A longtime exhibitor at the Venice Biennale, Piet Oudolf has raised his profile in recent years, designing standout projects like New York City's High Line. We caught up with him after the publication of his newest book, Landscapes in Landscapes (Monacelli Press), a retrospective of public and private work.
Why did you include plant lists and plans?
I wanted people to be able to see how ideas change in a garden. There is a lot going on after the first design. You can see the progress in the working drawings. Practicality is a big part of this book.
You aren't afraid others will steal ideas?
I don't mind giving away ideas. I love to see people get inspired.
What's the key to introducing emotion into a garden design?
I try to make gardens to be like a painting you can enter, and that maybe reminds you of something you almost can't recall … like going into the fields or the forest as a child.
You're known for your unrivaled understanding of plants. What are your all-time favorites?
I love Joe-Pye weed, echinacea, baptisia—not just when they flower but when they come into seed. Even when the seedpod is eaten off by the birds, they are still beautiful. And they change your garden from spring until winter. They are hard workers.
That's one of your principles, that decay is part of it and can be beautiful. Why do we remove it?
That is strange to me. Ask yourself, why cut this back if it still looks good?
What advice would you give first-time gardeners?
Don't design right away. Start by collecting; try everything you like and see what works.
Do you wear clogs in the garden?
I used to. The wood is very insulating, and they are easy to step out of when you are going into the farmhouse.
Our virtual “Chat with the Breeder” sessions during MANTS 2021 focused on our newest selections, and they were a big hit. We recorded sessions, and our second release with Pat Fitzgerald is posted on our YouTube channel.
Our virtual “Chat with the Breeder” sessions during MANTS 2021 focused on our newest selections, and they were a big hit. We recorded sessions, and our third release with Dave MacKenzie is posted on our YouTube channel.
Our virtual “Chat with the Breeder” sessions during MANTS 2021 focused on our newest selections, and they were a big hit. We recorded these sessions, and final release with Thierry & Sandrine Delabroye on Chameleon Little Bluestem is posted on our YouTube channel.
A private garden in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, by Piet Oudolf.
Image: Piet Oudolf: Landscapes in Landscapes
Piet Oudolf: Landscapes In Landscapes
A showcase of work by landscape’s pioneer of the titular “new perennial planting movement” or “new wave naturalism,” Piet Oudolf: Landscapes in Landscapes surveys dozens of gardens – residential, commercial and institutional – made over more than thirty years.
Published by Thames and Hudson, this is a full-colour volume of nearly three hundred pages, featuring twenty-three of Oudolf’s “most beautiful” public and private gardens. The book is co-authored by Noël Kingsbury, an internationally renowned writer on plants and gardens, who has written over fifteen books and is a regular contributor to Britain’s Daily Telegraph and Guardian newspapers.
Part of a Thames and Hudson series that includes Avant Gardeners by Tim Richardson and books on the work of Roberto Burle Marx and Martha Schwartz, Landscapes in Landscapes is a celebration of Oudolf’s work, including the “latest manifestations of the ‘layered’ approach to planting he has been experimenting with for years.” It combines both technical information and glorious images of his highly complex plantings. The book is “intended to provide inspiration and insights for all interested in small personal gardens and the design of large-scale public landscapes.”
Kingsbury’s animated text charts Oudolf’s early influences, including the Dutch landscape designer Mien Ruys (1904–1999), a prolific designer of over three thousand gardens. The projects date from 1982 to the present and are placed in their geographical context: they are exclusively in the northern hemisphere, in countries such as The Netherlands, England, Ireland, Germany, Sweden and the United States. A Barcelona project is one of very few that is not in a cool, temperate zone. Scale is used as the book’s organizing structure, which greatly assists the discussion of each project’s thematics and styles. The gardens vary from 350 square metres to twenty-five thousand square metres in size.
A garden in western Ireland, by Piet Oudolf.
Image: Piet Oudolf: Landscapes in Landscapes
Landscapes in Landscapes looks at the resurgent interest in perennial planting in contemporary landscape design. Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, describes Oudolf’s work with “versatile, expressive perennials,” “prized for their beauty through natural life cycle” and used to create “lasting, ecologically sound panoramas.” Central to Oudolf’s approach is the fact that his designs “relate to the greater landscape and the shifting seasons.” He challenges more conventional approaches to planting design, relying on “short-lived bursts of colour and constant maintenance.”
