From the High Line to the Serpentine: Port meets Piet Oudolf, the pioneering Dutch garden designer
“I see gardens as processes rather than decoration,” explains the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, speaking with the air of serenity that one might expect from someone who has spent their life surrounded by plants. “I want gardens in winter to have the same feeling that you have in summer or in spring.”
It’s a philosophy Oudolf has developed and championed as part of the naturalistic New Perennial style of gardening since the outset of his career in the 1970s, and which has been brought to international attention through his work on some of the world’s most celebrated contemporary gardens, such as the prairie-like High Line in New York or the temporary garden that was built within the Serpentine Gallery’s 2011 pavilion in London.
Planted with herbaceous perennials and grasses that are chosen as much for their structure and seasonal life cycle as for their decorative attributes, Oudolf’s gardens resemble wild meadows. It’s a process Oudolf describes as “thinking in time” – imagining how each plant will sprout and bloom, how it will look when it’s dormant in the winter months, and how it will interact with its neighbours. “Everything in your mind moves psychologically with the seasons,” he continues. “If you can capture that in your work then you can touch people’s senses.”
Oudolf’s career began by accident in the early 1970s. Having made the decision to quit his job working at the bar and restaurant that his parents ran in the countryside near Haarlem, he took a temporary winter job at a garden centre. There he fell in love with plants.
“It’s something you discover,” he says, reflecting on his early days as a fledgling gardener. “At a certain age, you become open to things that you were not open to before, when life was too fast and much more about friends and socialising. All of a sudden you start to think about your future.”
When spring came around, the garden centre asked Oudolf to stay on. He bought books about plants and started buying his own specimens. “It became a healthy obsession,” he reminisces. “I wanted to know more; I wanted to go back to school. I collected, I travelled a lot – suddenly everything was about plants.”
After five years of study, Oudolf obtained his licence to practice and by 1982, he had started a small design and build consultancy with his wife Anja. “I saw the plants as a medium to express myself and I realised I could do something that other people, who were mostly producing traditional English gardens, weren’t doing at the time. We wanted to make gardens that were more spontaneous.”
Frustrated by the scant availability of the grasses and native perennials that he and Anja liked to use in their designs, the couple moved from their home city of Haarlem to Hummelo in the Dutch province of Gelderland, in the east of the country. Here they bought an old farmhouse with large plot of land and set about growing their own plants for their projects.
“Of course, it turned out a little differently,” remembers Oudolf. “Hummelo is very rural and there were no clients there, but soon the nursery became very well known, because the plants we offered were hard to find. We collected them from nurseries in England and Germany, and became a sort of bridge between the two for gardeners.”
At a time when the garden world was small and intimate, and unusual plants were hard to find, their nursery attracted attention from across Europe. Despite the success of their nursery, Oudolf says their first real “breakthough” came in 1991 with the publication of his first book, Dream Plants for the Natural Garden. It led to a series of conference invites where he was able to establish a network with journalists, professors and fellow nursery owners who shared his enthusiasm.
Oudolf’s first commission in England came from his friend, John Coke – the owner of Bury Court, a former hop farm turned plant nursery, near Farnham in Surrey. Coke has since said that he felt that by hiring him, he was taking a huge gamble, as Oudolf was not yet known as a designer – but happily it paid off. On the old concrete farmyard, Oudolf created a contemporary walled garden filled with bold drifts of hardy herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses. At the time, the style was deemed radical by the English gardening world.
“It is strange, looking back, that it was England – which was very conservative when it came to gardening – that was one of the first countries to invite me to do something.” He smiles. “It was the younger generation that started to pick it up quickly. I think it was part of the zeitgeist in the ’80s and ’90s – at that time you could really feel it was a movement.”
“That was the turning point,” he continues. “It took 10 years for me to become aware of what I was doing. You start with an idea that you want to make gardens more spontaneous; that you didn’t want to be changing your garden all the time; that you didn’t want to replace plants through the seasons, which is what most gardeners do. We wanted to make gardens that could stay and change by themselves. But it was an idea that grew slowly.”
This is an extract from issue 22 of Port, which hits newsstands on 19th April. To subscribe or pre-order, click here.
Photography Berber Theunissen