What makes a garden a work of art? Piet Oudolf explains.

Dutch designer Piet Oudolf’s gardens have an otherworldly quality that makes us feel like we’ve arrived at a place where we want — and badly need — to spend more time. Caught in an intricately textured mosaic of muted colors, we can exhale.

Even when his landscapes are set against urban backdrops, as in many of his best-known works—such as the High Line in New York City, or the Lurie Gardens in Chicago’s Millennium Park—we feel drawn to Surrounded by nature, our desire for it is fulfilled.

but, gentlemen.Odolf Quick to point out, his work is the art and craft of garden making. Not ecological landscape restoration. His medium is naturalistic, yes, but it’s not natural.

“I’m not a painter, but I can see something in my mind that can be translated into reality,” said Mr. Odolf, 78. “I can see what happens over time.”Credit…mark ashby

Nature impresses us with “the greatest feelings,” he said in a recent talk. “And I think that’s something you want to do in the garden too.”

He added: “But the garden is smaller, so you have to do more than this big idea of ​​what nature is. You have to feel more than what you see. It has to go a little bit deeper, and sometimes it is Called the enhanced nature. So you lift nature up a little bit, cheer it up a little bit.”

Mr Oudolf, 78, is the subject of the recently published Phaidon book ‘Piet Oudolf at Work’, which extensively incorporates testimonies of other designers’ influence on him, complemented by photographs and profiles of his gardens, as well as his own designs drawing.

The sketches behind his landscapes are themselves abstract art forms.

“I’m not a painter, but I can see in my mind what can be translated into the ground,” he says in the book. “I can see what happens over time.”

What happens is that at the onset of the frost, everything recedes (although in the world he created, this receding is expected and celebrated).

What happened was that as the planting matured, things shifted in balance.

What happened was that some elements were missing and the garden and the original planting plan no longer matched exactly.

What happens is that the skilled gardener’s hand has to be there to assess and adjust as the landscape evolves.

What happened was an Oudolf garden.

I recently asked Mr. Oudolf to talk about his process and translate some of his insights into advice for home gardeners. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

You started gardening more than 50 years ago and have said that it was the English garden that first attracted you.

Before starting my own business, we traveled a lot with our family to the UK, eg great dixter, Beth Chatto’s, Sissinghurst – All these gardens. They impressed me not only because of the craftsmanship but also the plants. I just fell in love with the plants and of course how they came together.

You like what you call the garden’s “top quality” in your book, but you also say, “British gardening is very much about decorating and doing the right thing at the right time.”

Back then, when you read English garden books, it was all about what to do and when to do it. It’s somewhat dogmatic, telling people what to do in the garden. I feel like, without losing my interest in English gardens, I want to get myself out of the idea that you have to be in the garden at a certain time – a certain week or a certain day – to do things. In addition to the craftsmanship required, I also wanted to do something creatively, not limited by the rules.

Your landscapes are much looser than classic English mixed borders within walled hedges, but they’re not messy. Are there fundamental design principles that you would urge us all to consider?

A garden should be fun all year round. To make this happen, you need plants that are perennial, even in late winter, early winter—and not necessarily their flowers. It could be the structure, the texture of the leaves, even the way they grow out of the ground – all the new growth, the leaves that grow, the buds. This is also very important to me.

The second important thing is to consider and contribute to wildlife – choose plants that are also fun for any insects and other critters that contribute to the beauty of your garden.

You find beauty in dried seed heads and other skeletal plant parts, and say you’re starting to think of rot as part of gardening. Do you have some favorite faded beauties?

Oh, many, many, many. For example, Veronica Strum. And umbels — they have these beautiful seed heads. Or Joe Pye Weed. These have such a strong character, even in winter.

Some plants have a very dark brown that provides a nice contrast to grasses that show yellow all winter. So the garden can be completely different, because everything becomes another color state.

You mentioned grasses, they are an important part of your color palette.

Wild gardening is something I don’t do in my job because wild gardening means you grow something and it takes on a life of its own. So I learned from nature and wilderness areas and was able to translate that into plant compositions to make the garden look wilder and more spontaneous. That’s why I started using grass so that it becomes looser and more mixed and not as strong.

You use many native American plants, but not just in American gardens.

If I were an ecologist working in landscapes, I would never use non-native because it doesn’t belong. But we build gardens; we don’t create nature. We build gardens where I think I can use plants that I like.

The upside is that the plants I use benefit the community I create.

If you’re only using North American plants, they mostly grow in late summer, except for woodland plants. If I mix them with some early ones from Europe, Eastern Europe – sage, etc. – then you can complete your garden.

If a plant isn’t doing any harm – and it’s beneficial because it blooms in the right season and contributes to the garden – I see no problem.

I would never use non-locals in a fix. This is the biggest difference. And I don’t use hacked natives.

In your book you say, “I put plants on stage and let them perform.” But the hardest (and most exciting) part is that we’re dealing with a group of live plants – even if we get things “right” , they also don’t stay in place. Do you have some guidance?

You think very clearly about how one plant will connect to another—how they will function together as a community or as an individual in the overall scene you create. You have to think about what it’s going to do next year and the year after; things change.

So we try not to put competing plants together. The plants must not be invasive, not too competitive with their neighbors, and not short-lived.

But even if you do, the garden will change over time, and it’s worth taking a good look at it and taking action when necessary.

I wouldn’t say you restore it to the way it was. A plant can disappear, but that’s okay because so much has happened that you think, “Oh, it looks good, so get out of it.”

It’s also about stewardship: if we don’t have the right people to tend the garden, your garden will be gone in a few years.

You wrote that if you don’t control the planting, you won’t like the fruiting. What control strategies do you use to foster wild spirits?

Cover your land with plants that grow together; don’t create too much bare ground. Over time, your soil should fill in with plants, and as they mature, require less maintenance.

However, it still needs maintenance in the sense that you have to watch it all the time or it will go wrong. Control is more about you observing where things can go wrong.

Control is about having the right people in place, with the right vision, who understand the plants and what they can do.

You need to have a gardener’s eye to notice where something is wrong. To be a gardener, you need to know a lot. You can do it all your life and still you don’t know everything.

Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast garden roadand a book of the same name.

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