If you’ve ever marveled at the perfectly nature-filled landscaping at the High Line in New York City, then you’ve experienced the magnificent work of Piet Oudolf. The work of the Dutch garden designer and author was first introduced to the public at the Lurie Garden in Chicago in 2003, and ever since the world has been smitten with his ecologically-precise, artistically crafted landscaping. Oudolf is the leading figure of the New Perennial movement (which we’ll get into shortly), making him a king among magnolias and a guiding light for professional and home gardeners alike. At HNY, Piet Oudolf is both a landscaping icon and an embodiment of our greater design ethos. Although our medium is interiors, it’s all about being perfectly imperfect, about letting life choose the placements while we choose the color palette, and about allowing a moment to become a movement.
Piet Oudolf’s naturalistic approach to gardening takes cues from architectural design, while prioritizing the life cycle of every plant he places in the very many gardens he’s worked on. His projects include: Hauser & Wirth in Bruton Somerset (2013), Battery Park in NYC (2003), the Toronto Botanical Garden (2006), and of course, the iconic High Line (2006). Fully appreciating Piet Oudolf’s work starts with an understanding of the New Perennial Movement. (If you’re a professional in the plant community and well-versed in its various movements, you can of course skip this part.)
THE NEW PERENNIAL MOVEMENT
The New Perennial Movement is an evolution of the Dutch Wave Garden (where plants are used that are worthwhile all year round) and the New American Garden (where plants are free to ebb and flow in more natural courses than more classic landscaping trends). Using a huge number of perennials, grasses, and plants that at least appear natural to the native surroundings, the New Perennial Movement includes layering plants with tight spacing in a garden that grows back year after year.
Drawing on inspiration from natural plant communities, the New Perennial Movement benefits local pollinators, creates its own habitat, and plays well with the contemporary innovations of green infrastructure. Central to this movement is sustainability and longevity: this garden is meant to grow and regrow indefinitely, with its entire life cycle considered in its planting, rejecting the belief that gardens should appear heavily manicured. Instead, they should reflect nature in its truest, purest form. The beautiful thing about perennials (alongside, you know, the literal visual beauty of these flowers) is that they never go out of style. Like a great neutral placemat or a set of linen bedding, creating your garden around perennials guarantees a certain timelessness that annuals simply can’t. Landscapers who follow the New Perennial movement take cues from natural plant patterns, creating an incomparable landscape motif for the ages.
IN FAVOR OF PUBLIC ACCESS
This style of gardening has put Piet Oudolf on the map with his undulating waves of grasses and flowers, making their mark on cities all over the world. But one crucial facet of Piet Oudolf’s work that often goes unaddressed is its focus on accessibility. Piet has worked on a large number of public gardens, meaning the general public has near constant access to appreciating his work.
“In cities, so many people don’t have access to nature,” Piet says. “Either they don’t have the money to travel outside the city, or if they can afford it, they go on holiday to places where plants are not so important. To do [gardens] in the city, and especially in public space, it makes people ‘meet’ with things they probably would not have otherwise met.”
Especially true in communities of color, access to nature is often a luxury but thankfully, Piet Oudolf has brought this luxury to their backyards with projects like the Oudolf Garden Detroit. Run entirely by volunteers, over 35,000 locally grown perennials were curated into a community garden on Belle Isle in Detroit, which opened in 2021. Having always wanted to go to Detroit, Piet Oudolf leaped at the opportunity to design this garden after The Garden Club of Michigan sent him a letter gauging his interest in an urban garden in the city. Just like with his work at the High Line, the Oudolf Garden Detroit brings a resurgence of nature and plant life into many people’s lives, which don’t typically include run-ins with undulating waves of grasses and perennials. Although we recommend experiencing a Piet Oudolf garden in person at some point in your life (if you haven’t already), you don’t have to visit an Oudolf garden to reap the benefits of the New Perennial Movement.
Bringing the features of this style into your own home garden is easier than you’d think. Here are 5 different ways you can make your garden look like a Piet Oudolf original.
HOW TO ACHIEVE A PIET OUDOLF GARDEN
1. Think about all four seasons
Oudolf chooses plants for their shape and texture, as well as their blooms. Consider how your plants, stripped bare, can and will become architectural points in your garden after they’ve bloomed. In short: embrace decay instead of attempting to keep things in their most flourishing form. Start your garden by planting perennials and grasses that thrive in your USDA Hardiness Zone and avoid perennials that will “collapse into mush with the first hard frost,” as Oudolf says. After your flowers inevitably wither, leave them in place instead of trimming them back. The sturdy stalks and dried seed pods will stand up to the cold weather and coated in the white snow, will shine in a new, ethereal light.
2. Don’t pass on grass
Grasses are a crucial part of the New Perennial style and can be used to set the tone of your garden, giving it a romantic feel and an artful backdrop for the rest of your plant. It’s also a forgiving look, so you don’t need to worry too much about placing them perfectly. When choosing grasses, we love Deschampsia Cespitosa “Goldtau” and Stipa Tenuissima “Mexican feather grass”.
3. The 70-30 rule
According to Oudolf, perennials fall into two categories: structure and filler plants. Structure plants bring visual interest “until autumn at least” while filler plants are used for their foliage color “becoming formless or even untidy after mid-summer.” In your own garden, allot about 70% of your space for structure plants and your remaining 30% for filler plants. For the structure category, it’s nice to have repeat bloomers or long-season perennials and grasses. On the perennial side, some lovely, tried and true options are Stella de Oro Daylilies, Russian sage, and Fringed bleeding hearts.
4. Consider the context
Don’t forget, this gardening style is all about nature and mindfulness, but we don’t recommend planting native species just for the sake of having them. Instead, combine species that will support wildlife effectively, creating biodiversity in your own backyard. When choosing your plants, ask yourself how the birds, butterflies, bees, and other creatures native to your surroundings will respond to these inclusions.
5. Layer smarter, not harder
After seeing the waves of grasses and plants in an Oudolf garden, you might feel emboldened to include layers, and layers, and layers of different species. Resist that urge as much as you can. Piet Oudolf says a simple two or three layer set up is surely enough. When setting up your layers, keep in mind the interaction between the background and the foreground to create specific visual focal points throughout your garden.
THE WRAP UP
Whether it’s a new garden or an existing space that needs a little sprucing up, it might help to think like Piet Oudolf. Think in broad strokes, imagine both the past and the future, and tap into your tried-and-true wabi sabi mentality. Bring the same design energy of timeless neutrals and pops of life from the indoors to the outdoors. And don’t worry about being a copycat: even if your neighbor also read this entry and is Piet-ifying their backyard garden, you’ll both end up with entirely different spaces, infused with the energy of your native surroundings but executed in beautifully unique styles. By providing you with the tools to grow your own way, you’ll find beauty in even the most unlikely, out of season, sculptural-branch-laden places.