On Monday evening (Nov.16th) over a thousand lucky Vancouverites had the rare pleasure of attending a talk by one of the world’s most influential garden designers, Piet Oudolf, for this year’s Paul Sangha Lecture. Mr. Oudolf is also the author of several books, with his most recent, ‘Hummelo’ published this year. Part of SALA’s (School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture) Fall 2015 Lecture Series, with additional assistance from the Consulate-General of the Netherlands in Vancouver, around 850 of Vancouver’s gardening and design community attended. The original venue was changed when a groundswell of interest made it obvious a larger one was needed to accomodate the numbers hoping to attend.
After a warm welcome and introduction by Ron Kellett, Director of SALA and Assistant-Professor Kees Lokman, Mr. Oudolf began his talk… He looks like an outdoorsman, and has a relaxed, sure way of speaking that puts people at ease. He began by telling the story of how his home garden, (and nursery) called Hummelo, in the Netherlands, evolved. Piet and his wife Anja bought a 3 acre piece of land in the early 1980’s, with a couple of older buildings on it. They decided to begin a nursery, including many borders to show how the plants grew, and which, he reminded us, took several years to become the well known garden it is today. The nursery would specialize in perennials that until then had not been frequently used in gardens, such as ornamental grasses, North American prairie species, tall plants that hold their shape into the winter, and many Umbellifers, such as Angelica gigas, as well as Astrantias, Eryngiums, Helianthus. etc.
Throughout Oudolf’s presentation he noted that he had made some mistakes, wasn’t always sure of how to proceed, and credited the role of circumstances, sometimes difficult ones, in effecting unexpected, but positive outcomes. Unspoken was his deep knowledge of perennials and how to grow them, his great eye for plant combinations, unique philosophy of design, and decades of dedication and work.
In these early days of the nursery Piet and his wife Anja were very busy, running their fledgling nursery, raising their family, and repairing their old house, with not a lot of money. As he mentioned, many of the plants they grew eventually were used in his designs, but ‘Nobody would hire me for design at that time’….
Around 1990 a publisher approached Oudolf about doing a book, since the nursery by then had a very good reputation for unusual, high quality plants, including several that they discovered or bred, such as Salvia ‘Purple Rain’, Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’, Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’ and others. Piet enlisted a good friend and fellow plantsman, Henk Gerritsen, to undertake the project with him, titled ‘Dream Plants for the Natural Garden’. I bought a copy several years ago, and agree with Noel Kingbury, who in his forward to the book writes, ‘Above all, a love of the subject matter shines through. The book deserves to become a classic of garden literature, as well as one of those reference books that gets the greatest accolade of the genre – that of becoming dog-eared and grubby.’
Gerritsen and Oudolf favoured plants, including ornamental grasses, that were never or seldom chosen in gardens until then – large, wildish perennials that looked good even as they decayed, and created a naturalistic atmosphere, rather than being merely botanical ‘decoration’. This change in perspective has thoroughly permeated how gardens are viewed, with it now being acceptable to leave seedheads and stalks standing through the winter, to the benefit of birds and other wildlife.
In the nineteen-eighties, Oudolf observed, there was a minor explosion of small new nurseries in Europe and the UK. Plantspeople and nursery-owners shared plants, techniques, seeds, and comraderie. There was lots of visiting back and forth… Hummelo and other nurseries on the continent and in the UK held regular Open Days, where not only botanical knowledge but friendships grew. This is obvious in Oudolf’s photos from the time with nursery owners and plant breeders Ernst Pagels and Beth Chatto, designers, writers and plantsmen Dan Pearson, (writing for the Telegraph), Keith Wiley, Roy Lancaster, Ray Diblik, Rick Darke and others. He mentioned that around that time he made it a practice to seek out unusual perennials and trial them. Oudolf also had a close connection with Great Dixter, Christopher Lloyd’s well-loved garden in East Sussex which continues under the guidance of Fergus Garrett.
