He has become the most famous garden designer in the world, yet he still opens his own property to the public a few days a week in summer and is happy to show people around it personally
Last August, in intermittent rain, we drove an hour and a half from Amsterdam to the outskirts of the village of Hummelo, where Piet Oudolf and his wife Anja have spent more than 40 years creating a garden and plant nursery. Anja appeared in the driveway to show us where to park, and Oudolf soon emerged from his studio for a stroll around the garden. Some of the other visitors looked momentarily star-struck: one asked for a photograph with Oudolf; another told him that his designs had changed the way she thought about gardening. Oudolf, who is tall, handsome and quietly affable, seemed pleased at these comments, because they show that his decades of challenging gardening convention are having an effect.
Oudolf, 71, designs gardens all over Europe and America. His best-known garden is arguably on New York’s High Line, the elevated railroad on Manhattan’s lower west side that became a wilderness after it was abandoned in the 1980s, and whose wildness Oudolf sought to emulate with his planting design for the railroad’s reinvention as a public park in 2009. Oudolf is not an advocate of manicured, high-maintenance gardens: he finds anxious weeding and dead-heading an unnecessary fuss. His designs combine unusual plants and grasses in thoughtful clumps to form gorgeous, abundant meadows that look as if they might have evolved naturally.
His gardens are designed to look beautiful in every season, but he has an unconventional notion of beauty. He particularly loves the skeletal shapes and monochromatic colours of his browned-out garden in winter. “Flowers open, flowers decay,” he says when we sit for coffee in a small barn behind his home. “The dynamics of plants can change in a storm or by frost. I feel very strongly in the sort of planting that I do that you feel the changes all the time. It is a changing beauty: from beauty into beauty, you know?”
Piet and Anja, who have two grown sons, purchased their Hummelo property in 1982. Oudolf had already been designing small gardens and liked the idea of a space where he could propagate plants for his projects and observe how they grew together. He collected specimens from England and Germany and developed a reputation “for having special plants that were interesting – the plants we grew were so different from plants that were more decorative,” he says.
In 1991 he published, with Henk Gerritsen, the book Dream Plants for the Natural Garden, a type of manifesto featuring 1200 mostly perennial plants that Oudolf felt hadn’t received the attention they deserved. A subsequent book, Designing with Grasses, proposed including grasses as an alternative to the conventional garden vocabulary.
He describes his gardens as a mix of design and ecology (he combines plants that grow well together and are not dependent on irrigation or fertilisers), and says his designs are underpinned by his intimate knowledge of plants. “Most designers in landscape don’t know about plants,” he says. “They see plants as a three-dimensional image. I love plants. Being a good designer and understanding plants means you can create something that is more than just a design.”
Oudolf has not only proposed an alternative way of planting. He also believes the traditional rhythms of gardening, where everything is cut back in late autumn and prepared for spring, needs to be re-examined. “It’s not laziness,” he says. “I just wanted to do things that worked over a longer period. Everyone in life tries to control things all the time, but when you get older you know that you can’t, so you try to find a way to control less, and that’s what I do in gardens. We wanted to make gardens where you didn’t have to work in them the whole time.”
The dynamics of plants can change in a storm or by frost
I feel very strongly in the sort of planting that I do that you feel the changes all the time. It is a changing beauty: from beauty into beauty, you know?
As we talked in the barn, a storm was brewing. Oudolf, eternally observant, ducked out briefly to photograph the dark clouds on the horizon, and went outside again a few minutes later to take more pictures as torrential rain began to fall. He is always watching his garden, but for long periods photographs are his only intervention in it. “You have to keep your eyes open,” he says. “At a certain angle I think, ‘that plant must come out’. But I don’t do it! It’s not a household – you don’t have to sweep every day. I could manicure and edit all day long, but I don’t want to do that.” His approach means it is easier for only a few people to maintain a large plot. He has a staff member working in the nursery three days a week, but otherwise he and Anja do all of their gardening themselves.
He comes across as charmingly casual, yet there is a lovely exactitude about his designs. After our tour of the garden, Oudolf shows us around his studio, a two-storey brick building at the end of the garden that a stonemason erected seven years ago. He works here with a single assistant, while project staff are based in an office in the town of Haarlem. The studio is sparsely outfitted, with a desk featuring large sheets of plans he draws by hand. The plans are beautiful, with delicate pencil lines encircling swathes of colour-coded blobs that mark the future locations of hundreds of different plant varieties. This is the rigorous structure behind the impression of wild naturalism he creates in his work.
There’s a strange artifice in this of which Oudolf is well aware. He never professes to be a purist, partly because after centuries of human intervention in landscapes it is difficult to determine what pure might be. At one point, he likens plants to characters, “as players you could put together on stage and they could perform.” His gardens are not reproductions of something that may occur in the wild, but representations of a singularly romantic view of nature.
Despite his laissez-faire approach to maintenance, he happily acknowledges that gardening is still about control. He appears entirely comfortable with these minor contradictions, which is just as it should be: he observes them in the same open-minded way he watches his garden. He is engaged in the pursuit of beauty, but has never arrived at a rigid notion of what beauty might be. “You have to see the beauty in everything,” he says, “the beauty in things that are not so beautiful on first sight.”
Words by: Jeremy Hansen
Photography by: Karin van Til