Book Review: Hummelo, by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury
Chicago’s Lurie Garden and New York City’s High Line are two of the most popular gardens in North America, yet they would be barely recognizable as “gardens” just three decades ago.
Piet Oudolf, a designer for both those gardens, is one of the pivotal figures in this shift.
He is not a landscape architect but a Dutch plant breeder and garden designer who brought a fresh eye to what makes a plant garden-worthy. This book is named after the plant nursery and home where he grew many of the perennials he introduced or promoted.
Hummelo follows his career from small scale garden designer to international acclaim.
The style that Oudolf is associated with is difficult to define or even name. Many call it the New Perennial Style, which Kingsbury describes as “looser, more romantic, and above all more natural”. It is a style that has “ecological considerations at its base.”
(A side note: despite the book’s cover, Hummelo is clearly about Oudolf but by Kingsbury. The two have collaborated with each other for many years. If Kingsbury has no problem with this then I don’t either, as Kingsbury is a good writer and Oudolf reportedly is not.)
Oudolf is the first to acknowledge that while his gardens look natural they are in fact man-made artifices – what he calls “enhanced nature”. He emphasizes the use of plants that show “resilience and longevity” – plants that are able to thrive with less labor and water and little to nothing in the way of fertilizer and pesticides.
His designs emphasize more about plant shapes – “spires, buttons, globes, plumes, structure and filler plants”, as well as “the play of light, movement, harmony, and control” – and less about color.
This is in contrast to traditional perennial gardening, which Kingsbury says “has largely been about growing a relatively small number of high-intensity ‘flower-power’ plants”.
While Oudolf may deprecate color, his designs are not above giving the people what the want, as with the “River of Salvia”. These are gorgeous drifts of Salvia first tried in a Swedish public park and then replicated in Chicago’s Lurie Garden.
I enjoyed Kingsbury’s account of Oudolf’s early professional life, how his ideas were shaped by Dutch wildflower parks, the landscape architect Mien Ruys, and the German plant breeder Karl Foerster. Oudolf’s ideas also developed in the context of “back-to-the-land” and environmental movements – though Oudolf himself is decidedly not a hippie.
Also interesting and helpful are discussions of the evolution of Oudolf’s planting style, which is both eclectic and continually evolving. This has included planting in blocks, intermingling, and “matrix planting” in which ornamental perennials emerge from matrices of low-growing grasses such as Prairie Dropseed (Sporobulus heterolepis).
It is a mark of his influence that Oudolf recently closed his nursery in part because so many others had started to grow plants that he had grown at Hummelo because they were so hard to obtain.
Throughout all of this, a portrait emerges of Oudolf as someone who is blunt and unpretentious, happy to exchange ideas, experimental and highly creative. These qualities shaped his success but also make his work difficult to define. As one of his assistants says: “His style is intuitive … as soon as you think you understand something he comes up with something new.”