Book Review: Designing with Plants, by Piet Oudolf with Noel Kingsbury

This is a book that should be read slowly. The writing is certainly clear and accessible, but the text is dense with thought-provoking insights on garden design. The insights are illustrated with  gorgeous photographs that merit close study. Designing with Plants is more of a meditation on garden design, rather than a how-to book. But those meditations are well worth the gardener’s time, coming as they do from the famous Dutch garden designer who has given us magnificent green spaces such as Chicago’s Lurie Garden.

The insight that left the greatest impression on me was the importance of plant shape. Like many others, I tend to think of gardens primarily in terms of color. Oudolf counsels against this: “Structure is the most important component in a successful planting; color is important too, but it is a secondary consideration” – because it is temporary, and because structure provides the context for color.

The authors provide a classification scheme for types of plant shapes. They discuss how differently or similarly shaped plants can be combined, and how combinations of shapes interact with complementary and contrasting colors.

Spires and buttons: Brown Eyed Susan and Anise Hyssop in my garden. Shapes first, then colors, says Oudolf.

The tone of the writing is contemplative rather than didactic or evangelical, and I appreciated that. Oudolf recognizes that what is beautiful in the garden is subjective and based in emotion, and he encourages gardeners to avoid rigid rules.

Oudolf’s designs are natural-looking rather than “natural” in the sense of using only indigenous plants. He praises native plants as well as plants generally that remain in or are close to their wild state. His primary goal, however, is to use whatever perennials work to create gardens that are full and abundant, generally relaxed in tone, and visually effective. In this book he discusses other important but frequently ignored aspects of garden design such as light, movement, and mood.

Switchgrass ‘Northwind’. Oudolf is a big proponent of grasses for their ability to capture light and movement.

I did not agree with everything in Designing with Plants. For instance, mixed borders with perennials and woody plants are one of the few things that bring out Oudolf’s judgemental side. I myself would like to put more woody plants in my borders, in part because they are less work – no staking, fall or spring clean-up, or dividing. Oudolf argues that using more wild or near-wild perennials will reduce the work load, but in my experience that is true only to a limited extent.

Also, Oudolf tends to deal with larger spaces for his gardens, and I would have appreciated more of a focus on translating his ideas for smaller gardens.

Designing with Plants was fist published in 2000, so it is not a new book. Many people consider it something of a classic. I’m reluctant to call any book essential. I would say that, if they haven’t already read it, most gardeners who want to think more creatively about their gardens would find this book extremely valuable.

27 Comments on “Book Review: Designing with Plants, by Piet Oudolf with Noel Kingsbury”

  1. This is one of my favorite garden books, to be sure! I think his ideas about the shapes and structure of plants is one of the most useful things I took from it…and it’s totally influenced me from that point forward. LOVE Oudolf…but it is tricky to translate his ideas to smaller spaces. It’s not impossible…but it is challenging, to be sure. I think his Planting Design book (with Noel Kingsbury) is even more insightful…full of theory and abstract ideas…really interesting. I think that’s the thing I like most about Oudolf…his designs come from a place of honesty and emotion…it’s very visceral stuff.

    • I’ll check out that other book. The Lurie Garden has this “river of salvia”, a long stretch of thousands of plants that does indeed look like a river when in bloom. It was so breathtaking that I copied it to what scale I could – about 8′ long and 2.5′ wide. Not as overwhelmingly beautiful, but it works ok. Maybe someone should write a book: “Oudolf for the Home Gardener”.

  2. I have had this book for quite some time and have found it really useful, more of a reference book when I have been looking for plants to create a certain effect. I agree with you , that borders need a certain percentage of woody plants, otherwise what is there to look at in the winter?!

  3. It’s been on my wish list for a while, along with “Bringing Nature Home” by Doug Tallamy. My vision of a perfect garden would be a melding of Piet Oudolf’s design sensibility with Doug Tallamy’s advocacy for natives/wildlife-friendly gardens.

  4. I haven’t read this book, but would love to do so over the winter months. The Planting Design book (with Noel Kingsbury) that Scott mentions also sounds interesting. Light, movement, and mood are all aspects of gardening that I would like to consider more carefully.

  5. I really enjoyed this book, but I did find some of Oudolf’s judgments a bit bizarre. I remember being amazed by a statement that “everyone knows” pink and yellow color combinations just don’t work. What!! Has he never seen forsythia and daffodils blooming with flowering cherries and magnolias in spring??

  6. This is strange to admit…I’ve never read a garden book. It’s not that I’m averse; it just never occured to me. As you said in an above comment, “I think these are things we are aware of at almost a subconscious level,” Over the years I’ve planned and executed my gardening spaces in that same subconscious way.

    Now that you’ve brought it up, there must be lots written re: the theory and philosophy behind manipulating our outdoor environment…what book would you suggest I start with?

    • Really depends on the kind of gardening and the kind of book that you like. I guess I would start with Home Ground by Allen Lacey. This is a collection of essays on different aspects of gardening, and specifically his own garden. Lacey loves language as well as plants and has a sense of humor. It’s not a heavy duty theoretical book, I generally stay away from those. But it is stimulating and entertaining. Another writer you might like (I haven’t read her yet) is Elizabeth Lawrence, who gardened in North Carolina. (Lacey is a northerner, though he grew up in Texas.)

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