Dutch Designer

Even the British, normally rather chauvinistic when it comes to gardens, have taken Dutch garden designer  Piet Oudolf to heart—a garden he codesigned with colleague Arne Maynard won best of show at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2000. Now it is the turn of the United States to experience his remarkable combination of naturalistic abandon and contemporary formality: together with landscape architect Katherine Gustavsson, he has designed a planting scheme for the Millennium Park complex in Chicago, to be completed in 2004.

Oudolf is very much part of a movement, a tendency in garden and landscape design that seeks to bring the wild and the natural back into the human habitat. We need it. Garden design on both sides of the Atlantic has been dominated for too long by trying to achieve the “English country house” look, and landscape planting by an almost breathtaking lack of imagination. But along with the Washington, D.C.-based partnership of Oehme and Van Sweden, Oudolf is a rare example of a high-profile designer who combines a strong sense of architecture with a genuine love and knowledge of plants and their natural beauty.

Oudolf worked as a garden designer in the modernist tradition for some six years, but then made a break. In 1982, frustrated at not being able to buy the kind of plants he wanted for his designs, he and his wife Anja moved from the crowded seaboard of Holland to the quieter agricultural country inland. There followed several years of earnestly seeking out new plants: visiting English and German nurseries, acquiring seed from botanical gardens, collecting seed in the wild.

Although its initial aim was simply to provide enough plants for design work, the nursery rapidly established its own identity; commercial success with amateur gardeners rapidly followed. A particular kind of plant is key to the Oudolf look, the look his gardens have a reputation for, and which his growing band of followers try to create in their own gardens: herbaceous perennials with a sculptural presence, a strong form, preferably one that outlasts mere flowers. “A plant should look good when it’s dead,” he says, only half-jokingly, by which he means that it should still continue to be worth looking at in November, long after flowers and the leaves have been blackened by frost. Monardas and phlomis score here—their seed heads stand black and decisive against the cacophony of withering stems that make up the late-autumn border. Grasses now have their finest hour, no longer standing in the shadow of the evanescent flowers that almost monopolize our summer gardens. But, even in summer, although the colors are always harmonious, and often striking, it is the forms that dominate the composition of the Oudolf border—flower shapes: disks, buttons, umbels, spikes; and plant habits: upright, clumping, arching; textures: solid, transparent, defined, misty.

Piet Oudolf’s borders are clearly influenced by the wild, in particular by the rich assemblage of wildflowers that grow in central Europe’s woods and meadows. Plants traditionally ignored by gardeners have become an important part of the design palette: grasses and umbellifers in particular, their structure providing an essential backbone and a continuity to the border. Nearly all the plants he uses are natural species, or cultivars that keep the proportion and elegance of their wild forebears. American prairie plants are a favorite, too; the majestic forms of eupatoriums, vernonias, and asters often dominate his gardens in the autumn. In building a garden in Chicago, Oudolf is bringing home many of the Midwest’s finest wildflowers.

But there is another side to the Oudolf garden—the formality. Not the cliched formality of the classical European garden, all right angles and straight lines, but, in the words of English art critic and gardener Roy Strong, a “wonky baroque”—a strikingly contemporary reworking of formal plant shaping. Hedges are clipped into modernist geometries, stark slabs of box stand in sharp contrast to the rank and voluptuous complexities of late-season perennial borders, staggered blocks of yew zigzag the eye across the garden—not straight to a focal point, but encouraging the exploration and enjoyment of the space on either side of the axis of the garden.

A purely wild garden is not something that everyone can appreciate. Perhaps the heart of the Oudolf appeal is the combination of the wild with the controlled, the clear enjoyment and celebration of natural plant forms, but contrasted with inventive formality—a bringing together of culture and nature, order and romance. 

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