Design & Make

A Brief Bio: Piet Oudolf

by John Tebbs June 12, 2018
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During my time studying garden design in London back in 2001, Piet Oudolf was very much on my radar. His was the name that everyone associated with a new style of planting that came from Holland and Germany and was now starting to be noticed in England. The naturalistic approach, referred to by many as “New Wave” or “Prairie” planting, favored perennials and grasses brought to Europe over a century ago that had since been decontextualized and largely under appreciated.

For me, the reference to a natural habitat—not simply copying but drawing inspiration from the way these plants grow in their native environments—was a wonderful evolution in the way we designers considered our gardens and the way we could use plants. Back then, the focus was on something evergreen or mass-planted with one type of plant. The nurseries where I worked as a teenager, for example, produced short lived, labor-intensive plants—like annuals for a pop of summer color—with little benefit to the wider biodiversity. The New Wave offered the opposite: a tapestry of plants that provided structure and returned year after year with a huge variety of flowers—appealing to a large number of insects and pollinators. This all made wonderful sense to me.

The forthcoming book Hummelo: A Journey Through a Plantman’s Life (Monacelli Press) is something of a biography, or as close to one as Oudolf would allow. Despite being such a well-known figure in the garden world, he is a self-contained fellow. His close friend, the academic and gardener Noel Kingsbury, authored the book, using Oudolf’s personal garden just outside the Dutch village of Hummelo as a constant reference point and metaphor. Bringing the story back to this plot of land, reflecting the evolution and changes in both Oudolf’s life and career, reinforces just how much he is a true plantsman, someone who delights in the variations and possibilities of propagating and growing.

Interestingly, it was a nursery that first developed at Hummelo—it was trial beds and stock ground, not the flowing garden celebrated today. Oudolf and his wife Anja started the nursery after moving their family to Hummelo in 1982. They soon began hosting an annual plant fair that quickly gained cult status. Attended by many growers and enthusiasts, the gatherings strengthened a sense of community, complete with cuttings swapping and the general excitement for all things related to the subject. Oudolf was very involved in the larger horticultural scene that was emerging in northern Holland at the time. The group, which had its roots in the Green Movement of the 1960s, was turning its back on city living and the industrial type of farming and plant growing that had swept Holland in recent years. Unlike many commercial nurseries growing just one or two varieties that could then be easily mass-produced, Oudolf and his fellow gardeners supported small-scale production of lesser known perennials, increasing the diversity of plants on offer.

Oudolf’s first major commission in the United States was the planting of the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park in 2001. This was the first time he was working on the continent where many of his plant choices grew in the wild. While still in the beginning stages of design, Oudolf took a seminal trip to the nearby Schulenberg Prairie, one hundred acres of restored prairieland just west of Chicago. The American gardener and fellow native plant pioneer Roy Diblik, who grew nearly all the plants for the Lurie, describes visiting the site with Oudolf: “It was a very emotional moment for him. Seeing all the baptisia leucantha in flower made a very powerful impression. […] After that, he changed a lot of the planting in the Lurie plan to include more natives. […] North Americans also began to rediscover the beauty and value of their own flora.” Oudolf captured the public imagination and challenged their understanding of what a garden can look like—which in the confines of a city plot is not an easy thing to accomplish. Experiencing his planting at The High Line in New York, a more recent commission, I felt the most moved by his work. The juxtaposition of something so natural in such an unnatural place makes it all the more powerful.

More than a style of gardening, Oudolf’s influence extends to the fundamental questions of what is a garden and for whom or what is it for? From the seeds of a small gardening group in a corner of northern Europe, he grew a larger movement—one that examined how we can work with nature rather than against it. At the end of the book, the focus returns to the garden at Hummelo, a place that continues to grow and evolve much like the man who first planted its roots. I was left feeling very grateful that people like Oudolf exist.

All images copyright Monacelli Press.

John Tebbs is founder of The Garden Edit.

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