I have long been a fan of the garden designs of Piet Oudolf, in my opinion, the world’s leading perennial garden designer. I have been fortunate enough to see many of them in person. Last summer, I actually visited his home and gardens in the Netherlands and could see how his design philosophy has changed from large swaths of a particular plant to intermingling and feathering of them.
His newest book, Planting: A New Perspective ,written with Noel Kingsbury, an English designer and environmentalist, illustrates their bent toward a more naturalistic style that emphasizes plant ecology and performance as well as beauty and more than one season of interest. Their designs utilize long-lived perennials and woodies that are biodiverse and sustainable in that they minimize mown lawn and unnecessary pruning while offering resources and homes for wildlife.
The introduction looks at the most recent landscape trends which tend to be technologically and engineering oriented, i.e. the green roof, water management, biofiltration, and spontaneous vegetation on chemically polluted land. What these trends have in common is that plant communities are being mingled instead of being planted as large masses. Since this means more competition among plants, greater knowledge of ecological issues and long term performance is crucial.
Most of the text was written by Noel Kingsbury although his words enunciate the thoughts and philosophies of both of them. The text of Chapter Four on long term plant performance is derived from Kingsbury’s doctoral thesis at SheffieldUniversity. Of great help are his discussions of longevity and survival strategies as well as long term plant performance indicators. The gorgeous photographs, most of them taken by Piet, make me want to immerse myself in these landscapes.
This new philosophy of garden design creates a tension between balance and disorder and challenges us to design something that looks spontaneous yet has some order to it and that can and will change. In addition, we need to know how to renovate this type of garden as it ages; some species dominate and others die out. We also need to be aware of the necessity of ongoing maintenance.
Particularly in residential front yards, such complex gardens need to be acceptable to the “common man”. This means that the design must use an array of structural plants, not relying on color alone, so that the planting does not read as “messy”. There is no quicker way to a ruling by a zoning commission that the planting is not acceptable and must be removed.
Very helpful is the chapter on grouping plants. Included is a historical perspective. Plants are divided into three categories: matrix, primary, and scatter and the combination of text, photographs, and planting plans is most illustrative. The following chapter discusses how plant combinations are the building blocks of planting design and the importance of the visual aspects of the plants we use, structure much more so than color. This is the first time that I’ve seen the 70/30% rule specified, i.e. 70% structural perennials and only 30% filler perennials. Many other factors are discussed; all are important and there are examples of combinations for each season.
Chapter Five is a survey of contemporary, naturalistic planting designs created on three continents with illustrative photos and graphs (that also appear in other chapters) of the range of seasonal interest in these designs.
The last part of the book is a plant directory in graph form that lists the majority of the plants used by Piet. Easy to use, it denotes height, spread and spreading ability, architectural and foliage characters, bloom time, longevity, persistence being whether plants die out in the center, tendency to self-sow, habitat, zone, and additional notes.
Any gardener interested in more naturalistic landscapes needs to read and then savor this book.
Oudolf, Piet and Kingsbury, Noel, Planting: A New Perspective, Timber Press, Portland, 2013, $39.95.