The Oudolf Effect
Oudolf's garden at the Toronto Botanic Gardens shows off his influential use of massed perennials. Photo - Michael McCoy
Hold the secateurs! Dutch designer Piet Oudolf is changing the way we garden with perennials. Michael McCoy explains how we learned to love those seedheads.
If only Gertrude Jekyll, the great matriarch of Edwardian gardening, could see what her beloved perennials are up to now! Plants that were once trussed-up in strict formal borders are now playing fast and loose, undulating off into the distance in vast, prairie-like plantings.
The master of this contemporary look is Piet Oudolf, who is based in Hummelo, in the Netherlands. His style uses grasses and seedheads to provide strong textural contrast to simple flowering forms. Early influences on this sort of gardening include the innovative planting by the German nurseryman and designer Karl Foerster, who was active during the first part of the 20th century. Foerster’s revolutinary approach looked for a time as if it would die along with him. Then during the ‘70s and ‘80s German designers began to experiment with using perennials to cover huge areas in parks, in order to reduce the time spent in mowing and maintenance. At about the same time, Wolfgang Oehme and James Van Sweden in the US started playing with a related style, directly inspired by Foerster. Meanwhile, in the UK Beth Chatto was making great leaps ahead in the aesthetics of ecologically matched plantings.
As this was going on, Piet Oudolf was breeding new forms of highly textured perennials that worked well with this no-staking, no-deadheading approach to perennials en masse. He also started designing gardens that could really show these plants off. Slowly, Oudolf’s gardens started to appear in other parts of the world. Several books of his work were published, bringing widespread recognition of his unique style. And now he is an international superstar of the garden.
Photo - Michael McCoy
Oudolf’s planting style is defined by both the selection of plants, and how they’re used. The plants themselves are chosen (and often bred) for their form and texture as much as for their flowers. They often look as if they are the simple, ‘unimproved’ forms you might see in the wild. Clumps of the same plant are then repeated, often in reiterated combinations with other complementary plants. These plantings cover wide areas, rather than being confined to narrow borders as in the traditional use of perennials. The result is a very soft, often diffuse effect that gives the feeling of a sophisticated wild-flower meadow or prairie.
Several of Oudolf’s garden projects have been in public gardens, or gardens open to the public. Ross Garden Tours has taken up the opportunity to visit many of these, including the entrance garden at Toronto Botanic Gardens, Canada, the double borders at Wisley, England, Oudolf’s own garden at Hummelo, and possibly the most ambitious and high-profile of all, The High Line in New York.
Oudolf gave the classic English-style double herbaceous border a contemporary twist at RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey. Photo - Michael McCoy
The High Line
This incredible project involved the conversion of an old, elevated railway line, which winds for a couple of kilometres through New York, into a public park. Local landscape architects were responsible for creating a superb linear space with innovative paving, seating and water features, while the planting was handed over (one wonders what the locals thought!) to Piet Oudolf – a designer from the other side of the planet.
New York's High Line is a walk-through garden built on disused railway tracks above street level. Photo - Michael McCoy
The results speak for themselves. Part of the early appreciation of the High Line, when it was under threat of demolition, was its astonishing collection of weeds. Oudolf’s plantings reflect the history of the site in their naturalistic, loose style. The density of planting varies at intervals to reveal the old railway line and railway gravel.
Photo - Michael McCoy
Virtually all of the plants used in Oudolf’s gardens are winter-dormant and come from cold climates. The plants used assume minimal use of the garden over winter. They follow an unwavering rhythm of winter dormancy, fresh and fragile spring rebirth, summer floral climax and romantic autumn decay. It’s a deeply appealing cycle, but one that has less application for us. Our benign winters don’t suit plants of this type, and our weather hasn’t forced a similar rhythm onto the life cycle of our indigenous plants. Furthermore, we’re nowhere near as tolerant of winter dormancy as gardeners in the northern hemisphere, given that we’re often able to enjoy being out in the garden in the winter months.
Nevertheless there are a few principles that can be distilled from Oudolf’s plantings that could help us to explore or discover something equally lovely for our own climate.
Toronto Botanic Gardens. Photo - Michael McCoy
1.Limit the plant palette to plants that look good before, during, and after flowering, ideally ripening to provide ornamental seed-heads or some other form of ornamental decay or seasonal decline.
2.Avoid thinking in terms of borders of planting, and look at a blanket cover over a widespread area, perhaps taking over an entire lawn area. Think of ‘ground-cover’ but to knee or waist-deep.
3.Repeat plant the same species so that when any particular plant is in bloom, there are several clumps in apparently random locations, so that the eye bounces about the planted area.
4.Use trees and shrubs carefully and minimally to provide (or just hint at) a sense of enclosure, but don’t divide up the space, or restrict sight lines, unnecessarily.
The watery wash of pale blue Camassia. Photo - Michael McCoy
Come with us: We take a dip into the genius of Piet Oudolf’s gardens in our tours of England, Europe and the US. To stay in touch, sign up for our monthly newsletter at www.rosstours.com