Even to the non-gardening massive, the name Piet Oudulf will ring bells. The great Dutch landscape designer has worked on many famous schemes from New York’s High Line to England’s Wisley and is admired for his wild, naturalistic style. Current projects include a new Maggie’s Centre at south London’s The Royal Marsden, and roof gardens both for Goldman Sachs’ London HQ and the Singer Laren museum and concert hall in The Netherlands. His own garden and nursery in Hummelo, also in The Netherlands, which opens to the public each summer, has long been a place for his fans to flock to. But this year marks the last time it will admit visitors. For those of us who can’t visit, the book Hummelo: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life offers enough insights and, of course, colour ideas to satisfy – alongside many of Piet Oudolf’s other projects. It’s written by Piet’s friend, the garden author Noel Kingsbury.
Both artist and gardener, Piet is known for his aversion to deadheading, preferring to let the shapes of seed pods and stalks add architectural interest and elegance to his schemes. This inevitably has an effect on the colours present – the dried earthy browns and reds of plants as they fizzle out continuing to add to Piet’s gardens in winter, the seeming absence of colour adding a different dynamic.
The designer is also regarded as the man who made grasses fashionable and has said, “my biggest inspiration is nature. I do not want to copy it but to recreate the emotion.” We love the way his planting uses height to create graduating tones and how the flower beds avoid being too pretty or tasteful owing to the lack of manicuring.
An important figure of the Dutch Wave and New Perennial Style movements in garden design – which put ecological considerations at the heart of gardening – Piet set up his office for garden design in 1977 with his wife Anja before moving to Hummelo to start their own nursery. They have always used Hummelo as their test bed, to pardon the pun, trying out many of their design ideas here as well as creating new varieties of perennials. The couple closed their nursery after 28 years, opting to focus solely on design.
Piet has noted of their gardens that, “sometimes it works because the colours match very well,” and true, there are beautiful combinations at play in all of their work. Try lipstick reds with pretty lilacs, vibrant yellows to offset pinks and plenty of blonde grasses in between to get the look.
“He led the way to today’s importance of sustainability in garden design,” writes Noel Kingsbury in the book. Piet’s style is inspired by nature, rather than seeking to control it and his placing of plant masses seem to enhance each of his designs, no matter how small. Another tip to take away – the designer usually avoids short-lived annuals in favor of perennials that bring structure and blooms every season.
Below, one of the flower beds at Hummelo contains gorgeous lolly-pop style Echinops – photographed for the book when in bloom, but also as they have died off.
The effect of the shapes and textures given by this plant even when its mouth-watering lilac colour has gone, should be enough to keep you away from the pruning clippers.
Hummelo: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life is published by The Monacelli Press.