Sunday 27 October 2013

Notes & musings from a talk by Piet Oudolf

Last week I attended a talk by Piet Oudolf, organised by the Sheffield University Department of Landscape. Below is a few notes and musings from the talk, which several days later I am still reflecting upon.

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In the gardening world, Piet Oudolf barely needs an introduction as he is a well-known and respected garden designer and plantsman. However, as I know I have friends and Twitter followers who read my blog but aren't gardeners, or as into every aspect of the gardening world, I think it's worth saying a little about who he is.

Piet Oudolf is a garden designer, plantsman, and author. He is a leading figure of the gardening worlds' "New Perennial movement", using drifts of herbaceous perennials and grasses which are chosen at as much for their structure as for their flower colour.1 This includes not just how they look at the height of their flowering period, but as they decay and die, before returning again the following year.

Without realising it, you will find the influence of Piet's work is all around you these days. The fashion for grasses, meadows and American perennials like Echinacea is now ubiquitous, and this came from people like Piet. This has also come from people such as Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough, from the Sheffield University Department of Landscape2 who organised the talk I attended. They have led the way in developing green roofs, pictorial meadows and the promotion of vegetatively rich urban environments. So the fact that Piet Oudolf is now a Visiting Professor of Planting Design at the department seems quite natural.

Piet's talk was an engaging overview of how he started in garden design, how he became passionate about plants, the projects he has worked on, and interspersed this with interesting commentary on the nature of plants and gardens.

Piet says he came to garden design by a passion for plants. In the early 1980's he moved to Hummelo (Netherlands) and he started growing plants for his designs, and set up a trial nursery. He hadn't necessarily meant to start this way, but he had the time (building the design business was taking time) and it actually got him enthused about growing plants from seed and learning more about their different stages of growing and dying.

He visited England 3-4 times a year, meeting people like Beth Chatto and Keith Wiley (and many others, I didn't capture them all - it was a lot!), as well as others from other parts of the world, discussing perennials that were more wild, rather than just hybrids. What I found interesting about this is that I've met, read about and seen on TV, garden designers that don't actually know very much about plants. Which to me, at least, is surprising as I would have thought the two went together. Piet is as passionate about plants as design, and this came across strongly in his talk.

And one of the things he also feels strongly about, is that planting shouldn't just be about pretty flowers for a short period. He feels that plants should look good for a longer period of time, including during winter, that they should be durable and long-lived. He used what could have been a disaster, terrible flooding of a large area of his originally more formal garden at Hummelo, as an opportunity to experiment, moving formal hedges to the background and perennials to the foreground. He wanted to create more spontaneity so combined perennials with grasses. His design ideas evolved over time, moving from blocks and combinations to a more naturalistic look. He allowed plants to do more, to move around (self-seed) and see how they succeeded on their own. I found this personally interesting as I decided a couple of months ago to allow some of the plants in my new garden to self-seed and see what happens, particularly in the shadier areas. I wonder if I'll get the same impact Piet does?!

Piet has created (some in collaboration) quite a few public gardens in urban areas, and again this is something he is clearly passionate about. This includes the High Line in New York, Skärholmen in Stockholm, the Lurie garden in Chicago, Westerkade in Rotterdam, and Pensthorpe in Norfolk. Choosing the right plants for a public space is important. Plants bring people to a space, they change the dynamic of the space. For instance, at Westerkade the design reclaimed a public space that had been taken over by cars. And at the Skärholmen garden in south-western suburb of Stockholm that has a lot of social housing, he designed the the garden to also be a meeting space. He commented that you could see what a difference it made to the neighbourhood. He added that with the High Line, seven new buildings have gone up in the area since the High Line was started. Such a clear demonstration of how plants and gardens can transform a neighbourhood.

I have been reflecting on this over the last couple of days as I live near a 1960's housing estate in Sheffield that wasn't designed well, even though it is in a lovely valley and it had such potential. Instead it has blocks of flats and houses, municipal grass, more flats and houses, more municipal grass, with no sense of community, no meeting place. I'm wondering if whilst Piet is in Sheffield...

With all this designing and planting comes something that many projects don't always think about: the need for maintenance and the importance of good gardeners to maintain the design and space. Piet mentioned the importance of good gardeners several times, it was clearly something of a bug bear for him and I'm not surprised. Gardeners and the knowledge they hold isn't always valued much in our society; remember David Cameron's comments referring to horticulture as being unskilled manual labour?3 Piet said, in response to a question from James Hitchmough, that he has never had a project that went wrong, but there has been an issue of the need for ongoing maintenance; any design depends on good gardeners and a budget to maintain it.

The talk ended with a conversation between Piet and James and reiterated a few key points. That to be a good designer you need to be really passionate about plants, not just the landscape, and that you need to find the right person (gardener) to work with on the planting. He felt that though you don't have to come from a plant background, but that a love of plants and nature should come from deep inside.

