I checked out Piet Oudolf’s and Noel Kingsbury’s new book “Planting a New Perspective” recently. Oudolf’s planting designs are growing all around the western hemisphere, most recognizable to Americans at the High Line in New York. I was lucky to visit the High Line during two different seasons and see the amount of change that had taken place (early spring and late summer). I was also naively excited to see Oudolf’s work in the Lurie Garden in Chicago recently this winter, not realizing how most of it would be covered in 2ft of snow, and coincidentally, I was there during the polar vortex of -20 degrees. So there was not much to see except closed-off icy paths disappearing into whiteness. Though I have been fortunate enough to see his work in person, I really wanted to understand what the “bones” of his gardens were, how does he compose his planting? Oudolf has written at least three other books, all with almost the same title, but I think this newest one is the most compelling and helped to answer my question of what are the ingredients he uses in his designs.
Oudolf’s plant palette and aesthetic are not for everyone, and I can’t say I have had the chance to do anything remotely similar to his style yet, but nevertheless his designs are very compelling. They are lush, colorful, overflowing and textural. They tend to occupy parks and estates of at least one acre, if not thirty. They have a heavy reliance on perennials and grasses, very few, if any, shrubs or evergreen plants. They bring to mind colorful, semi-wild meadows, and seasonal changes. The color photos in the book are beautiful, and the best part is that Oudolf has included many of his planting plans. Though you probably wouldn’t be able to decipher all of the plans, either they are not big enough or there are abbreviations for plants, they are still helpful to understanding the thinking behind the planting, and that’s something that most books of this sort lack. In addition, the book provides an exhaustive list of Oudolf’s recommended varieties and species in the back, and helps you understand what season they bloom and other characteristics. Seeing more photos of each garden in each season, taken from the same vantage point, would also be great.
One reason I may not have done a residential design that pays homage to Oudolf’s aesthetic, is that ultimately, it looks like it requires a lot of maintenance, and that is the one thing that everyone comes to me to avoid. Many of these perennials need dead-heading, cutting back in the winter, thinning and separating, replacing and making sure that one species doesn’t overtake everything else. I may be completely wrong that this type of landscape needs more maintenance than others, but I’m just guessing it does. Another hindrance is that this type of planting requires space, large expanses to spread out and express itself. Most city dwelling residential clients don’t have this luxury. Someday I hope to be able to explore this type of planting design further afield! (pun intended.)