When gardeners plan trips to the Netherlands, one of the main reasons is usually Piet Oudolf’s garden in Hummelo. Given that he is one of the most prominent designers today, it’s no wonder that the gardening masses flock to see what he has created in his own backyard (or actually front yard).Needless to say, I am no different and have been planning a trip there since arriving in Belgium. When I finally found myself on the way to his gardens this past September, my expectations were soaring. But with high expectations also comes the risk of disappointment. What if Oudolf’s garden wasn’t quite as amazing as I was hoping it to be? What if after all the pictures I’d seen and books I’d read, it would just be old news? It’s terrible to be let down by your heroes, and I’m easily disappointed by gardens that I build up too much in my mind.
Well, luckily for me and everyone else, Oudolf did not disappoint. In fact, it’s quite amazing that even with all of the preconceived ideas and advance knowledge, his garden still managed to impress. In broad terms, Oudolf’s main theme is the use of grasses and large perennials (especially North American prairie species) in a loose style designed to “inspire a feeling of nature”. It sounds and looks fairly straightforward, but it’s a hard style to replicate, or at least to replicate well.
In his design and planting philosophy, he advocates shape, form and texture first, and has proposed that colour is only secondary. Ironically, I found colour to be one of the most stunning elements in the garden. Colour inspires the strongest and most immediate response in humans, and Oudolf does it so well I find it hard to believe it was left to secondary consideration. Of course it’s all in the presentation, so it’s all about how the colour is communicated to the viewer. It’s the texture of the colour, combined with shape and form, which create the stunning overall effect.
The main area of his garden, which was redone recently to fully reflect his mature style, is the best of the garden (and it’s where all the pictures are from!). Fully enclosed by hedging, and punctuated by his now trademark curved hedges, it is filled to the brim with grasses and perennials. The impression is that of a continuous sea of planting where you are completely immersed in plants but not oppressed by them – it’s a floating feeling rather than a sheltered one. Oudolf has described being strongly impressed by the North American prairie, where in late summer you can be fully surrounded by swaying perennials and grasses towering above your head. I think this is recognizable in his garden, which manages to evoke a similar sensation even if the scale is much smaller.
In addition to this main garden space and the garden leading into it from the old house (with some diagonal design elements, lawn and hedging), there is the nursery maintained by his wife Anja. If I had a garden in Belgium, restraint would have been impossible, especially because the prices seemed very reasonable. Unfortunately, given our current apartment situation, I was just left salivating. Even here, without any planned design, the mix of plants is still beautiful. I suppose it’s another testament to Oudolf’s philosophy - when the form and texture of the plants is right, the overall results will be pleasing.