Piet Oudolf, the sought-after Dutch horticulturalist and landscape designer known worldwide for his work and leadership in the New Perennial Movement, continues to be on the cutting edge of design with plants. If you know this dynamic project, the High Line in New York, you are familiar with Oudolf’s work. For thirty years, his name has become synonymous with modern perennial gardens that have overtaken traditional perennial border forms led by famed garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Perennial gardens are still “painterly,” but their compositions are dramatically changing to address modern interests, new species and cultivar introductions, and climate change.
In The Garden (September 2023), the magazine for the Royal Horticulture Society (RHS), Oudolf provided a glimpse into what he is thinking next as he redesigns the Glasshouse Borders at RHS Garden Wisley, a garden he designed initially over twenty years ago. The article is a conversation with columnist and RHS Garden Wisley curator Matthew Pottage. Their discussion reflects upon Oudolf’s changes in design leading up to this new proposal for the Glasshouse Borders.
At first glance, his illustration for the design looks similar to what Gertrude Jekyll might have drawn: a bubble diagram with sketchy color, patterns, and abbreviations (sample image above)…not what a trained landscape architect would be expected to present to a client. The design appears to be one of this, one of that, which we landscape designers have criticized inexperienced gardeners for doing, a garden of impulse buys (truth be known, I am vulnerable to these impulses, too). There may be a little plant promoting going on because Oudolf is also known as a nurseryman, introducing the world to new plant introductions. What better way to get the word out than to feature new species and cultivars to an eager gardening public? But dig deeper, and his design, coupled with their conversation, gives readers a glimpse into some dramatic changes in the Glasshouse Border design and design philosophy.
Currently, the border relies on a traditional layout, one that can be seen in nearly every other perennial border worldwide: a rhythmic collection of perennial flowers flanking a central pathway with a background border of greenery (or, in other examples, a walled enclosure). This is an overly simplified description, but the general concept is there. I should note that this description does not take into account Oudolf's expansion of a perennial border composition to include ornamental grasses, a dynamic shift in thought at the time. According to the article and Oudolf's cartoonish illustration, the layout will include curvilinear pathways and a more open layout. This design might complement the curved layout of the pond adjacent to the Glasshouse, redirecting the experience from a narrow, restricted, and predictable circulation to “create a garden that is more fluid, that people can meander through, where every corner has a different view of the garden. So, it has more perspective, more depth, and more layers” (p. 47). Here, Oudolf is speaking about circulation and discovery, considerations by landscape architects more than plantspeople, although the plants will also play a part in this new design.
Past perennial gardens emphasized color and plant collections, which complemented the trends with every Victorian plant exploration. Through Oudolf’s and Pottage’s conversation, we see a new way of thinking about perennial gardens. The Garden is full of articles addressing a new emphasis on “rewilding” gardens, minimizing the use of peat in nurseries, and other environmentally sensitive landscape initiatives such as adjusting to drought. This significant shift in the publication and Oudolf’s thinking could inform new designers and clients. Instead of focusing exclusively on color, “it’s about the experience. People feel more in gardens that are made today. It’s more emotional. In a sense, it’s like a big stage where plants perform; they act and interact with the visitors” (p. 48). Oudolf recognizes what other designers have initiated: gardens with this experiential element, citing Tom Stuart-Smith and Dan Person. So, what does Oudolf mean about the experience, and is it a new concept?
Pottage restates Oudolf’s summary differently: “Thirty years ago, people were obsessed with flowers and colours [British spelling]. Whereas now we talk about texture, form, structure, and movement.” Now, I am annoyed by this statement, because texture, form, structure (and color) have been taught to landscape architects for quite a long time. I remember being taught about plant composition at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, nearly forty years ago. Indeed, the textbook (1982), printed in the United States, Canada, and England, was Richard Austin’s Designing with Plants, with forward-thinking chapters in The Ecology of Planting Design, [Site] Analysis, and Design. This latter chapter focuses on color, form, texture, accent, scale, sequence, and balance. The only thing missing is movement, which I applaud for its inclusion. Newer compositions also consider scent and seasonal variation rather than too much dependence upon a brief spring or summer floral display.
Austin followed up with a newer edition, Elements of Planting Design (2002), that expands the design process and builds upon how landscape architects use plants today. This is one of the textbooks I use in our plant composition coursework; these concepts have been around for a while. To be clear, I am not bringing this up to dismiss Oudolf’s and Pottage’s comments about designing with perennials. Instead, their observations reinforce how we design landscapes…what works. Further, Oudolf highlights that while design principles have not changed, the medium (species selection) has expanded. In other words, landscape architects have traditionally relied upon ground covers, shrubs, and trees, yet Oudolf argues for expanding perennial usage in design.
His design philosophy will not work for every design, partly because the client will need to support maintenance and aesthetic changes. Oudolf recognizes this challenge by providing a distinction between private and public spaces. While estate clients might relish owning and maintaining a perennial garden, “it is not so easy to make a public park; it is not easy to get the right people on board who understand plants” (p. 46). Yet this is where I see the greatest opportunity: to bridge the gap between static commercial landscapes of overly pruned trees and shrubs and ecologically sound native grasses, perennials, and bulbs that are naturally drought tolerant and supportive of wildlife. We can return to the High Line as one example, but what do we have in California that signifies a more significant trend toward environmentally sound commercial, public, and private landscape designs and gardens? More exploration is needed.
Austin, R.L. (1982). Designing with Plants. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, Inc.
Austin, R.L. (2002). Elements of Planting Design. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Masoliver, D. (2023, September). A meeting of the minds: when Matt met Piet. RHS The Garden, 42-48.