Garden Diary - March 2021

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Hummelo, A Journey Through a Plantsman's Life, a book review
March 2021

Where - or should that be how - does someone develop their garden style. What are the influences that enable them to create gardens that resonate with others. This is the story of Piet Oudolf. First published in in 2015, co-author Noel Kingsbury points out that in the years since then Piet Oudolf's body of work has continued to expand.

photo credit Piet Oudolf
Hummelo, A Journey Through a Plantsman's Life

Key words to ponder: naturalistic, local native species, habitats, urban landscape design, gardens as agents of change. Habitats, the places where plants grow. The plants may be local in origin, or those that find conditions to their liking even if not their origin. Urban areas are artificial constructs of masonry and pavement, making plants and gardens especially precious. Tastes change, and the more removed we become from nature in daily life, the greater the appeal of a garden designed to provide an intimation of nature = naturalistic.

Beginning and concluding in Hummelo, the first section of the book offers background of gardens and gardeners that inspired, informed, and educated Piet Oudolf. His interest began with gardens in the Netherlands, and influence of other, earlier plantsmen such as Ernst Pagels, and Karl Foerster of Germany (whose work with North American native plants gave us such popular cultivars as Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'.) Influencers today are twittering with little sound bites. Plants and gardens change with the seasons, requiring a more in depth evaluation for a true understanding to be acquired. Thus it is with Hummelo, where Piet Oudolf established his own garden, trialed different plants, made combinations, and observed what worked.

The book's next section details Oudolf's developing recognition as a garden designer. Meetings with like minded landscape designers such as James van Sweeden and Wolfgang Oehme of OvS. Fascinating trips to explore plants and habitats - hellebores in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia for example. An aside: as a method of presenting specific information throughout the book - concise biographies of other plantsmen, the technique of "scatter plants" - such text is printed on a soft pink ground which sets it aside from the white of the main body of text. They are also indicated in the table of contents with italicized text.

This all lays the foundation - dare I say "prepares the soil" for the last portion of the book which discusses evolution of his design style and various international commissions.

photo credit Jason Ingram
This is the garden of art dealers Hauser and Worth, who created an art gallery
near Bruton, Somerset in southwestern England, which opened in 2013. It is
accessible to the public, and even helpfully located near a railroad station.

photo credit Piet Oudolf
The Lurie garden in Chicago, Illinois incorporates several native grasses with the perennial forbs.

There are several Oudolf-designed gardens in New York City. Arguable the most well known are the Gardens of the High Line, which have made changes to the local community.

photo credit Piet Oudolf

The railroad bed had decayed to the point where it could not accommodate visitors. Plants had come - wind blown seed, seed dispersed by birds - green grows the grass. To quote from the book: "Piet had been impressed by the richness of the High Line's volunteer vegetation. Unfortunately, none of it could not be retained for the final park . . . The visual challenge in creating a planting scheme for the High Line was to evoke what was there before and thus retain its history."

Slender trunks of white birch are planted to appear as if
they came in as volunteers, here in the railroad track bed.

I made a visit to the High Line on a beautiful sunny autumn day in October 2017.
Slowly walking from one end to the other, always open to the sky. Sometimes

it was like being a canyon walled by cliff-dweller buildings.
This vignette of heavily berried ilex - clearly pollinators had
found the flowers. And city birds find the seeds and berries.

One of the attributes of his gardens that I especially enjoy is the focus not merely on flowering but on all seasons of a plant's growth. Here, butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, has opened a pod for the silken seeds to float away on a breeze. After all, plants are up and growing for much longer than they are in flower.

My first visit to Hummelo was in September 1992. I was in the Netherlands to do research for my next book, The American Gardener's World of Bulbs. My friend Carla Teune, hortulana of the Leiden Botanic Garden, was kind enough to host me, and gracious enough to see that we also made enjoyable garden visits. One was to Hummelo, where I met Piet Oudolf and his wife Anja. I have marvellous memories of a leisurely stroll around the garden and the delicious lunch the four of us shared, outdoors. There was another visit to Hummelo in 2002, year of the Floriade, when the International Stauden-Union (International Hardy Plant Union) held its annual meeting in the Netherlands.

The next time we met was in 2008, when he came to the New York Botanical Garden.

for the opening of the Four Season Border that he had designed.
It was November, a good time to have dirty hands, planting bulbs.

Other people, traveling down the garden path, admire Piet Oudolf's garden designs which also teach and surely inspire their thoughts about creating their own gardens. Hummelo, a Journey Through a Plantsman's Life is profusely illustrated, even includes a few of his planting plans. It is an excellent means of exploring his life, work, and home garden. Pressure of multiple visitors, both by car and by bus, has made the closure of Hummelo to visitors a necessity.

Hummelo, A Journey Through a Plantsman's Life
by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury
published by The Monacelli Press, a division of Phaidon Press
Paperback, ISBN: 978-158093-570-8
published 2021, $40.00

A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

UPDATE: Thursday, 25 March 2021
There was an interesting webinar this morning, featuring an hour long conversation between Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury. As they discussed the back story of Piet's career and gardens he has designed there was a loop of images that displayed gardens he has designed. Take-aways I gathered (in nine pages of notes!)


  • plants are more than flowers, the texture they provide is equally important

  • with an image of a garden with perennials going to seed, grasses, etc, "Forty years ago we would be saying "Mow it down." Now we say "How long can we keep it."

  • Piet is thought of as someone who does open, meadow / grassland gardens but he also does woodlands. Trees are the first thing to think of. Piet is a garden designer, not just a perennial gardener.

  • He does not - most emphatically - like over-bred, over-fed hybrids. Using the most boring things in an interesting way is a good challenge. For an example he mentioned the garden he designed, with single dahlias planted in among grasses.

  • Many, many American plants have long been used in European gardens. Their native plants are strong in spring but not so much in summer and fall, where the American grassland prairies are rich with beautiful plants.

  • Aggressive plants? Better a beautiful weed than an aggressive ugly perennial. Put aggressive plants in places where you don't want to garden. Put aggressive plants together. They can fight, but neither wins.

  • Plants purchased at nurseries - he prefers to use plugs, quart, or 4-inch pot size, not larger.

  • Self seeding - will not compete with established plants but will weave in and out.

  • Annuals can be useful in a new garden, where there is room / spaces to fill.

    The webinar concluded with some questions from attendees that Noel read to Piet:

  • If you were on a desert island and could have only 5 plants, which would you choose? Piet's answer - It would depend on how you can garden.
    Another question

  • Would you consider using vegetables? Piet responded that this is fashionable now. But vegetables are annuals. Perhaps herbs, like sage. Or a fruit forest . . .

    If you order Oudolf Hummelo directly, you can use the code HUMMELO20 at checkout for 20% off your purchase. Monacelli Press titles are distributed by Penguin Random House. Titles may be ordered by e-mailing customer service or call 1-800-733-3000.

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