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Project: Oudolf Field, Hauser & Wirth Somerset

Project: Oudolf Field, Hauser & Wirth Somerset

The landscape at the gallery is as artistic as the sculpture and paintings on show. Photo: Jason Ingram/Hauser & Wirth.

Modern planting meets contemporary art at Hauser & Wirth Somerset with schemes by Piet Oudolf, says Louise Curley

The Grade II listed buildings at Durslade Farm near Bruton in Somerset might seem an unlikely location for a contemporary art gallery, but Swiss owners Iwan and Manuela Wirth saw this place as an opportunity to extend their portfolio of galleries beyond the urban centres of London, New York and Zurich.

While Paris-based architect Luis Laplace was tasked with turning the old barns and outbuildings into a home for modern art, it was Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf who was commissioned to tackle the landscaping. “The project came about after I had designed a garden for the Serpentine Gallery and I was introduced to Iwan and Manuela,” explains Oudolf. The brief was to unite the land around the buildings and to create a standalone garden in a one and a half acre field behind the gallery, in his now famous perennial planting style.

Now known as Oudolf Field, when Oudolf first saw the land it was just that – a field that hadn’t been cultivated for some time, that sloped upwards and away from the farm buildings. The field was bounded by hedges on three sides and what are now the gallery buildings formed the final enclosure. While the hills and fields beyond were still visible, the defined boundaries meant Oudolf could make a garden space within the wider landscape.

The Somerset-based landscape design practice Petherick, Urquhart and Hunt worked with Oudolf on both the hard and soft landscaping to turn his design into reality. “The site is wet Somerset clay, and as a local practice we’re very familiar with it and its problems,” explains Adam Hunt, a Pre-Registered SGD Member. “We also discovered that the hill that Piet’s meadow is at the base of has a perched spring, and historically the water ran down the hill into a culvert which the farm had been built over. Along with the extensive earthworks we carried out, water was popping up all over the place, so we initially had a big water management problem,” he says.

One of the ways the problem was tackled was to create mounded beds. Oudolf liked this idea partly for the aesthetics, but it would also lift the plants up off the clay and keep the roots drier. “We imported in a huge amount of a poor-quality alluvial soil to help with the drainage, and because Piet didn’t want a nitrogen-rich soil which would make everything grow very tall and then fall over,” explains Hunt.

Planting insight

Oudolf Field consists of 17 curving beds that stretch out across the rectangular-shaped plot. The beds are arranged either side of a main, slightly off-centre path of grey gravel inset with a series of raised discs planted with grass. Narrower mown grass paths allow visitors to wander in between the beds, planted with broad brush strokes of colour from a palette of perennials and grasses. More than 26,000 perennials grown by Oxfordshire-based Orchard Dene Nursery were used in the beds. Most were planted in blocks. “This type of planting is easier to manage and maintain if you don’t know when the project starts who the gardener will be,” explains Oudolf.

The central beds, however, are planted differently. “These are matrix-planted,” says Oudolf, “where a single species or a handful of species dominate the planting, in this case the prairie dropseed grass, Sporobolus heterolepis.” Into this grassy background small clusters of other plants such as Iris chrysographes black flowered, Dianthus carthusianorum and Amorpha canescens were added to provide pops of colour and different forms.

“Each of the corner beds are what Piet referred to as his nod to the English border, where the plants are taller. It’s still massed perennial planting, but more border-like, with plants which grow up to 1.5-2m tall,” says Hunt.

Repeat planting is used to create unity and rhythm throughout the beds and the design as a whole. Flower spires such as Liatris spicata, Lysimachia ephemerum and Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’ add height and structure in among the grasses and punctuate the planting. Small groups of the rare Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioica) – a slow-growing tree with a spreading canopy and golden autumn leaf colour - have been planted at the bottom of the slope to frame the view for visitors as they enter the garden.

The first bed is devoted to moisture-loving plants such as Iris sibirica ‘Perry’s Blue’, Darmera peltata, Camassia leichtlinii and Clematis heracleifolia ‘China Purple’. Beyond this is a naturally fed, rectangle-shaped pond with boggy planting around it, softening the edges. Oudolf’s use of colour and texture and his plant choices are masterly, but this type of planting, based on grasses and late-flowering perennials, is sometimes criticised for the lack of interest in spring and early summer. At Durslade Farm over 20,000 bulbs, including Puschkinia, Allium, Narcissus and species tulips, have been planted by head gardener Mark Dumbleton to appear once the grasses and perennials have

The cloister garden – a small modern-day hortus conclusus with a calming, retreat-like feel – unites the old and modern elements of the gallery buildings and shows that Oudolf’s planting ideas can be adapted to a smaller space, perhaps an urban garden. Paper mulberries (Broussonetia papyrifera) are underplanted with a soft understorey of Sesleria autumnalis, Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Moorhexe’ and Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’. A limited colour palette is provided by plants such as Euphorbia griffithii ‘Dixter’, Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ and Kirengeshoma palmata.

Using the view

Often designers are asked to obscure buildings and other elements of modern life that intrude on a garden. For clients with a beautiful view, the dilemma can be how a garden design can make the most of this asset and not obscure it. Oudolf’s design at Durslade, where most plants are no taller than 1m and only a limited number will reach 1.5m or more, shows that a garden and a view of the wider landscape can be compatible. A sense of place was clearly important in the design, helping the garden and buildings to nestle happily within their surroundings.

Around the entrance, simple farmyard objects such as water troughs have been repurposed as planters. These substantial containers – chunky and robust – work with the scale of the farm buildings. They also bring plants closer to visitors, allowing them to appreciate the flowers and foliage at waist height and above.

“When we were appointed to the project we felt that an often unrecognised part of a design was the use of local crafts such as dry-stone walling, hedge-laying or even the way in which gates were built,” says Hunt. “All of these aspects were considered in terms of the vernacular on the site. The client also wanted us to use local businesses wherever possible so the benefits from the project went back into the local community.”

The attention to detail is impressive, from the use of traditional Somerset ironmongery and the sowing of wildflower seeds with a local provenance, to more than 1km of weathered steel edging the meadow beds. “There are views of the meadows with the hills in the background where I’m just amazed at how well the garden sits within the landscape,” says Hunt. 

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