Piet Oudolf Sees Landscapes in Landscapes

Piet Oudolf, the Dutch garden designer and leader of the “new perennial” movement has a new book out: Landscapes in Landscapes. In his complex, endlessly interesting landscapes, Oudolf says he prizes form and texture as much as color. He almost exclusively uses perennials, which he values for their “beauty throughout their natural life cycle.” Requiring little maintenance, his naturally sustainable landscapes, which feature drought-resistant plants, evolve over time. As Charles Waldheim, chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), wrote in The New York Times, “he’s gotten away from the soft pornography of the flower. He’s interested in the life cycle, how plant material ages over the course of a year.”

“Landscape in Landscapes” moves from small to large scale, covering 23 private and public gardens. Created with graphic designer Irma Boom, the book features full-color photos with unique insets showing the name, color, and proportion of various plants used within his landscapes, enabling readers to get a sense of these gardens in different dimensions. Mimimal yet informative text by garden writer Noel Kingsbury is there to just introduce the gardens. These photos can be enjoyed on their own.

Barcelona Garden, a sustainable garden for a residence in Barcelona, is, at 1,000 square meters, one of his smaller pieces. “The style is firmly naturalistic, in that the elements of local natural landscapes – the low shrubs and grasses – are featured. Irrigation is intended to be minimal, so each plant was selected for its drought tolerance.”

Bury Court in Surrey was his first work in Britain. “For many, it was the first time they had seen Oudolf’s dark color combinations: bronze foilage and mysterious deep-red flowers – in summer. A still-greater innovation was the creation of a gravel garden.” Over the years, Oudolf has returned to add a number of “contrasting elements.” The result is a highly influential garden: “Since then, this stylized meadow look and combination, along with other dark blends, has become quite fashionable with British gardeners.”

Enkoping, Sweden is the site of Oudolf’s first large-scale public commision: Dream Park. Totalling 4,000 square meters, Dream Park features Oudolf’s structured hedges, which he uses to offset the “informality of the perennials.” Kingsbury writes: “Oudolf also took the idea of monocultural blocks and extended it to perennials. Of course, using blocks of perennials is common, but Oudolf took the idea further than usual by selecting one variety – or very similar cultivars of one variety – to create a single dramatic feature.” He would use this site as experiment and replicate the approach in Chicago’s Lurie Garden.

Moving through a number of larger private residential gardens and other public comissions, readers then get to the High Line Park. In the introduction, Peter Hammond, one of the founders of the High Line, says Oudolf’s varied landscapes are a primary factor behind the success of this popular park. He writes “the range and complexity of Piet’s plantings give visitors reasons to come back again and again. Week after week, month after month, there are lessons in discovery.” Kingsbury elaborates: “The design of the planted areas emphasizes the feel of spontaneity — feathered paving makes it look as if the plants are actually beginning to cover the concrete. The design allows a planting pattern where open meadow dissolves into half-open woodland, then into a fuller woodland area of dense, small trees with underplanting to envelop the visitor more fully as the length of the park is traversed.”

The book ends with even larger landscapes, including Battery Park garden in New York City, the Trentham Estate in the UK, and a private residential landscape on Nantucket.

From the small to large scales, the use of native perennials means these beautiful spaces are also habitats for insects and birds.
Check out the book

Image credits: (1) Monacelli Press, (2) Bury Court / Dave Levy. Flickr, (3) Dreampark / Anya Andreyeva. Flickr, (4) High Line Park / Metropolis Magazine

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