In the mid-90’s Oudolf published another book, ‘Gardening with Grasses’, co-written with Michael King. (Yes, I have this one too…a very inspiring book referred to again and again over the years for its cultural information and stunning photos…) As time went by, Oudolf’s plant choices and designs continued to favour naturalistic plantings that highlighted texture, habit, seasonality (especially fall colour), and plants that ‘died well’, such as Caliamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster, Miscanthus, Agastache, Monarda, Sedums and many others. Seedheads, skeletal stalks, frost-rimed leaves, transparent layers of statuesque foliage created a sense of being immersed in a garden, rather than just looking down at it. Around that time Piet and Anja planted yew hedges and pillars of silver-leaved pear at Hummelo that both contained and contrasted with these wilder perennials. Oudolf mentions that the yews were initially intended for sale, but ‘No one bought them, so we used them in the garden’. Yet another example of the serendipity that Oudolf said has been a factor in many aspects of his work.
Scrampston Hall, UK.
Oudolf encouraged us to really look at plants, especially perennials, in all seasons. He also observed that although many of his own designs are for large gardens, the plants can be equally effective and beautiful in smaller gardens. Rather than a drift of grasses, or tall plants such as Inula or Vernonia, a specimen or a few can be used to good effect.
The Oudolfs decided to close their nursery a few years ago, as Piet’s design work occupied more and more energy. He showed us how they took out the iconic curved yew hedges at Hummelo after more than one flood, and also removed the lawn area. Several photos from the past couple of years illustrate the dynamic nature of the recent perennial plantings. As he notes, ‘Every year it’s different’. Maintenance is minimal, as the plants are densely spaced, with layers of bulbs, perennials and grasses providing interest through the seasons.
The High Line, Manhattan, NYC.
The second part of Oudolf’s talk featured several of his projects, in chronological order, along with some of the challenges he encountered, beginnning with his first public park project in Enkoping, just outside of Stockholm, Sweden.
Highline, New York City.
Other designs Oudolf shared with us included the Olympic Garden in London, in collaboration with James Hitchmough, Nigel Dunnett, and Sara Price, the Millenium garden at Pensthorpe, UK in 2000, Trentham, (at 1/2 hectares, his largest private garden, undertaken with Tom Stuart-Smith), Scrampston Hall, North Yorkshire, UK, The Battery and Highline in NYC, Lurie Garden, Chicago, Serpentine Gallery, London, and several others. A range of gardens in a variety of locations and contexts, all sharing the atmospheric beauty that distinguishes an Oudolf creation…Also included was the garden he designed for the Venice Biennale, the first garden especially commissioned for it.
Pensthorpe, Norfolk, UK.
A private garden Oudolf designed is located on Nantucket Island. He told us how the owners had bought a house with a few acres right on the ocean, then bought more adjacent land, ending up with a 14 acre estate to design. This project was another joint one, with Field Operations (landscape architects), and he shared some of the challenges, such as trialing prospective perennials to ensure those selected would be able to withstand the harsh coastal conditions.
Nantucket Island private garden.
The last project shown was Manhattan’s Highline. Built on an elevated rail bridge, Oudolf collaborated on this project with Field Operations (landscape architects) and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The walkway, with benches and seating areas throughout, extends for 1.45 miles, and is a major tourist draw. Oudolf told us that to avoid too much repetition they created 25 individual landscapes/habitats, such as prairie, meadow, woodland, etc. He is planning a book project with Rick Darke about the gardens and gardeners of the Highline, to be published next year.
Just as we were totally transfixed with the range of gardens Oudolf had presented, the talk came to a close. He graciously answered several questions from the audience. A couple of people wondered about maintenance in these intensively planted gardens, and Oudolf emphasized the importance of ‘good gardeners’ vs ‘bad gardeners’ to carry on the original vision of a design. When asked the difference, he replied, ‘Good gardeners know and love gardens, bad gardeners just do it to make a living’. He also offered some encouraging words to the novice designer when he said to not be afraid, to have courage to go ahead and follow your vision. He said although there may be difficulties and mistakes, things often work out well… Certainly a colossal undertstatement in his case.
In all it was a very inspiring evening with a master of garden design…
Piet Oudolf’s books:
With Noel Kingsbury:
- Designing with Plants
- Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space
- Landscapes in Landscapes
- Planting: A New Perspective
- Oudolf-Hummelo: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life
With Michael King:
- Designing with Grasses
With Henk Gerritsen:
- Dreamplants for the Natural Garden
- Planting the Natural Garden