
That same attention to detail was present in the gardens I visited. Groups of trees shaped into flat canopies for living pergolas, a remarkable numbers of trees are espaliered or pollarded, and not just fruit trees; Ginkgo and Magnolias are carefully trained into mesmerizing patterns on a single plane. I’ve never seen so many shrubs sheared into fabulous forms. The lawns are perfect – no weeds. In villages you will see immaculate gardens in front of every house. It is lovely, but something is missing.
Photographs of Piet Oudolf’s garden before he went to America show hedges clipped into waves or used as center pieces within the garden, and there’s a lot of lawn. All that changed after Oudolf came to the US.
Considered the head of The New Perennial Movement after coming to America, Piet Oudolf developed a more natural style of gardening. By using grasses and meadow plants he has pushed garden design forward by casting back and reclaiming what had been tamed. Is he perhaps gently suggesting it’s time to let go a little, embrace the ways of the wild meadow?
The American prairie is vast and in those vast spaces the eye blends the flowering plants and grasses, flattening out the textures and colors. With no verticality the viewer experiences the plants as a mass. In an Oudolf garden there is an added crucial element – the frame. Best known in America for his public work which includes Battery Park City and The High Line in NYC, and The Lurie Garden in Chicago Oudolf ‘s prairie like plantings are juxtaposed to and contained by the city’s buildings that heighten the viewer’s awareness of the plant life, and enable us to appreciate the plants both wild and cultivated en masse and individually in every season.
Like the best innovators what is excellent about Oudolf’s work is what he chose to keep and what he let go.
At Hummelo, Oudolf’s own garden outside Amsterdam, American and European perennials are artfully enclosed within tall hedges (no waves and no center pieces) that serve to frame his meadow style plantings. The dark green hedges work as the buildings do in the city plantings, as a sharp background, to the softer plumes of grasses, seed heads and large variety of wild and cultivated flower shapes. In each instance Oudolf takes the prairie’s endlessness and contains it within a context. How did Oudolf get to this stunning combination of the tame and the wild?
Oudolf’s was a nurseryman. With his wife Anja, he spent years growing and observing the habits of hundreds perennials and developed a deep knowledge of how plants behave in each other’s company. This knowledge is paramount in his garden design. He chooses the plants that stay put, don’t spread, root or takeover other plants, and don’t need constant dividing. This is how he creates stunning, sustainable, wild looking plant “communities” ( a word Oudolf often uses) that get along.
Piet and Anja Oudolf were standing in their driveway as we pulled up. They came over to greet us as we clambered out of our hired car. Oudolf is white haired and tall. Anja was wearing a batiked hat, although the colors were more Rastafarian than Indonesian. In Dutch my friend introduced my business partner Jane and I as a landscape architect and a garden designer. Oudolf’s first question was music to my ears, “But are they gardeners?”
We must have made the grade. First Anja swept us off to Oudolf’s design studio where we saw a mass of planting plans in progress. From there we walked into the newest part of the garden that surrounds a courtyard between the old nursery greenhouses, now used for storing carefully covered vintage cars, (I’m pretty sure one of them was a Cadillac) and the new brick built design studio that Anja told they would ultimately retire to. Two foot wide paths, kept clear of flopping plants by discreet wires, meander through the plantings. In his new style, Oudolf leaves out lawns and formalized iconic hedge shapes. In their place grasses such as panicum virgatum, and calamagrostis become the largest forms and give a strong sense of structure throughout. The are many native American perennials: asters, Eupatorium- Joe Pye weed, Helenium -sneezeweed, Veronia -ironweed, and echianceas- coneflower. Nothing cut back, rather seed heads are left, their lovely deflowered forms add visual weight, as well as doing the vital job of feeding the birds. As we moved through the garden into the large hedge framed meadow I was not prepared for the scale of the plantings. Instead of lawn, vast expanses of plumed grasses tower up, red persicarias abutted clouds of lilac asters, and sweeps of giant Joe pie stood tallest of all. I was surrounded, contained like the plants; I was in a living glowing tapestry.
My return home was a shock. Knocked over by the chaotic mess of my own ignored garden I went into a deep decline. My wife had promised to keep the lawn around the borders mown, but completely ignoring the traditional straight lines of classical mowing, she embarked on her own ‘free style’, with varying heights of grass from bald to tufts six inches high, in random patterns. My once beautiful lawn looked like it had a bad case of mange! It wasn’t completely her fault, the day I left temperatures soared into the nineties and stayed there and even though she has lived here for twenty five years, she is Celtic, and can’t abide that kind of heat. As for my borders, I felt equally repulsed, it was the beginning of autumn, and the party was over, the plants, while still beautiful up close, looked collapsed and spent. It took about a week for me to see the irony of the situation. I had worshipped at the altar of Piet Oudolf’s American prairie inspired garden and returned home unable to abide the very wildness he had built his designs around! But gradually I started to see again the beauty of the wildness around me. As I drove the back country roads, ditches filled with the asters’ blue glow, everywhere plants in their various stages of turning, chartreuse, yellow, orange, red and shades of green; a Virginia creeper running amok up an old sugar maple screamed out confidently.
I realized my trip to Holland was not made so I could return home and copy Dutch gardens, but like all travel it woke me up and showed me what I was taking for granted. Oudolf took the knowledge he’d honed as a nurseryman and his travels to the prairies here, to create a sustainable natural style of gardening that incorporates all seasons.
The popular New Perennial Garden style spearheaded by Oudolf, offers a much needed romantic version of a once wild landscape. There is an urgency to reclaim what Europe has lost. In a myriad of different ways European countries are wonderful, and if we compare ourselves there is bound to be some heart ache. But these countries are also so crowded there’s no room left for the wild. Perhaps the heartache that comes with comparison is more about what we have and aren’t paying attention to, than a desire for another reality. As Americans we can appreciate and protect the savage jewel that we still have. My trip renewed me. I see a wilder path ahead.
Oudolf is generous with his planting plans. You can find a list of the plants he used at the Lurie Garden online. There are many books written about Oudolf’s design methods and I encourage you to read some of his collaborations with the English garden writer Noel Kingsbury which are particularly insightful.
Hedged entry to Oudolf’s garden
Newest garden surrounding courtyard
Newest garden planting
New garden plantings
Set of plans in Oudolf’s design studio
Round yew hedge looking through to main meadow
Hedges frame meadow planting
Entry to meadow planting
Hedges frame garden
Inside meadow planting
More views of grasses
Dark colored hedges behind white form eupatorium
Joe Pye weed