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!