Piet Oudolf in Chicago

Last night Judy and I went to a lecture given by the noted author, plantsman and garden designer Piet Oudolf. The talk was sponsored by the Lurie Garden, which is appropriate because the Lurie was Oudolf’s first commission in North America.

Piet Oudolf speaking at the Chicago Cultural Center on Thusday night.
Piet Oudolf speaking at the Chicago Cultural Center on Thusday night.

The presentation was an overview of his career starting with the creation of his nursery in Hummelo, the Netherlands. It included  slides of Lurie, the High Line in NYC, and other public and private gardens he has worked on. I really can’t summarize what was said, but here are a few things I took away from the experience.

Oudolf’s designs are inspired by nature and its outer forms (eg, types and shapes of plants), but do not seek to replicate a particular natural environment as it existed prior to human intervention.

The High Line in New York City is one of the gardens Piet Oudolf helped design.
The High Line in New York City is one of the gardens Piet Oudolf helped design.

He believes in “skills, not rules”. In his career, the foremost skill has been the ability to work with plants to create a desired effect. This entails a knowledge of how those plants will behave over time in a variety of environments. This is a highly complex topic requiring years of experience and never fully learned.

Starting early in his career, Oudolf wanted to get beyond the traditional English garden. He had several reasons: a desire for gardens with less control, for giving more attention to garden ecology and less to gardens as  “decoration”, etc. Primarily, though, he wanted to do something creative that “came from the inside”, and for him “plants are a medium of self-expression.”

Lurie Garden
Lurie Garden in late October. Oudolf sees the beauty of plants in all seasons.

Oudolf gave an interesting account of working on the High Line in New York City. As with the Lurie Garden, he was brought in to collaborate with other designers and architects. His role was to develop the plant palette and fit those plants together. The architects provided him with a narrative for each section of the High Line, and that enabled him to choose which plants were right.

Maintenance and properly trained staff are critically important for public gardens. This includes being able to assess the performance of plants and decide which species should be removed or introduced. He mentioned, for example, that Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) and Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) needed to be removed from Lurie because they were just too aggressive, even though they were wonderful plants.

The High Line again. Oudolf relied on a narrative from the architects to pick the plant combinations for each section.
The High Line again. Oudolf relied on a narrative from the architects to pick the plant combinations for each section.

The cost of maintenance reinforces a more informal approach. Instead of staking a leaning plant, we develop an appreciation of the “elegance” of its relaxed lines. This is one point on which I take issue with Oudolf – leaning plants may be elegant in a big setting like Lurie, but in my home garden I believe in staking.

After the lecture we had dinner and went to a premier showing of a new documentary about the landscape designer Jens Jensen, who pioneered prairie-style landscapes in parks and gardens. That, however, will be covered in another post.



43 Comments on “Piet Oudolf in Chicago”

  1. Sounds like a brilliant evening. I have admired his work at The High Line and Lurie Garden. It is an impressive expression of horticultural art. I like a balance somewhere between organized and carefree. It is interesting that rattlesnake master has become too aggressive. I have one plant and have been waiting for it to spread.

  2. The High Line….you’ve walked it? We squeezed in one last trip to NYC to see it just before moving south. If I remember correctly the last section will be complete this fall.
    There’s a similar project underway in Philly that sounds absolutely enormous in scope and when it comes to fruition I’m planning a weekend trip around it. check it out at VIADUCTgreene.org

  3. Thanks for sharing this, it’s fascinating. I love the HIgh Line in NYC. Walked the length last summer when it was unbearably hot, but it’s a wonderful space – wish it had been there when I lived in NYC decades ago. It’s exciting to see these creative urban garden spaces.

  4. What a fantastic experience! must say I’m a bit jealous as I really admire Oudolf’s gardens and often find myself gazing at photos of them for inspiration. How lucky you are to have seen some of his work in person and then to hear him speak about how he created them.

  5. Bet it was very inspiring. I like his approach and incorporate some of his ideas but the planting he usually does is on a completely different scale and this has to be kept in mind as a lot with small gardens go out thinking they can make an Oudolf garden and are disappointed afterwards.

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