The first time I saw the work of the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf was ten years ago on a visit to Bentley in Hampshire where he had collaborated on the gardens of Bury Court, a hop farm that was converted to a plant nursery in the 1990s. Since then I’ve seen a number of his projects including Potters Fields near Tower Bridge, the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park and the enclosed garden in Peter Zumthor’s Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park. In September I went back to Durslade Farm to have a look at the garden Oudolf has created at Hauser & Wirth’s Somerset gallery near Bruton. You can read my post about the gallery itself here. Known as the Oudolf Field, the 1.5 acre meadow was planted in April so had only had 5 months to bed in but was already looking vibrant and colourful.
I had the opportunity to talk to him about the garden and his wider attitude to landscape back in July when the gallery opened. The meadow rises gently away from the gallery complex and is screened from the surrounding land by a low hedge. You only become aware of it towards the end of the sequence of galleries where 2 sets of doors open on to a colonnaded loggia facing the garden. “The brief was for a garden that will surprise people half way through the gallery. That was the starting point”, explains Oudolf. “We wanted to do something that has a very strong impact. The slope is important in that you see more garden – it makes you curious.”
The planting begins at a slight distance from the buildings, separated by an area of lawn and some wide-canopied trees. Beyond the lawn, grass paths meander between curvaceous planting beds, past a pond to a central gravel area. “The middle piece, separated by the pond and the taller planting makes a space in itself”, Oudolf continues. ” We had enough plants, enough space and enough room then we could create a landscape within a landscape. That is part of what I think is the quality of this garden.”
It all feels quite loose and generous but the planting has been meticulously laid out. One of Hauser & Wirth’s opening exhibitions was a selection of Oudolf’s drawings which are works of art in themselves. I am intrigued that the plans are so graphic, yet you don’t perceive a garden from above. “You see how graphic it is!” he counters, gesturing enthusiastically toward the sweeping curves of the paths and edgings. His gardens are famous for their drifts and blocks of strong colour, and the strong forms of stems and seed heads that continue the interest of the planting on into the winter. From eye level there are two distinct impressions that work in harmony – the view across the beds with layers of colour and texture, and the views down the curving paths. “That’s why you have to work in birdseye view and you try to experience it from eye level to make the composition, so that people might feel it is in balance.”
So why does he just draw the birdseye view? “Its hard to design from eye level. I have to work like that, with a plan on the table. I don’t work on a computer. You can’t do this on a computer and just turn it around and see it in perspective, that’s impossible.” And does he sketch perspectives of what he wants it to be like? “No I don’t, because they’re not real. Every perspective is made to what you want to see and not what you are going to see.” The drawings are patchworks of little coloured marks and scribbled abbreviations of plant names, hard to decipher for the uninitiated. “Every plant has a character. If I see a name I see a plant, I see what it does with the other plants. I see it in the context, and it works, or at least that’s what I think!”
I am always referring to Oudolf’s books while thinking what to do with our (admittedly rather smaller) garden. His schemes rely on repeated groups of a particular plant and enough space to see a number layers of such groups in relation to one another. The plantings are tightly-knit, blending different species together in a way that has the intensity and irregularity of nature with a combination of plants and composition that is obviously man-made. Over 26000 herbaceous perennials have been planted in the meadow at Durslade. In nature though some plants would become dominant and push others out. How can the initial arrangement be maintained? “It’s not wild, this meadow”, he says, “The plants used here aren’t competitive. They are perennials, so they don’t die after flowering, but gardening is a never-ending process.”
I ask him whether his approach can be adapted to a small garden. “Of course, you just scale it down. You could just have one of each plant and it would create a similar effect”. I find this slightly confusing as the magnificent thing about his landscapes is the scale of the drifts of similar plants. A couple of seed heads bobbing about next to a little tuft of grass isn’t going to have anything like the effect of the large scale version. He’s a nice chap though and isn’t about to tell me I can’t have something similar because I can’t afford a whole field of plants.
There is a consistency to Oudolf’s designs, despite their geographical spread. Is there anything specific to Somerset about the Durslade meadow? “I can do them anywhere”, he says, “It has nothing to do with locality, except where climate is concerned. Its all about the eye and about people. Every planting is different – you can’t see this combination in Chicago for instance. Plants give me a way to express myself, so I do that in a way that I think is good for the place. The experience you have is what you get. If you like it and you feel good, then I feel good too.”
I am interested in how the partially domesticated environment of a garden relates to the rural landscape around it. The forms of the blobs of plants and the way they move in the breeze is echoed in the billowing forms of the trees in the open countryside beyond. Is it important what’s on the other side of the hedge? “Nah, I didn’t think about that much. We intend to put more shrubs on the other side of the hedge so it would become even more of an enclosure. A garden is just a place that is separated from its surroundings.”
Within the garden, the levels of the beds rise up away from the paths, again perhaps analogous to the gently rolling English landscape? “No, we did that because in the spring we’ll cut everything down so at least the basic framework of the design remains while the plants are re-growing”.
At Durslade we aren’t far from Stourhead, one of the greatest examples of the romantic 18th Century English picturesque landscape, with its informal composition framed views. What does he feel is particular about an English attitude to landscape? “I would say it’s nostalgia, it’s the romantic feelings we experience in gardens, we can sense a lot of what we are.” And aren’t gardens really about a kind of escapism? “Yes, you’re right. Its also closely tied to your inner energy. If I look at a garden, I think I love the plant itself, I love the landscape which its placed in, its about the combination. Its about focusing and about the whole. Its about the annual cycle of birth, life and death, the daily changes, the energy and the dynamic.
In my very limited garden experience you never quite know what will work in a particular place, how the microclimate will affect the plants. Does Oudolf know what the garden will be like in 5 years or might it change and some things will have to be adapted? “No, I more or less know what it will be. It will get stronger, nicer, deeper. I know how to do it. It’s exciting, but it can be disappointing because if they don’t take care of it, if they don’t have the right gardeners it can easily be lost. There are also a lot of disappointments.”
One of the great qualities of his planting is the way stems and seed heads are left to extend the period of interest in the garden into the fallow winter season. “Its to do with life cycles”, he says, “We all feel that when you’re here you know the flowers will be over in 3 weeks time, that winter will be different from autumn and autumn different from spring. Without knowing about plants, we know that the garden will change. So gardens are not just about what you see at the moment but also about what you expect.”
“There’s so much that gardens give to people. On one hand it’s about life, on the other it’s a sort of entertainment, so there is a sort of spectrum of things that can come up or that you can do with people. Some people feel gardens are healing, some see it just as what it is and never come back. It’s so much more than just the plants, it’s life.”