I was recently in my garden and noticed that my tall decorative grass looked quite run down. I have a tuft of fountain grass (Miscanthus sinensis), a variety called “Morning Light”. It’s time to cut back all the stems and flowers that have withstood, for the most part, the winter winds.
Looking at it reminded me of Piet (pronounced Pete) Oudolf, a Dutch gardener who works around the world. Oudolf loves decorative grasses and uses them often, including in the High Line Gardens he designed in New York City. I was fortunate enough to meet him and visit his personal gardens outside Amsterdam in 2007, and recently reviewed my notes from that time.
Piet Oudolf mainly designs large-scale gardens. The High Line project in New York City transformed a mile and a half of abandoned elevated railroad tracks into a garden. He is the designer of the Memorial Gardens a few blocks from the former World Trade Center site at Battery Park on the tip of New York City, in The Gardens of Remembrance. He has made gardens in Chicago and Stockholm and elsewhere. He is the author of several books, including “Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space”.
I visited him at his home in Humelo, Holland, and we talked about gardening. Asked about his philosophy of gardening, Oudolf replied that he had none, but he replied: “I know what I like. At first he said he felt trapped in English gardening – “I’m not a colored gardener” – and he tried to find a way out. Tall decorative grasses and meadow plants attracted him. We walked around his personal gardens and his love of plants that provide winter interest was evident.
Oudolf has a few acres of gardens surrounding his house. I visited in January, at a time when only a few early hellebores were blooming. I noticed that he used neatly trimmed evergreen hedges as a counterpoint to the tall grasses that fluttered in the wind, and the range of summer plants that had been left to show their pods during the winter. I wondered aloud what he would do in an urban setting, say something 30 meters (100 feet) square.
First of all, he said that you need to plan for a comfortable space all year round – a place where you would like to spend time. Start by scavenging most of the grass and doing a soil test before planting. Amend the soil with compost and minerals as needed. Choose plants that are easy to care for, things that tolerate a variety of conditions. It’s important, he noted, that you choose plants that need the same basic conditions if they are to grow together and do well. So, for example, don’t try to plant heather (which needs acidic soil) right next to lavender (which needs slightly sweet soil).
Oudolf believes in mass planting, not a mishmash of individual plants of many different species. He pointed out that you should also have an array of plants that bloom in different seasons. He suggests 30% spring plants, 40-45% summer blooms, and 25% plants that are best in fall. And he believes in cleaning the garden in late winter or early spring so that those tall grasses and perennials look interesting all winter.
It is important to separate your garden space from that of your neighbors, according to Oudolf, either by planting a wooden hedge or by building a fence. He likes iron fences which can be used as a support for climbing plants like clematis, or to form woody plants in shady tunnels. In his own gardens, he created raised beds to change the level of the flat garden, building 30-inch-high brick circles filled with soil and planted with tall decorative grasses.
Paths are important for gardens, Oudolf explained, as they lead the viewer through the garden. He thinks you shouldn’t be able to see the whole garden at once. You can create tension by placing tall plants and hedges in front of a garden, he said. He likes hard surfaces for paths in small gardens, made of stone or brick, but grass as a path in large gardens. Obviously, in public gardens, he uses concrete or stone to prevent foot traffic from wearing out the grass.
Seating places should be included, whether in a public or private garden, Oudolf said. His own gardens have benches to relax on, although I think he has little time to use them. One of my favorite features in his garden were the sheep. No, not live sheep. He has a good sense of humor and has cute carved marble sheep resting on the lawn. Unfortunately my photos have all disappeared.
I have been to the High Line Gardens several times and they are definitely worth a visit. I understand that they are now one of the most visited tourist attractions in New York City. Take a walk along the path and you will see how Piet Oudolf incorporates all of the design principles mentioned above. Check out the High Line, then incorporate some of its ideas into your own gardens.
Henry Homeyer can be contacted at [email protected] or PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Please include an SASE if requesting a response by mail.