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The Dutch designer bringing life—and death—to traditional gardens.
Words by Alice Vincent. Photography by Marina Denisova.

  • Arts & Culture
  • Garden
  • Issue 45

The Dutch designer bringing life—and death—to traditional gardens.
Words by Alice Vincent. Photography by Marina Denisova.

Over the past four decades, one man has steadily changed the way our parks and gardens feel. Piet Oudolf is a Dutch designer who cut through the prim fussiness of traditional Western gardens with an unapologetic determination to make our green spaces seem more alive. There’s a good chance you’ve admired an Oudolf garden without realizing it. Perhaps you are one of the eight million people who visit Manhattan’s elevated park, the High Line, every year, or maybe you visited his riotous meadow inside the 2011 Serpentine Pavilion in London or the Oudolf Garten at the Vitra campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany, which opened to the public last year.

His is a language of swaying, fluffy grasses and tactile outcrops of woodland foliage; a shift from gaudy, disposable bedding plants to something altogether more natural. Through plants, he conjures strange and beautiful dreamscapes.

Oudolf is 78 and still working, but he’s wrangling with “winding down.” The first meeting he had with the landscape architects behind the High Line was in 2004, and he’s still involved. “It evolves constantly, so it’s a constant process of making little changes so that it can evolve in the right way,” he explains. He is a designer contemplating the end of a career. With it, comes a question: What legacy can be left by an artist whose creations have always prioritized experience over permanence?

“No garden lives forever.
We are not creating nature,
we make gardens.”

An online search for “Hummelo” will bring up a variety of Stachys that Oudolf has developed, but it’s also a town 75 miles east of Amsterdam, and Oudolf’s home of 40 years. On a Zoom call from his home studio, he appears in a red flannel shirt over a white T-shirt, a strand of white hair falling down the side of his face. He wears the tan—and the frown lines—of a man who has spent five decades outside, but it’s still difficult to believe that Oudolf is nearly 80. He is businesslike and serious but not without warmth. His studio is a spacious white box of a room that holds a table and, beneath the windows that look out over the garden, shelving for the neat rolls of paper he uses for the large designs he draws out by hand.

He works here alone, currently switching between eight to 10 projects. For each, Oudolf collaborates with what he calls a “network” of people—landscape architects, contractors, planting specialists—but it is on the long table behind him where the gardens start, with tracing paper and colored Sharpies, as he spends weeks mapping out intricate patterns of symbols and letters that will become moving, growing plant matter.

Oudolf moved here from the Haarlem suburbs in 1982 with his wife, Anja, and their two small children. It was a derelict farmhouse. At the time, he was a freelance garden designer, having found work in a garden center after leaving his family restaurant and trying on different professional hats with little success. “I sort of got lost into plants,” he says. “But I felt stuck in my progress. We made nice gardens but it was too small. I had the feeling that I could do more and especially with plants, that instead of designing we had to grow plants.”

“Grow plants” is a modest descriptor of the nursery that the couple created over 1½ acres. Hummelo became a holy grail of progressive horticulturalists, filled with meticulously sourced and developed varieties that simply weren’t brought together elsewhere. Decades on, and Oudolf creations such as the effervescent Gaura lindheimeri “Whirling Butterflies” or the striking Salvia verticillata “Purple Rain” have become regular bed-fillers in discerning domestic gardens.

There was a fierce philosophy beneath the aesthetics. Oudolf became friends with Henk Gerritsen, an ecologist-turned-garden designer known for pioneering the “Dutch Wave,” a horticultural movement determined to do things differently. “His work was wild,” says Oudolf, who had trained in the rigors of English gardening, a near-omnipresent tradition that defied geographical borders. “I came from the world of English gardening and he came from wild gardening and we met each other in thinking about how gardens should be. The whole conversation was about how we could do gardens differently. We started to talk about spontaneity.”