He reminded us that we shouldn't just focus on the flower, but also the form, the skeleton of the plant, and that you don't always have to dead head but also see how a plant looks as it is decaying. If it looks good, enjoy the decay and dying of things; we know they (perennials) will come back next year. "A good plant also look good when it is dead" Piet said. And when asked by a member of the audience, "when do you cut back", he answered "when you get bored"!

1. I've paraphrased this from a Wikipedia entry on Piet Oudolf.
2. You can follow the department on Twitter @LandscapeSheff. I'd also recommend following Nigel Dunnett @NigelDunnett as he frequently tweets wonderful photos of plants, meadows and floriferous urban landscapes.
3. And don't get me started on the fact that manual labour is bloody hard work that most of us want to avoid, and that it should be duly rewarded much better than it is!

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Garlic harvest and update 2013

Growing and looking after my garlic was a little harder this year, as we decided to make some life changes and move from Oxford to Sheffield during it's growing period. I did manage to make it back to Oxford in August to harvest the garlic, and many many thanks to my friend Manishta for keeping the plot and garlic ticking over after I left Oxford in March.

Below is an update on the eight varieties that I am now growing (all hardneck varieties). Full details can be read in my 'Garlic Varieties 2013' document. I've reduced the number of varieties I grow from 17 in 2010, down to eight that I've just planted for 2014. This is for a variety of reasons, some didn't do well and were too small, one was way to hot for even a garlic lover like me! And I've also decided that as I have a smaller garden now, and no allotment, that I will only grow my favourite 'unusual' varieties that aren't so easily found in the UK.

Georgia Fire

Growing: has done well in hard Winters and both wet and dry Springs, on clay soil. 4-5 cloves per bulb. Medium sized cloves and can be stored for c. 4 months.

Cooking: medium strength, I usually use a couple of cloves for a dish for two.

Martin's Heirloom

Growing: I tend to get a mix of sizes with this one whether it is a dry or wet Spring. 7-9 cloves per bulb. Stores for c. 5 months.

Cooking: medium flavour, I usually use a couple of cloves per dish.


Growing: medium sized cloves, doesn't like the wet so much. 5 cloves per bulb. Stores well for a hardneck, 5-6 months.

Cooking: medium to strong flavour this one, and I find 1 clove suffices for a dish for 4 people.


Growing: medium to large cloves, a really reliable garlic what ever the weather. 5-6 cloves per bulb and stores c. 5 months.

Cooking: really lovely flavour that doesn't over-power. 1-2 cloves per dish.

Persian Star

Growing: my favourite garlic as it is reliable, good flavour and has the prettiest name (if the latter is a reason for growing something!). Medium bulbs, c. 7 cloves each and stores 4-5 months.

Cooking: medium strength, good flavour, throw in a couple of cloves per dish.


Growing: Doesn't like the wet so much, and maybe not clay soil. Originally larger bulbs, they have become smaller over the last couple of years; possibly not the best stock? I've saved the best ones and will try again once more next year to see if any different in my Sheffield soil. 4-6 cloves per bulb and stores c. 5-6 months.

Cooking: medium flavour, 1-2 cloves per dish.

Silver Rose

Growing: This has been reliable until this harvest, when the bulbs came out smaller; problem with stock? I'm continuing to grow as it's been reliable and has good storage capabilities (c. 6 months). 4-5 cloves per bulb.

Cooking: mild-medium flavour which is good for 'lighter' recipes like omelette (rather than curry which has stronger flavours), c. 2 cloves per dish.

Susan Delafield

Growing: This one doesn't like to get too wet, a lot rotted in the Spring of 2012, but it did well in the drier Spring of 2013 and I got a really good crop. 5-6 cloves per bulb. This one doesn't store as well, c. 3 months, so needs to be used earlier.

Cooking: medium-strong flavour, but not overpowering, 1-2 cloves per dish.

Estonian Red: sadly this one didn't crop this year. No idea why as it was reliable in the past. I hope to get hold of it again as I found it a good garlic with good storage capabilities. So if you have this one and you would like to offer me some - please get it touch!

A note re storage: hardneck garlic (which all the above are) don't tend to have as good storage ability as softneck garlic. Most are best eaten in the first 3-4 months after harvesting. The storage period I've listed is how long they remain firm and fairly good flavour in my experience. Many last longer, but go softer and don't maintain their flavour/potency. You can still use the older ones, I do, just need to double how many cloves you use per dish.

For those interested, I've updated my 'Garlic Varieties' document, which shows the history of each variety I have grown in the last few years. I have split it into two, 'Garlic Varieties 2013' for the eight I'm continuing to grow, and 'Garlic varieties no longer growing' for those I used to grow, in case this is of use to anyone.

Finally, if you haven't tried growing garlic before - DO! It's one of the easiest vegetables to grow and you get a big output from just as few cloves. For an idea of how easy it is to grow garlic, see my post Getting the garlic in.