Piet Oudolf in Chicago
Last night Judy and I went to a lecture given by the noted author, plantsman and garden designer Piet Oudolf. The talk was sponsored by the Lurie Garden, which is appropriate because the Lurie was Oudolf’s first commission in North America.
The presentation was an overview of his career starting with the creation of his nursery in Hummelo, the Netherlands. It included slides of Lurie, the High Line in NYC, and other public and private gardens he has worked on. I really can’t summarize what was said, but here are a few things I took away from the experience.
Oudolf’s designs are inspired by nature and its outer forms (eg, types and shapes of plants), but do not seek to replicate a particular natural environment as it existed prior to human intervention.
He believes in “skills, not rules”. In his career, the foremost skill has been the ability to work with plants to create a desired effect. This entails a knowledge of how those plants will behave over time in a variety of environments. This is a highly complex topic requiring years of experience and never fully learned.
Starting early in his career, Oudolf wanted to get beyond the traditional English garden. He had several reasons: a desire for gardens with less control, for giving more attention to garden ecology and less to gardens as “decoration”, etc. Primarily, though, he wanted to do something creative that “came from the inside”, and for him “plants are a medium of self-expression.”
Oudolf gave an interesting account of working on the High Line in New York City. As with the Lurie Garden, he was brought in to collaborate with other designers and architects. His role was to develop the plant palette and fit those plants together. The architects provided him with a narrative for each section of the High Line, and that enabled him to choose which plants were right.
Maintenance and properly trained staff are critically important for public gardens. This includes being able to assess the performance of plants and decide which species should be removed or introduced. He mentioned, for example, that Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) and Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) needed to be removed from Lurie because they were just too aggressive, even though they were wonderful plants.
The cost of maintenance reinforces a more informal approach. Instead of staking a leaning plant, we develop an appreciation of the “elegance” of its relaxed lines. This is one point on which I take issue with Oudolf – leaning plants may be elegant in a big setting like Lurie, but in my home garden I believe in staking.
After the lecture we had dinner and went to a premier showing of a new documentary about the landscape designer Jens Jensen, who pioneered prairie-style landscapes in parks and gardens. That, however, will be covered in another post.