Gerritsen lived with HIV until 2009 and, in the mid-1990s, lost his partner to AIDs-related illness. He encouraged Oudolf to see the vitality of death in a garden. “He pointed out the beauty of plants after flowering,” Oudolf says. “He showed me, in the garden, the processes of what happens if you let things go.” This is a crucial part of any Oudolf garden—the letting go. I saw it in the Oudolf Field in Bruton, England, one bright October day: The blackened heads of globe thistles and Echinacea punctuated feathered grasses as asters rustled in the breeze. It was dying, and unbelievably beautiful. “People try to cut back everything after it has flowered, but you lose a lot of depth or interest and beauty that way,” he says.

Together, in 1992, Gerritsen and Oudolf published Droomplanten, or Dream Plants, a compendium of 1,200 perennial plants “that were very good garden plants but never used because they were just wild in other people’s eyes,” Oudolf says. “We wrote about plants that had good skeletons or seed heads.” He still deploys many of them in his work three decades on. 

Over the years, some people have seen Oudolf as something of a Gerritsen protégé, and he’s keen to establish that wasn’t the case. “It’s not that I took over from other people’s vision,” he says. “I had a very strong idea about what I wanted, but it was fed by his input.”

In 2000, Oudolf debuted at London’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show with British garden designer Arne Maynard. Amid a sea of glossy new millennium water features, their Evolution garden presented a moody foliage palette and cloud-pruned box hedging. They won best in show; elements of their design can be traced through many of the Chelsea show gardens that have been built since.

The accolades and industry prowess, though, drift away when actually standing in an Oudolf garden. I remember visiting the High Line for the first time in 2010, when I had no idea what either the High Line or an Oudolf design was. It was late afternoon in early September, eggy sun splintering off the Hudson River and through long grasses. When I returned, in 2017, there was more: woodland areas and small meadows. It felt impossible that this existed here above New York City sidewalks. These colors, these structures, all these little lives and deaths on display. 

“Gardens are sort of a conversation without speaking,” Oudolf says. “I think what we do [as designers] is send out a message—of life, of how you feel, of how you could feel. What I see, I try to let people see as well.” He sees his work as “falling in love with the small things and bringing them together to make a big thing.” Those small things, he later lists off, include “the seasonality, the moment in time, the context, the combination. It’s what it does to you.”

When Oudolf talks about plants—using them, designing with them, being among them—he often compares them to music, or food. At one point, he compares the nuance of his designs to “tasting different layers instead of just, ‘this is sauerkraut’ or ‘this is vegetable soup.’” There’s a sense that they’re sometimes just a medium, like paint or a piano, that facilitates his creativity. Developing the nursery at Hummelo, he tells me, “made me feel that I could express myself and my inner feelings by doing this. It came to me sort of suddenly, within months, and it never left me.”

“He’s driven by a need to create,” says Thomas Piper, a filmmaker who followed Oudolf for his documentary Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf. “My favorite comment I hear from people after they have seen the movie is, ‘I look at the world completely differently now.’ That’s what Piet does with his gardens. He changes the way we see.”

Oudolf has always been aware of the ephemerality of his work. Most of his designs, such as that at Wisley in England, which he’s currently reworking, have a lifespan of 20 years. After that, the natural evolution of the plants means it is unrecognizable from the garden he designed. “You lose things and you win things and I think sometimes you have to change it.” They exist longer on paper than they do on the ground. Perhaps his most concrete creative inheritance is the designs that can be downloaded from his website. Next year, Phaidon will publish all of them in a book. “I give it away so that if you need to know how to do it you can,” he says. “I have built gardens, and no garden that I can see lives forever. We are not creating nature, we make gardens. I think we try to do something that is for the time we live in and the context we live in. Everything has the complexity of time where you build it.”

I ask him about legacy, whether he cares about it. “No,” he replies, “the fact is that you get better all the time. Your ideas get stronger, your designs get stronger.” Some of the gardens he made 20 years ago would not be to his taste now, he says, but he recognizes that it was the product of that era. Oudolf decided last winter not to take on any new projects that would last longer than three years. Anja, who has worked alongside him for decades, is “doing less.”

And yet, there’s still what he calls a “force”—a creative urge, a need to keep pushing different combinations of plants, to capture different feelings. “I still try to keep up with how I feel, and how I can make it better or different. Not easy,” he pauses, cracking the smallest of smiles, “but that’s how I feel it.”


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Forty-Five

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