NURTURING THE CHAOS

BY: ELIZA ZIEMIŃSKA, PHOTOS: PIET OUDOLF

HUMMELO 13.8.2016

ARCHITECTURE DESIGN TRAVEL

Gardening is a continuous dialogue between freedom and control. On the one hand, there are nicely trimmed hedges and perfectly even beds with collections of neatly catalogued rare plants. On the other hand, we see the unbridled forces of nature in action. How do you balance those two extreme conditions?
Piet Oudolf is without a doubt one of the most famous greenery designers worldwide. His naturalistic and yet picturesque style, as well as promoting the use of perennials in public spaces have influenced the whole generation of gardeners. Plant varieties obtained in his home nursery can be seen all over Europe and the USA.

This exceptional story began in 1981, when Oudolf and his wife established their own garden in Hummelo in the Netherlands. Oudolf was longing for spontaneity, so he wished to create a free, natural landscape. Owing to sufficient experience, he could cross and develop various plant species. In the same location, he opened a nursery (now known worldwide) where new perennial varieties are discovered and cultivated. He became famous after carrying out a few public space designs, i.a. the High Line Park in New York, the pavilion of Serpentine gallery in London designed by Peter Zumthor, the Lurie Garden in Chicago and the reconstruction of Queen Elisabeth II Park in London. Working in the urban space allowed him to share his ideas with the public.

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The Dutch gardener’s designs are distinguished by a strong bond with nature. His gardens are abundant yet delicate. Searching for inspiration in natural landscapes, he has developed a style which could be described as organic, ecological and spontaneous, though not wild. Trying to imitate nature, the designer plants greenery in groups which can be found in real landscapes. Plans of beds are precise and well thought out, but they do not resemble stiff, trimmed, gravel-covered, animal- and insect-unfriendly gardens the slightest bit.

Nurturing greenery is an endless process. How do you introduce some stability to this system? Knowing the life cycle of a plant, Oudolf knows what is happening to it not only in full blossom, but also when it sheds that blossom and withers. Discovering charm in fading and inscribing the whole life cycle of the plant in the greenery design makes the garden attractive in every season. Planning such spaces requires thorough knowledge of plant behaviour in time. Though the Dutch designer is already 70, he admits that he has only felt truly free in designing for a short time – since he discovered that only knowledge gave complete freedom.
The secret of durability of Oudolf’s designs is perennials. Appropriately selected, they do not choke up one another, and they are strong enough to simply keep weeds at bay. The trick is to create sets of plants and not collections of individuals, as well as to limit the number of self-propagating plants, replacing them with perennials so as to make regular trimming irrelevant.

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Piet Oudolf’s work can be compared to that of a musician: his inconspicuous gardens are nearly as complex as a symphony for a full-size orchestra. Just as the composer knows precisely how the individual instruments influence the piece, Oudolf can foresee the complexity of processes taking place among the plants. The size – a small garden or a five-hectare park – does not matter: the essence is the creation of a biotope which accommodates for plants, moles, voles, insects and... the human, for whom the interaction with nature and nurturing the garden is a source of balance and a feeling of belonging in the ecosystem.

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The High Line Park in New York: established on closed railway tracks, from the very beginning it has attracted strollers longing for contact with greenery in the heart of the big city. An incredible abundance of grasses, leaves and flowers contrasts with the steel bridge elements and the concrete. On the distance of approx. 2 km, you can walk a forest path, lie on a meadow and traverse the fields. This design best shows Oudolf’s turn towards nature. The greenery is apparently planted chaotically and accidentally; it resembles a natural landscape more than a romantic garden. Oudolf planted here only native plants which could naturally grow in the region. Owing to that, the place is attractive also for insects and animals living in the city. ‘I am fascinated with the beauty of plants. They are tools which let me express myself by designing landscapes and gardens,’ Piet Oudolf says. www.thehighline.org

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Piet Oudolf. A Dutch born in 1944 in Haarlem. He is one of the most influential contemporary garden designers, as well as a seed grower and author of well-known albums on greenery design. He is a leading member of the New Perennials movement which promotes planting perennials and grasses instead of traditional lawns and gardens. www.oudolf.com

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