An Evening with Piet Oudolf, Vancouver, BC. Nov. 16th, 2015

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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.

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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’….

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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.

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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.

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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.

Image result for highline new york oudolf 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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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…

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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

 

 

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11 Responses to An Evening with Piet Oudolf, Vancouver, BC. Nov. 16th, 2015

  1. A wonderful opportunity to hear a true master of his craft! I’ve already told you I’m green with envy, haven’t I?! Thanks for sharing what sounds like a fascinating evening!

    • joturner57 says:

      Thanks Andrew! Still new at this blog business…It really was a thrill to hear someone whose work and books I’ve admired for so long. Highly recommend the ones I mentioned, and hope to read his latest about Hummelo. I love your blog btw : )

  2. To my shame, I’ve not read any of Oudolf’s work. I really ought to have a couple of dog-eared and grubby copies. Interesting post, Jo and I’m jealous of what sounds like a grand evening. Dave

    • joturner57 says:

      His books are worth perusing, as he embodies that unusual combination of very practically-based plant knowledge, with an amazing eye for combinations and the ability to create an atmosphere of wildness, artfully orchestrated. That delicate balance of structure and chaos. Movement and dynamism… Also his ideas of leaving seedheads on, etc, are not only aesthetically pleasing, but support wild creatures as well. It was a grand evening, and he really is an iconic figure I think… Thanks for taking the time to read it, and very glad you liked it. I’m a great admirer of your blog btw : )

  3. Alison says:

    I have Oudolph envy! Sounds like a wonderful evening.

    • joturner57 says:

      It was! He told the audience he doesn’t give talks much these days, but he and his wife have friends near Vancouver, so the request from SALA at UBC dovetailed and he agreed. btw the friends have a very cool nursery called Free Spirit Nursery. I think Lambert may have worked with Piet at one point. I don’t know this couple except to say hi. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read my little post : )

  4. Magic Cochin says:

    So envious you met Piet Oudolf! I have a number of his books with Noel Kingsbury and have been to his garden in Holland. Only Anja was at home, but she was lovely and so welcoming. We had the garden to ourselfs for about an hour before some other visitors arrived.

    • joturner57 says:

      I’m so envious you got to spend time in the Oudolf garden with Anja… What an experience…Yes, his books are an ongoing source of inspiration and information..Looking forward to reading the most recent on on their home at Hummelo. Noel Kingbury, of course, is also such a great plantsmen, speaker and author. Thanks for getting in touch : )

  5. rusty duck says:

    What a privilege! I have a mini Oudolf-esque project of my own on the go and it would be wonderful to hear him share his experiences. The gardens he chose to talk about look fabulous too. He makes it look so easy.

    • joturner57 says:

      It really was very special to hear him in person, I must admit. I agree, he did seem to make it sound like a series of easy steps, but of course anyone who’s mastered an art seems to have a way of making it seem effortless, making the audience forget the years of dedication, practice, commitment, etc. that have gone into it. If you’re applying his ideas to a garden yourself, you are probably familiar with his books. If not, they really are work checking out…lots of great plant descriptions, combinations, etc. ‘Designing with Plants’ is great because he describes his ideas of using plant structure in it, such as spires, umbels, buttons, etc. Thanks so much for getting in touch…Love to hear how your project progresses : )

  6. MissPinks says:

    Great post. Thank you for sharing your evening with Piet. Am also green with envy that you met him in the flesh! 🙂

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