A private garden in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, by Piet Oudolf.
Image: Piet Oudolf: Landscapes in Landscapes
Working with blooms, grasses and foliage that change every few weeks, Oudolf’s landscapes give the visitor “reasons to come back again and again.” Like many before him it is argued that he works like a painter, but his work is inherently temporal and spatial he “breaks the seasons into seasons.” As is eloquently discussed, plants are valued for their flowers, whether they are ascendant or in decline, for their height or their “gradual pace to achieve their eventual height,” and for their fruit, seed heads, stem colour, foliage texture and colour in spring and summer.
The format and content of the book, designed by Irma Boom, greatly aids the communication of these ideas. Hand-drawn and computer-aided plans, sketches, abstract colour diagrams and species lists contrast with highly evocative full-bleed colour photographs and fold out into double page spreads. Installation shots combine with details of perennial beds and dramatic, misty views of completed gardens. The photographs are lustrous and draw out Oudolf’s signature style.
While the geometry of Oudolf’s designs varies, as Kingsbury states there are three distinct visual layers through which he creates a rhythm the technique used to achieve this includes “matrix [combining ground covering, low growing intermingled plants], island [formed through irregularly shaped beds] and scatter [taller species often colourful with a distinct structure … wavelike groups that move through the matrix mix].”
I have visited several of Oudolf’s gardens from the “permanent” UK landscapes to the RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey and Potters Field Park in London (by landscape architects Gross Max) the temporary installations of Il Giardino Delle Vergini, 2010 Venice Biennale, Italy, by architect Kazuyo Sejima and the 2011 Serpentine pavilion by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Gross Max collaborates with Oudolf because he is able to “design a scheme with a genuinely distinctive look … a new, romantic look,” and it is certainly true that his gardens are both immersive and idiosyncratic.
Hammond, in describing Oudolf’s involvement in the High Line project, foregrounds his capacity to “create a new landscape that has the ability to alter the way people feel and how they act.” Landscapes in Landscapes is an excellent monograph produced at a time when there is a growing interest in the experiential quality of our spaces. I would strongly recommend this book for people familiar with Oudolf’s work or as a discursive insight for the newcomer, as it will truly inspire.
Piet Oudolf with Noel Kingsbury, Thames & Hudson, 2011, paperback, 282 pages. RRP $70.
A conversation with the Dutch landscape designer, famous for his wild-looking gardens, among which the famous High Line in New York
Last month, Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf received the inaugural Horticultural Heroes award from the prestigious British institution Royal Horticultural Society for his temporary garden designed on the occasion of the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2018. A combination of swaying feather grasses with other aerial and panicled botanicals such as Astilbe Chinensis and Delphinium, the garden summarised the philosophy of Oudolf, while the prize reconfirmed his international fame. We got in touch with him to learn more about his secrets (see photo below).
Described as the leader of the “New Perennial” movement - a naturalistic practice that values prairie-like gardens coated with perennials - Oudolf explains wanting to “make people think about their connection to the environment”. Hence his wild-looking ensembles that turn away from formal gardens.
Despite their wild look, however, the projects of the Dutch landscape designer hide a high discipline. If other professionals - such as the French Gilles Clément - give great freedom to spontaneous wild botanicals - such as the mullein -, Oudolf insists on the fact that even if suffused with the free spirit of the prairie, his designs are all about, adding, editing and above all controlling. “Plants should behave and be good garden plants”, he explains, “when a garden becomes wild it means something has gone wrong”.
“Garden making is more difficult than people think”, continues Oudolf. “In every project, my approach to the design has to do with the site, the environment, and above all the time”. Giving time to plants to settle and develop into a stable and coherent ecosystem is particularly true for perennial gardens such as Oudolf’s own private garden in Hummelo, in the Netherlands, where he constantly experiments with new species or the High Line in New York, which he designed back in 2006 (see photo below).
