This is a book that should be read slowly. The writing is certainly clear and accessible, but the text is dense with thought-provoking insights on garden design. The insights are illustrated with gorgeous photographs that merit close study. Designing with Plants is more of a meditation on garden design, rather than a how-to book. But those meditations are well worth the gardener’s time, coming as they do from the famous Dutch garden designer who has given us magnificent green spaces such as Chicago’s Lurie Garden.
The insight that left the greatest impression on me was the importance of plant shape. Like many others, I tend to think of gardens primarily in terms of color. Oudolf counsels against this: “Structure is the most important component in a successful planting; color is important too, but it is a secondary consideration” – because it is temporary, and because structure provides the context for color.
The authors provide a classification scheme for types of plant shapes. They discuss how differently or similarly shaped plants can be combined, and how combinations of shapes interact with complementary and contrasting colors.
The tone of the writing is contemplative rather than didactic or evangelical, and I appreciated that. Oudolf recognizes that what is beautiful in the garden is subjective and based in emotion, and he encourages gardeners to avoid rigid rules.
Oudolf’s designs are natural-looking rather than “natural” in the sense of using only indigenous plants. He praises native plants as well as plants generally that remain in or are close to their wild state. His primary goal, however, is to use whatever perennials work to create gardens that are full and abundant, generally relaxed in tone, and visually effective. In this book he discusses other important but frequently ignored aspects of garden design such as light, movement, and mood.
I did not agree with everything in Designing with Plants. For instance, mixed borders with perennials and woody plants are one of the few things that bring out Oudolf’s judgemental side. I myself would like to put more woody plants in my borders, in part because they are less work – no staking, fall or spring clean-up, or dividing. Oudolf argues that using more wild or near-wild perennials will reduce the work load, but in my experience that is true only to a limited extent.
Also, Oudolf tends to deal with larger spaces for his gardens, and I would have appreciated more of a focus on translating his ideas for smaller gardens.
Designing with Plants was fist published in 2000, so it is not a new book. Many people consider it something of a classic. I’m reluctant to call any book essential. I would say that, if they haven’t already read it, most gardeners who want to think more creatively about their gardens would find this book extremely valuable.