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piet oudolf designs new york botanical garden seasonal walk naturalistic design with perennials and grass

The Nature of Piet Oudolf

by Mary Jasch

Piet Oudolf is an imposing man. Tall and lanky with a sweep of light blonde hair, chiseled features and eyes that could burn a hole in frozen earth, a courteous gentleman in all respects, he is a cross between the tame and the wild, the cultivated and natural, just like his chosen plants and created designs. He would seem completely at home on the seat of a chopped Harley Davidson but his passion is creating beautiful gardens.

In November, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Piet Oudolf, celebrated Dutch plant breeder, garden designer/creator, author, at The New York Botanical Garden as he laid out perennials and bulbs for the Garden’s Seasonal Walk.

When the Seasonal Walk opens in September 2014, it will exhibit four seasons of exuberant beauty and interest with 2,938 perennials and 8,450 bulbs (in addition to existing bulbs).

Oudolf first designed these parallel perennial beds four years ago to last just one season for a special occasion but they looked so good the planting remained and grew for four years, albeit out of proportion and scale. “So they asked me to redo it with more and different perennials that were not so well known, many new perennials that are just in the trade and also a mix of mulch but not so completely different than the first time,” he says.

Piet Oudolf is known for his gardens drawn from nature over time such as one might find in a second or third-year old field full with intermingled wild perennials and grasses. Nature, indeed, is a major inspiration for Oudolf who grew up by the North Sea in The Netherlands.

“We had our business in the countryside and we played a lot in the dunes. That might have helped. There’s always something you want to go back to," he says. “Going into the wild gives me a lot of ideas of how you can put plants together and also the idea that plants don’t always have to be in bloom to look good. You see it in nature in spring. I try to bring back that similar feeling you have when you are outside – that emotion. I try to put more depth in the planting than usually you see."

He accomplishes that feeling and depth in the Seasonal Walk by building up heavy spring bulbs with early flowering, summer flowering and late flowering perennials to cover the seasons. He leaves the seed heads of the many perennials that have a good winter silhouette or look good after flowering. His advice: “Cutting back is not really an issue, so you don’t cut it back before winter. You just leave it and see how long it stays effective.”

Here, in the Ross Conifer Arboretum with a backdrop of the largest Victorian glass house in the country, in the double borders of the Seasonal Walk, there is interplay between big plants, foliage, texture and flowers gone wild. There are no shrubs, dwarfs or plants under three feet – just tall herbaceous perennials and grasses. Most are robust and all are three to six or seven feet. Groupings of 59 different plant varieties swagger their way across the borders in a loosely repetitive fashion.

Amsonia hubrichtii looks close together, “but only in the middle, not on the outside,” Oudolf instructs. “In the middle they are close together so they can only be in the way of themselves. It’s a group and it grows together; that’s good. They become big but you can always reduce it, but if you put only two or three amsonia there, it takes three years to close up the area so it’s always nicer to put more in. You could always do with one or two but you don’t do that because otherwise you can also do with one of this and one of that. And this is a display garden and a garden for the public to be attractive so you do it with other principles.”

Oudolf uses grasses to give a natural effect that is more dynamic than just a sea of perennials. As we stroll, he points out Aster ‘Twilight’, monkshood with good seed heads effective even in winter, deschampsia grass that flowers in June and stays good long into winter, white Echinacea ‘Virgin’ that flowers over a very long period and still makes buds on this November day, the peachy Geum ‘Mai Tai’, Big Blue eryngium, Phlox ‘Blue Paradise’, rusty Digitalis ferruginea

How did he get into plants?
”Passion. When I was 25 it all started. I was working for our business. We had a restaurant and pub at home. At that time I started to think about the rest of my life. I came into plant work in green areas and I got very fascinated by plants. I was working with a landscape contractor and I said, ‘oh what is this, what is that’ and I started to buy books and so it came very quickly.”

He points out several of my favorites: Rudbeckia ‘Henry Eilers', Lilium 'Henryi', scutellaria, geum and Filipendula.rubra ‘Venusta Magnifica’ (though some with smallish gardens might fear its lusty habits).

But Oudolf enlightens me with: “Don’t be afraid for beautiful plants. You can always reduce it. A garden is work. The space is big enough and we needed to build up the borders and the number of tall plants is very limited. We didn’t use Joe-Pye Weed because we wanted to create another atmosphere. We used vernonia and veronicastrum, tall Molinia ‘Transparent,’ tall echinops. It’s a repetitional tall planting. Datisca with tall arching plumes in summer and scutellaria, another of my favorites, an eight-foot malva with small flowers, sporobolus with great seedheads…. The plants repeat and unite the whole length – repetitional but not in a way that we have copied every piece.”

Across the walk a smaller garden echoes its partner. The mixed bulbs are last to plant and Oodolf tosses them in gently by the handful.

“You can come back next year. The planting covers all seasons in general. The plants have a long life span and are very durable. It’s very important that you don’t have to replace too much. Normally in display borders you keep changing them through the seasons,” he says, but not here in the Seasonal Walk.

"I’ve worked a lot since 2000 in America. I want to work in public space which I think it’s the best place to show the work. And it’s also that many parks are not attractive, many little parks are cliché, plantings are cliché. If you can do a good planting in public space it creates a respect for people, gardeners are more motivated for maintenance, so it gets a little positive feedback on everyone involved, including the public that go to see it. We all know that if there’s no money for maintenance or good planting it’s (not worth the) effort and after a few years it’s neglected, worn out and you see bare spots. I try to create a more intense and more beautiful planting. You know my work. I’m at the High Line. It’s diverse. It’s not that I do a High Line here and a High Line there. I’m very much aware of what people want and how we can create the best effect.

“Here I don’t have to make it too wild. It’s for brides and grooms that come here for a wedding so it needs to have a certain order – that’s what I think – so that’s why we plant in groups so they can feel quiet and at the same time a lot of things are happening. I’m very much aware of what the site asks from me and within the brief of the client. This garden is tall, robust and romantic at the same time.

"I worked with other landscapers. My first work was in 1990 called Dream Plants, a new generation of garden plants. It all started in Sweden. I was invited to a university and company to speak. I got a new client to create a new park and that was a break out of residential design.”

Piet Oudolf recently won the Prince Bernhard Culture Achievement Award in 2013 for his achievements in horticulture and garden design. He is co-founder and owner of Future Plants, a collaborative of breeders and marketing/licensing agents of outstanding perennials based in The Netherlands.

“It’s completely different from what I do but it’s a possibility to bring plants into another part of the world. Plants that I’ve bred include the Echinacea ‘Virgin’ and ‘Fatal Attraction’ and the black cimicifuga (Queen of Sheba). It’s a lot of fun – hard work, but fun.”

Piet Oudolf:
New York Botanical Garden:
** All photos by Mary Jasch

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published January 21, 2014

Photos to enlarge

Garden designer Piet Oudolf directs the planting of the Seasonal Walk at New York Botanical Garden.

Piet Oudolf mixing bulbs with NYBG staff.

Seasonal Walk borders with Enid A. Haupt Conservatory as backdrop

Digitalis ferruginae and Geum 'Mai Tai' - two great plants!

Amsonia hubrechtii planted closely fills out the space quickly for public display, says Piet Oudolf

Piet Oudolf's Echinacea ‘Virgin’

Gardeners planting NYBG's Seasonal Walk, designed and laid out by Piet Oudolf

NYBG crew watch the master strew bulbs in the Seasonal Walk

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