Although “I always have in mind how it will look in time, plants grow and often need to be replaced, (. ) there are many things you can not control”, he continues, “you cannot just make a garden and let it go”. The evolution of the garden also “depends on the people responsible for the maintenance”, underlines Oudolf, otherwise “my project doesn’t work”. So, even if it is already 12 years since the completion of the High Line, the designer revisits the site regularly to recompose, adjust and provide the maintenance team with advice (see photo below).
Bergamo is another destination to which Oudolf enjoys going back to, although, until this year the purpose was not to revisit one of his creations but to give lectures and participate to conferences at the event I Maestri del Paesaggio, a landscape design festival running each year since 2011. On the occasion of the 2018 edition, however - taking place from September 6th to 23rd - the Dutch landscape designer will be presenting his own reinterpretation of the traditional Green Square, which each time is entrusted to a different designer. During the event, the temporary garden signed by Oudolf will turn Bergamo’s Piazza Vecchia with a series of flowery meadows (see photo below).
Piet Oudolf – creator of New York’s High Line and the garden at Hauser & Wirth – is the subject of a beautiful new documentary film made by award-winning filmmaker Thomas Piper. After very limited private screenings around the world, the film is showing in London this June – starting with a premier at Picturehouse Central on 13 June with a live Q&A with director Thomas Piper.
The film follows Oudolf through four seasons in his own gardens at Hummelo and on visits to his public works in New York, Chicago and the Netherlands, as well as to far-flung locations like desert wildflowers in West Texas and post-industrial forests in Pennsylvania, and follows the plantsman and designer as he installs his garden at Hauser & Wirth, ‘his best work yet.’
Watch the trailer here, and book tickets now for the limited UK run in cinemas far and wide from Hackney to Aldeburgh:
Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, who will turn 76 in the autumn, spoke with Francis Till for the Hauser & Wirth magazine about his own garden, about the nature of time and about the compensations of the stationary life necessitated by the pandemic.
A pioneer of the New Perennial Movement in gardening and landscape design, which emphasizes naturalistic plantings that work symbiotically with their surroundings, the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf has become one of the most sought-after figures in his profession over the last two decades, creating gardens in places as disparate as Chicago’s Millennium Park, along New York City’s High Line and in the celebrated Oudolf Field on the grounds of Hauser & Wirth Somerset.
From his home in Hummelo, a tiny village in the east Netherlands where he has lived with his wife, Anja, for nearly forty years, Oudolf, who will turn 76 in the autumn, spoke with Francis Till about his own garden, about the nature of time and about the compensations of the stationary life necessitated by the pandemic.
Francis Till: How important are gardens and our relationship to the natural environment at this moment in time? Do you think lockdown has told us anything about our connection to the land?
Piet Oudolf: A lot of people have been homebound and have started gardening or picking up gardening, probably because they simply have more time. Working from home, the alternative is just sitting in a room, so for those with access to outdoor space, gardening picks up. Another reason may also be that we are more aware of what we are doing than in the past, with the stress of being so busy, running around 24 hours a day.
Maybe this has brought more people to gardening or at least to thinking more deeply about their lives and their futures. I think that is important and is one of the good things to emerge from the time we are living in now. Gardening, for me, is essential. It’s my life. I think and breathe through it. And you always hope that other people can find that as well.
We are just beginning plans for a new project in Denmark. It’s a hospital with a roof garden of more than two-and-a-half hectares combined, where each room is positioned towards the garden. So every patient will have a room that looks onto the garden. Doctors and scientists believe that gardens play a role in treating or making recovery easier. This is something you feel when you are in the fields, in nature or in the woodlands, and it does something to you. It frees up a lot of sorrow, whether you’re on your own or together with your loved ones. I think it makes you contemplate life. I’m not talking about people running 10 miles a day, because that’s another function to keep you alive and to keep you happy. I think that gardens and exercise have a similar effect on people. Gardens open up this little substance in your brain that makes you feel happy and makes you also feel… more than happy, sort of high.
FT: Oudolf Field in Somerset is full of so much color over these summer months. How important is color in your garden design work?
PO: Gardens are not only for people. When you walk around you will see there are so many insects and other forms of wildlife. It’s not only butterflies, but you can see bees, bumblebees, little spiders, everything… There’s so many more creatures that can enjoy what we are doing there, and you can see that. And then when the flowers have gone, then you get plants that have seeds, which is another source for birds to come to the garden. So I think the garden benefits a lot more than just people.
