The Dutch plantsman’s groundbreaking designs have won him worldwide acclaim
Now in his early seventies, and the winner of the SGD Lifetime Achievement Award 2019, Piet Oudolf is the closest thing there is to a horticultural superstar. Unlike other gardening celebrities, however, he didn’t discover his passion for plants as a child. He was in his twenties, working in his parents’ restaurant, and unhappy, when he decided to find a different career, and tried out various jobs in a fishery, a steel factory and a garden centre. It was there that he became interested in gardening, and began to buy plants.
“Within a year I was addicted,” he says. “I wanted to know everything. So I went back to school in the evening for four years, and studied to get qualifications so I could start my own business building gardens.” After several years as a contractor, and frustrated at not being able to source the plants he wanted for his projects, Oudolf looked for a place where he could grow them himself. “That was how we found this place, a derelict farmhouse,” he says, describing his home in Hummelo.
It was here that he started his nursery in 1982 with horticulturist Romke van de Kaa, who had worked at RHS Wisley and also Great Dixter under Christopher Lloyd. Designing gardens took a backseat as the pair looked for interesting plants to grow. “In the beginning, it was an adventure,” Oudolf says. “Everywhere we went, we found new plants. We also collected seed from botanical gardens and grew them here to test them out.” Eventually they dissolved their partnership and went their separate ways, but in those years Oudolf met and formed relationships with many of the movers and shakers of the British gardening scene, including Beth Chatto and John Coke, who gave him his first big garden commission in the UK, at Bury Court in Surrey.
It was the 1990s, and his developing style, which was a driver of what we now call the Dutch Wave or New Perennials Movement, was on the cusp of taking the garden world by storm. But using prairie-style perennials and ornamental grasses? Leaving everything up over winter? It all seemed so contrary to the norm of annual bedding and mixed borders, cottage garden plants and conifers. “Nobody understood how a nurseryman from the Netherlands could make a garden like this,” he says. “They found it strange. But the British were the first people to appreciate my work, this new way to garden. You wouldn’t think it, because traditional English gardening is so dogmatic, but the acceptance was quite quick.”
He wrote his first book, Dream Plants for the Natural Garden, with the late great plantsman Henk Gerritsen, to share his ethos, and has gone on to produce many more with writer Noel Kingsbury. Since those early days, the New Perennials Movement has evolved into the drifts and swathes of the Naturalistic Planting style, but the central tenet of both – hard-working perennials that die well – has been instrumental in transforming countless gardens and public schemes up and down the country over the past 20 years.
In that time, Oudolf has clocked up more and more impressive projects, from early gardens at RHS Wisley and Scampston Hall to Trentham and Pensthorpe, as well as many private gardens, a Chelsea show garden and a Serpentine Pavilion installation. More recently, he designed plantings for the Olympic Park in London, created the Oudolf Field at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset, and has been involved in many parks across Europe and America, including the Lurie Garden in Chicago and the 9/11 Remembrance Garden at Battery Park. But his most famous work, and the one which propelled him to prominence outside of horticultural circles, is the planting of the High Line, a 1.5-mile-long park elevated along a disused railway line in New York.
As he became widely known, the demand for his services grew. His wife Anja, who had taken over the nursery, kept the home fires burning, leaving Oudolf free to make gardens. But the number of visitors to Hummelo increased exponentially, and the couple made the decision to close the nursery some years ago, and opened the garden for the final time in October 2018. The old stock and trial beds may be gone, but the spaces around the buildings are still living experiments where Oudolf tries out plants, and in his studio – an imposing modern structure at one end of the garden – he continues to develop ideas.
Places & plants
The clean white room is sparsely but succinctly furnished, with a drafting table in one corner and computer in the other. On shelves around the room, hard hats rub up against vinyl figurines by street artists, and sun-bleached plant books sit alongside rows of classical music CDs. In the centre is a large table with various pots and containers of coloured markers, pencils and felt-tip pens, where Oudolf sketches out his planting plans, and can look out to the garden and surrounding farmland through floor-to-ceiling windows.
The designer says he doesn’t have a philosophy, as such, but his aim is simply to share his passion with people by creating spaces that evoke pleasure. “Good gardens take you away,” he says. “They are very emotional.” This response is something he seeks out and experiences himself regularly, in both accidental and curated landscapes. In the recent documentary Five Seasons, of which Oudolf is the subject, we see him pulling over the car while on a road trip in America, captivated by the spring wildflowers on the verge. “You load yourself up with beauty, and you use it in your work,” he says. Elsewhere in the film, he visits a prairie restoration project. “I have been trying to recreate this feeling all my life,” he says, rapt, in his own understated way, by what he sees.
Despite this, Oudolf is not, he insists, trying to replicate these places in his work – only the reactions they provoke, by translating that magical atmosphere into human-scale spaces. “We don’t create nature; we create gardens,” he says. “It may look wild, but it shouldn’t be wild. It has to be attractive to people – it is all about aesthetics.” He is often called an artist, but though plants are his medium, Oudolf feels that “a garden is not a painting, but a performance in time. I put plants on a stage and let them perform. You can’t control the planting, just conduct it.”
Whether big or small, public or private, all of his schemes begin with a palette of plants, based on the project site and brief, with a view to extending the interest across the seasons. Limiting this selection is, he says, the most difficult part of his work. “A good plant is a plant that performs over a longer period than just the flowering period. It needs to have character, and perform from the moment it comes out of the ground, so with the leaf, then the flower and how it dies down or goes dormant in a beautiful way. Then, you have to be strategic in where you put your plants, so it looks good at the end. It’s all about balance, rhythm and repetition – it’s very complex.”
He believes a deep knowledge of plants is the basis of his success, and recommends that new designers forging their way in the industry should invest time in learning about the material. “To know plants takes a lifetime, and you must practice using them and make lots of mistakes, because failure is part of the whole experience.” But the future looks bright for those starting out, he says, especially in the public sphere. “People want more green now, and they accept more wildness, as long as it is still aesthetic. If planting is really wow, people won’t throw their rubbish in it.”
It is these public projects, he admits, that he enjoys the most. “It’s the sharing factor,” he explains. “So many people can see and enjoy your work and be inspired. Most people in cities don’t have gardens and would have to go outside the city to see green spaces. If done right, dynamic public gardens provide a lot of wellbeing for people. You can create a new landscape that wouldn’t normally exist and that makes people happy – an environment that is beautiful and works on the soul.”