... and here at last, are some of my thoughts on Piet Oudolf-inspired gardens for Calgary, which I promised way back over a month ago...
I first became interested in Piet Oudolf’s garden designs when I saw pictures of some of his commissioned works in North America – the Battery Park Conservancy Gardens of Remembrance in New York, the Lurie Gardens at Millennium Park in Chicago, and the High line Gardens in New York City. If you look up these gardens or his home page online, you will see the pictures are stunning! Since then I’ve been studying two of his books written with Noel Kingsbury: Designing with Plants, and Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space. I highly recommend them.
Piet Oudolf’s garden design philosophy strikes me as perfect for Calgary gardens – it is inspired by nature and respects ecology. He uses wild plant communities as inspiration and sticks to plants with a “wild character”, meaning plants that have a natural proportion and – bonus! therefore do not require staking. (In other words, no peonies allowed!) He uses native species, although not exclusively, and considers biodiversity and ecological fit when designing his plantings. He also uses ornamental grasses extensively and designs for long seasons of interest – his gardens come into their own in fall and also look good in winter. With “sustainability” and “winter interest” being some of the buzz words in Calgary gardening these days, I’m sure we could all learn a thing or two from Piet Oudolf.
If you must have your tropical cannas and Japanese maples that you overwinter in your basement or heated garage, then Piet Oudolf-inspired design may not be for you. To be honest, I cannot claim to agree with everything he says as he echews roses (nothing can convince me to give up my shrub roses) and in fact tends not to use shrubs at all, since most tend to be amorphous shapes with little structure, and they do not change form dramatically in one season which is another aspect of his designs. But you can’t become a world-famous designer and establish your own unique style of design without being opinionated, right? He does use hedges as more formal borders and accents in a garden, but otherwise he sticks to naturalistic, low-maintenance perennials in combinations that will blow you away.
After we garden for a few years, we all start to realize that texture is important in garden design, rather than just flowers, flowers, flowers. Usually we think of leaf texture but Piet Oudolf takes this texture criterion to a higher level by making the form and structure of seed heads the most important aspect in choosing plants. He classifies plants by the shape of these seed heads, such as spires (digitalis, salvia, veronica, cimicifuga, liatris, verbascum), buttons and globes (echinops, monarda, astrantia, centaurea montana, allium), plumes (filipendula, solidago, thalictrum, persicaria, calamagrostis), umbels (angelica, phlox paniculata, lychnis, sedums, eupatorium, achillea), and daisies (echinacea, rudbeckia, asters). All of these plants are hardy in Calgary, by the way. As mentioned above, he also uses long-lasting plants with strong shapes that have good structure even after flowering, often well into winter. Leaf shape and texture is only the second consideration, and colour (flower or leaf) is the third.
What makes Piet Oudolf’s gardens so special is not only the plants that he chooses, but how he puts them together. A restricted number of plants are used in a space, and plants are intermingled with not only the macro effect in mind, but also the micro. In other words, the planting en masse is beautiful, but the details of contrast between two neighbouring plant groupings are also important. He avoids formality, preferring planting patterns that are not controlled or geometric, and ends up with a unique style, sometimes termed “New Wave”. I can only try to describe the quality his complex plantings have as a modern, stylized, sweeping force of nature.
If you do nothing but add a few drifts of the above-mentioned plants to your already existing garden, you will benefit from the beauty and low maintenance of the plants he uses. If you are looking to fill or renovate a larger area, then perhaps some of these combinations will be of inspiration to you:
- Astrantia major, astilbe and deschampsia cespitosa (tufted hair grass)
- Astrantia major, actaea simplex (these first two combinations are the only ones that will do well in partial shade)
- Eupatorium purpureum (joe pye weed), actea simplex (bugbane), deschampsia cespitosa, echinacea purpurea, astilbe
- Echinops ritro (globe thistle) and verbascum (mullein)
- Perovskia (Russian sage), Echinacea purpurea, helictrotrichon (blue oat grass), eryngium (sea holly)
- Purple sedum, deschampsia cespitosa, perovskia, nepeta (catmint), verbena bonariensis
- Digitalis (fox glove), monarda (bee balm), agastache foeniculum
- Eryngium (sea holly), salvia superba, pink achillea (yarrow)
- Astrantia major ‘Roma’, allium ‘Purple Sensation’
- Perovskia, liatris spicata, coreopsis, deschampsia cespitosa
- Astilbe, aster, sedum, persicaria (fleeceflower), deschampsia cespitosa
- Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, eupatorium purpureum, monarda, persicaria polymorpha
- Veronicastratum virginicum ‘Roseum’, echinops ritro, thalictrum polygamum (meadow rue), eupatorium purpureum
- Calamagrostis brachytricha, salvia superba, allium ‘Purple Sensation’
- Monarda, helenium, echinops ritro, persicaria amplexicaulis, achillea, hemerocallis, dianthus, stachys byzantine, nepeta racemosa
- Thalictrum polygamum, phlox paniculata, campanula lactiflora, persicaria, filipendula rubra
While most of the plants listed above bloom in summer or fall, there are also some early spring plants that Piet Oudolf uses to fill a garden in spring. In addition to spring-flowering bulbs, phlox divaricata, euphorbia, epimedium (bishop’s hat) and geraniums are all used for their toughness and beautiful spring flowers.
So, as you are planning the changes you want to make to your garden next year, why not consider a few of Piet Oudolf’s favoured plants? You can’t go wrong with these for low-maintenance, sustainable plants and for adding long seasons of interest to your garden.