By Virginia Clark, Emily Senior and Charlotte McCaughan-Hawes
FT: Faced with the challenges of a global pandemic, it can be easy to inhabit a more anthropocentric outlook.
PO: Yes, and I think that’s probably why outdoor space is so important for people, because you can imagine so many people live in cities with no garden and they need an escape. And not only the beaches or a big walk in the woods are an escape. I think a garden also brings new energy and ideas of possibilities of plants or combinations of plants that you have never seen before, in a landscape like the Oudolf Field. It’s more a landscape than a garden. You’re completely surprised by what you see, because you don’t normally see that in a public park.
FT: While the northern hemisphere is currently experiencing a global pandemic, we’re in the middle of summer and there’s a certain pleasure and respite in nature and plants at this time. But of course, there’s every likelihood that this challenging time is going to last through into autumn, winter, and even into the spring. In this moment is there anything we can learn from plants and how they respond to change?
PO: I’d say plants are just what they are, and they show what they do through the seasons. What is important is that we learn to look at and understand our environment, and do better for what we see around us. We can become so focused on what we have to do that we forget what we can do and what we probably really want to do. I think that gardens are a good metaphor for change, in the sense that you can experience something different every month. I’m not talking about woodlands but about the meadows. The dynamic element of gardening is really important for our minds, I think, because it moves so quickly over the seasons and also moves us in our mood. Being aware that something is happening that you can’t miss.
By Charlotte McCaughan-Hawes
FT: In April, we hosted the digital premiere of Thomas Piper’s documentary film ‘Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf.’ This free screening was watched over a million times by viewers around the world. What do you think it was about this film that resonated with audiences during lockdown?
PO: Experiencing gardens, like you said, can be therapeutic. Entering a garden, you forget about your worries. It can delight you. You lose yourself in another world. I think that is what the film does. Our discussions about what gardens can do for people, or what a garden says to you or to me… I hope that the film also speaks to people. It’s not just about beautiful flowers—it is about life. I don’t think there’s a better environment than gardens to talk about life. If you’re not in politics!
FT: The ability to maybe transcend politics or the daily news cycle—all of these things we can become so fixated on in the contemporary, digital world?
PO: Mindfulness is something that has grown in popularity over the last few years and that has to do with reflecting on your life and your position in life. And I think garden environments help people reach that state of mind too. Whether you do it with yoga or meditation, alone or with a few friends, people want to become more aware of what they’re doing in these times.
Working primarily with perennial plant varieties, Oudolf practices a naturalistic approach to gardening. Taking a cue from architectural design, Oudolf prioritizes the seasonal life cycle of a plant over decorative considerations like flower or colour. He focuses primarily on structural characteristics, such as leaf or seed pod shape, present before and after a plant has flowered.    He explains: "A garden is exciting for me when it looks good through the year, not just at one particular time. I want to go outside and for it to be interesting in all weather, in early spring and late autumn." 
The stability of perennials after planting are key to Oudolf's designs, especially the use of long-lived clump-forming species. The result are gardens that persist in their planned state years after being planted with little deviation from Oudolf's hand drawn maps.  
Oudolf's overall approach to planting has evolved since the 1980s when he and his wife Anja opened their nursery, at Hummelo, in Gelderland. His early work with perennials consisted of block-type groupings based on structure and texture. More recently Oudolf's gardens has experimented with a variety of approaches, which, broadly speaking, are more naturalistic, often using blends of species. The change in style has been described as a shift from a painter's perspective to one informed by ecology. It was first introduced into Oudolf's public work in 2004 as part of the Lurie Garden in Chicago. The approach can be seen in the New York High Line project.  
His own garden, at Hummelo, near Arnhem in the Netherlands was established in 1982. It has gone through many changes which reflect Oudolf's constantly developing planting design. Initially it was designed with a series of yew (Taxus baccata) hedges and blocks, reflecting Oudolf's architectural style which owed much to Mien Ruys, the designer who dominated Dutch garden design in the post-war period. [ citation needed ]
Oudolf's work on the High Line relied heavily on plants native to the region. A matrix of grasses with perennials grouped throughout was used to convey how the plants grow and intermingle in the wild.