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‘It will blow people away’: Dutch superstar gardener redesigns RHS flagship Wisley garden
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‘It will blow people away’: Dutch superstar gardener redesigns RHS flagship Wisley garden

He has been called the “Rembrandt of gardens”, the masterful Dutch designer behind the Olympic Park in London, the High Line in New York and countless other green spaces around the world, bringing a sense of wilderness into cultivated and urban settings.

Now Piet Oudolf, 79, one of the most influential gardeners of modern times, has redesigned one of his famous horticultural tapestries, the Glasshouse borders at the Royal Horticultural Society’s flagship Wisley garden in Surrey, in the UK. The two-acre space, which he has redeveloped 20 years after he created them, will open to the public next month.

“After 20 years the design was tired,” he said. At his modern ­studio in the Hummelo in the low-lying plains of north-east Netherlands, a Japanese film crew is capturing him holding aloft his tracing-paper designs for another recently opened garden in Tokyo. “[The Wisley ­borders] still looked good, but it was ready to be renewed, so I thought: if we are renewing the planting, why not renew the design too?”

Oudolf was a founder of the “new perennial movement” – gardens using plants that mimic the ­natural world, with strong structures, grasses and varieties with ­umbellifer or globe florescences such as fennels, ­achillea, angelica and ­alliums alongside splashes of colour from spikes of flowers such as Liatris ­spicata or echinacea, rudbeckias or prairie daisies.

Overhead shot shows parallel borders of Piet Oudolf glass gardens before they were dug out for new designView image in fullscreen

The new RHS Wisley borders are a textbook example of Oudolf tearing up traditional design concepts, replacing his previous design of two parallel borders with a mass of swirls filled with 36,000 plants. It took a horticultural team of six, a landscaper, the support of the full-time RHS curatorial team of 100 and 150 volunteers to create.

Normally Oudolf works with 50 or 60 varieties of plants, but at Wisley he chose 150, including some unusual shrubs and trees to “blow people away” and hopefully allow them to zoom in on a plant or two and inspire them to change their own gardens. “We came up with the idea of creating a landscape where people could just walk through,” he said.

Overhead shot of Piet Oudolf’s newly laid out design in RHS Wisley View image in fullscreen

The “new perennial” style of planting emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, and was associated with pioneers like Karl Foerster (after whom one of Oudolf’s frequently used grass varieties is named). But it was made famous by Oudolf, who brought it to international ­attention with the High Line in New York, a public park built on a disused ­elevated railway track.

“Not since Central Park opened in 1858 has a park reshaped New Yorkers’ thinking about public space and the city more profoundly,” said the New York Times on its opening in 2014.

Painterly swathes of colour at Pensthorpe Nature Reserve gardens in Norfolk by Piet OudolfView image in fullscreen

Oudolf has designed Maggie’s Garden at the Royal Marsden ­hospital in London, Tokyo Park, Vitra in Germany, Voorlinden in The Hague and gardens at Noma ­restaurant in Denmark. His ­section of the Olympic Park in east London, near the stadium and canal, is packed with 60,000 plants. At the RHS Chelsea flower show last year he was one of the three first recipients of the Elizabeth Medal of Honour, a new award in memory of the late Queen, whom he had met several times.

Planting the 4,000 square metre beds at RHS Wisley began in mid-March, with opening ­scheduled for 15 May. Showing sketches of the design on his computer, Oudolf explained that seeing photos of his vision coming to life still gives him a thrill. “It’s kind of fun, isn’t it?,” he said. “I have been doing this for so long, but every time it excites me.”

In an interview when the ­project was announced, Oudolf said: “I want to make it interesting for people, give them something to talk about. I feel excited every time I come and see how it looks – it’s a sort of euphoria.

“So instead of the long borders of 100 metres or more, where your eyes were drawn to the glasshouse, now your eyes are just everywhere – there’s no real focus. You don’t see the end until you are at the end. This is a different kind of landscape. It is about an experience.”

Piet Oudolf, with glasses and a warm vest, sits with one hand on his desk in his studio in Hummelo, looking serious, the plan for his Wisley design showing on his computer screenView image in fullscreen

Oudolf had left school by the age of 16 and developed a “sort of healthy obsession with plants”. He went on to get a degree ­learning about machinery, maintenance and plants. His interest in perennials ­developed during the 1980s as he moved away from the postwar ­garden ­conformities of lawns and ­herbaceous borders, bringing in wilder and non-native species.

Plants which would conventionally be cast aside as unwanted weeds such as angelica and reed grasses such as Calamagrostis “Karl Foerster” or American natives such as Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) that can grow more than two metres tall topped with pinky heads all feature in his designs.

Other frequent choices are ­achillea (commonly known as ­yarrow), lychnis, aster, stachys, the sea holly, eryngium and globe ­thistles like Echinops ritro.

His designs encourage ­people to drink in their surroundings rather than walk by. “It’s about the here and now, the moment, the experience.”

Some of the Wisley garden is a matrix, a block of a single or a handful of species, usually with strong visual or architectural structure, with other plants popping up in between. Four blocks are dedicated to the kind of plants he hopes visitors might be inspired to think about including in their own gardens.

Oudolf believes design is also about the “movement, the flow of colour, the light ­filtering through” the grasses, the “energy of growth”, but also the cycle of life and death. He leaves the “skeletons” – the ­seedheads – to provide strong visual interest throughout the winter.

In traditional gardens, perennial plants were cut down once they were past their best, often when they went to seed. But Oudolf has made his name with plants which also offer winter interest.

Flowering bushes and grasses in Oudolf’s garden in HummeloView image in fullscreen

Showing photos of one of his ­gardens in low winter mist, he said: “You see that most of the plants have, even in the winter, still a strong character. The skeletons are still there. You don’t want to cut it back because it still looks good, even in composition.”

Today, his plant choice is evolving with climate change and the loss of biodiversity, which is driving a new emphasis on choosing plants that live harmoniously side by side and encouraging wildlife.

“Other plants have come into gardening because they are more appreciated, for instance because they attract insects, provide food and shelter,” he said.

Oudolf Field, the garden at Hauser & Wirth in SomersetView image in fullscreen

His designs, he said, tend to showcase a “looser” look. “Normally I create large areas with plants and try to put them together in a way that creates … a sort of natural look, using a lot of grasses that look good after flowering. The seedheads, the skeletons and the structure that is left after flowering is always part of my approach.

“It’s like a stage play. You need plants, like the principal actors, to create the main role, but you need all the other people to create the play. It’s a performance in which you need all the characters together to make it work.”

Source: theguardian.com