Book Review: Planting, a New Perspective; by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury

Planting is one of the most provocative and useful books about garden design that I have ever come across. While it is full of ideas that home gardeners may want to borrow, it is not a how-to book about a specific approach to garden design. Rather, it is a discussion of a general trend, a trend toward landscapes that minimize maintenance while creating a sense of nature in environments dominated by people.

Planting a new perspective by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury

Oudolf and Kighsbury discuss both practical and aesthetic reasons for why this trend exists. On the one hand there is a need in public spaces to reduce maintenance costs (some designs are intended to receive no maintenance beyond only one or two mowings per year). Also, people want open spaces to serve ecological functions, from handling storm water to providing habitat for birds and insects.

Increasingly, gardens that possess qualities we associate with nature appeal to our sense of beauty. This may be a result of the rapid disappearance of the world’s truly wild spaces. I suspect this is the most powerful force behind this movement.

Even more than in the past, Oudolf emphasizes the structural roles of plants. This is clear by the authors’ categories, for purposes of design, of “primary”, “matrix”, and “scatter” plants. Matrix plants are low mounds, such as hardy geranium or Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica), that provide a background or filler function. Primary plants provide the bulk of the visual impact, which may be enhanced with grouping. Scatter plants may be placed at random to provide accents and add to the sense of spontenaiety.

Geranium 'Johnson's Blue'
Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’, your basic filler plant.

These categories, though useful, are somewhat arbitrary. For instance, the authors identify wild indigo (Baptisia australis) as a scatter plant, but I have seen it massed as a “primary plant”.  In any case, the goal is to combine these plants densely so that they interweave themselves into an organic whole that is self-supporting (no stakes) and resistant to weeds.

In another part of the book, the authors talk of matrix plants as “filler” plants, while primary and scatter plants are “structure” plants. Structure plants must provide visual interest (from something other than color) from summer into autumn at least. As in previous books, there is a discussion of how the shapes and architecture of plants creates visual interest. Oudolf and Kingsbury cite a general rule that structure plants should make up 70% of any planting.

You can't get much more structural than Joe Pye Weed.
You can’t get much more structural than Joe Pye Weed.

Planting in monocultural drifts or blocks is mildly denigrated in favor of “interplanting”, even to the point of attempting pure randomness through designed seed mixes. On this point I must dissent. I for one will not give up my drifts and blocks, which are essential for visual impact, especially in a smaller garden, and which can look quite natural. Would Piet Oudolf tear up his own River of Salvia in the Lurie garden? Perish the thought.

2013-06-06 14.19.24
Talk all you want about the benefits of interplanting, I will not give up the Lurie Garden’s River of Salvia.

Not that I am against spontaneity. The authors suggest that garden designers and gardeners should creatively manage and adapt as plants spread and emerge unexpectedly, rather than try to keep their gardens static. I entirely agree with this, but it is a lesson many amateur home gardeners learned long ago.

Related to this, there is a discussion in Planting that is far too often missing from books on garden design: namely, that a plant’s longevity and tendency to spread must be incorporated into any garden design, especially one that purports to be sustainable. This seems like common sense, but it is too often ignored.

Baptiisia australis, Blue Wild Indigo
Wild indigo – primary or scatter, it’s a nice plant.

Oudolf and Kingsbury put a high value on native plants, but they are emphatic about combining natives with other plants that fit the needs of the design – structural, ecological, and aesthetic. They point out that people are also part of the garden ecology, and because of this gardens must be beautiful.

Those who want ideas for specific plant combinations will find this book useful, as several pages are devoted to favorite combinations for each of the seasons. And if you simply want to gaze at photos of really gorgeous gardens, you can buy this beautifully illustrated book and simply ignore the text.

But that would be an awful waste. This is perhaps not the right book for a beginning gardener. However, if you are the kind of gardener who likes to think about design, I would suggest that this is a book you will want to read more than once.



34 Comments on “Book Review: Planting, a New Perspective; by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury”

  1. Great commentary on a book I would love to read. I fell in love with Piet Oudolf’s design aesthetics when I saw images of his Millennium Garden in the UK. I agree that we should not abandon our planting blocks, but what I got from reading about the Millennium Garden was that the drifts of color should interweave with each other. Personally, I think that complete randomness should be reserved for meadow gardens or other wild-like areas.

  2. Very interesting post. When a particular species takes hold in a wild space, isn’t that somewhat drift-like? It seems to me several wild areas I have been to almost appear to have grown in drifts, although on a much larger scale. It probably has more to do with soil and habitat variation but still I’m with you on the appeal of drifts.

  3. I agree with you entirely about not abandoning planting in blocks especially in the smaller garden otherwise what you are left with is frankly a mess! On the larger scale planting in blocks that are broken by scatter plants can be exciting. This is a stunning beautiful book with essential reading for anyone interested in the current trends in planting design.

  4. One of your best posts – so thoughtful! I may try to get this from the library. WHile I appreciate Outdolf’s contributions, I couldnt live with one of his designs. A little like my appreciation for Picasso – I admire the skill and the genius but I wouldnt be happy with it on my wall. While I find a drift an exciting concept, I could never be content with using just a few plants – and when you have a smaller property that’s what is possible – one drift and you hit the driveway at my house!

    • I do think it is beautiful year round but you have to plan for each season. The Lurie Garden I think provides a good example of this. As for the typical gardener with an urban or suburban plot, I think they can adapt some of Oudolf’s approaches. Most would probably not want to, as this is too different from standard practice today. But standards change. I think there are very few homeowners who would fill their yard with a random mix of flowers and grasses. And few would want a meadow garden that just gets mowed once or twice a year. I wouldn’t want it myself. But a looser style with plants packed in more closely, mixing mounding perennials and low grasses with more structural plants is something that appeals to me and I think at least a significant minority. It’s pretty close to what I do right now. Of course, this is not really a low-maintenance garden when planted in the home landscape. If I were to design a garden for someone who wanted to minimize maintenance, I would focus on dwarf and compact woody plants and low grasses.

      • I think it’s crucial to mix this type of planting with strong, structural plants. Of course the Lurie Garden looks stunning but then it’s on a grand scale too and this is part of the fascination. I’m just a little sad when gardening -like fashion- goes from one extreme to the next and a lot of the time, sadly, people copy certain styles thus loosing their individuality in the process which is such an important part of making a successful garden. My approach is very similar to yours.

  5. I bought this book last year wheen it first came out and absolutely love it. I have all of his books. He also designed a garden at Midwest Groundcovers in St. Charles, although it has been somewhat modified over the years. but it’s worth the drive out here to see.
    It’s taken Europeans, in particular from Holland and Germany (Oudolf, Van Sweden, & Oehme), to see the beauty of Midwestern native plants and now even prairie-like in design and construction. I love it!

  6. I have heard Oudolf lecture and his landscape philosophy is interesting, but it is geared more for larger properties I think. Like Annette mentioned, the principles are difficult to incorporate on tiny city lots for instance – even on larger properties as well. Painting the landscape with a broad brush works best with the space to do it.

  7. Interesting post, especially about planting in drifts. I was just telling myself I needed to do that more, to improve my garden’s [non-existent] design, when I heard someone very knowledgeable going on and on about how mass plantings were bad because they invite disease and cause it to spread like mad. You just can’t please anyone these days.

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