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.”