A time to seek inspiration

Laetitia Sands
Posted 11/25/18

At this chilly time of year, with Thanksgiving and the winter holiday season approaching, gardening slows to a crawl for most of us. Yet even when confined indoors, the mind of many a gardener may …

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A time to seek inspiration


At this chilly time of year, with Thanksgiving and the winter holiday season approaching, gardening slows to a crawl for most of us. Yet even when confined indoors, the mind of many a gardener may wander along horticultural paths.

Indoors looking out, one can plan new ways of organizing the garden: Different spots for flower beds, an area devoted to hummingbird- or bee-enticing blossom, unusual vegetables to grow, a bed for native plants, trees and shrubs to remove, etc.

It’s also an excellent time to explore the ideas and creations of famous landscape designers. Their guiding principles and their gardens – whether viewed in person, online or in books – can be a source of inspiration for average Joe gardeners like you and me.

Piet Oudolf, a Dutch landscape designer who has created public gardens in Europe and the United States, is a case in point. On my to-do list for the coming year will be a visit to the Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek, Delaware, to see a meadow garden he’s designing there.

Oudolf’s gardens resemble a landscape crafted by Mother Nature, with no help from human hands. The colors are subtle, rather than knock-your-socks-off bright, and plants tend to be massed together, with lots of tall grasses on display. Throughout the year, even in the depth of winter, interesting features such as seed heads grab the eye.

“Seed heads are as important as color” to Oudolf, he remarked in a documentary about his work screened at the Chesapeake Film Festival last month. The gardening guru aims for his gardens to look “like Nature, only more so,” he commented in the film “Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf.”

Nowhere have I found an explanation for the title referencing five, instead of four, seasons. But it’s full of inspiring statements by Oudolf, such as “I put plants on a stage and let them perform.” That idea alone is enough to change the way a gardener relates to a garden.

The plants Oudolf favors include dramatic herbaceous perennials, such as giant scabious (also called yellow scabious) and common meadow-rue (also called yellow meadow-rue). Both like moist soils and came originally from the region between Siberia and the Caucasus. They produce yellow flowers in summer and can reach eight feet in height.

Another key player on his stage is our native Joe Pye weed, which can grow 10 feet tall and usually has purplish-pink blossom from late summer to fall, loved by late summer butterflies. This is a wetland plant, as well. Various types of Joe Pye weed exist, but the one the Dutch master likes best bears the botanic name eupatorium purpureum subsp maculatum “astropurpureum.”

Oudolf, whose gardens look like Impressionist paintings in motion, with drifts of color set against large masses of more neutral-colored grasses, also loves coneflowers – another native of our region –as well as alium, phlox paniculata, astilbe, bee balm and yarrow.

As for grasses, some of his key choices are: Canadian burnet, a North American native which, in the wild, grows in bogs, swamps and along roadsides; feather reed grass, a dramatic, ornamental grass particularly prized for the winter landscape; and purple moor-grass, a native of Europe and northern and western Africa.

Once one gets the hang of the Oudolf look, local gardeners could achieve similar effects with a number of plants native to our region. One example is boneset, a wetland plant that reaches two to four feet in height, produces fragrant, feathery blossom in late summer to early fall, and attracts songbirds, butterflies and other beneficial insects. Other candidates, some of which already appear in his gardens, include various native asters, redbud trees and goldenrod.

Oudolf chooses plants for their structure as much as their color, and for their ability to support biodiversity, meaning to attract birds, insects and other forms of wildlife. “I love plants. I love the way they change…even if plants are in decay,” he says in the film. He sees “beauty in decay, beauty in the unexpected,” for example, dried plant heads against a background of grasses. The designer aims always to create “a garden that will last through all seasons.”

In this country, two of the gardens the Dutchman is best known for are the High Line, in New York City, and Lurie Garden, built on the roof of a parking lot in Chicago. A landscape designer since 1975, he is also an author and plant nurseryman, the latter in The Netherlands. In his own words, he likes plants that are “wild, but also attractive and well-behaved,” plants that look as interesting in decay as they look beautiful in flower.

One wonders if he has wrestled with invasive plants, such as we have here on the Eastern Shore — plants like Japanese honeysuckle, mile-a-minute and phragmites reeds, which insinuate themselves into a garden, then take it over and prove almost impossible to eradicate.

What about weeding in a naturalistic, meadow-style garden? A famous landscape designer can count on armies of volunteers, such as those who helped create and now maintain the High Line in New York. But what of the harried homeowner whose chores include the countless demands of everyday life, in addition to planning, planting and caring for a garden? How easy would it be to keep a meadow-like garden looking great?

Some of us may want to imitate the Oudolf style on a small scale. Others may fall in love with the look and go hog wild. At the very least, the designer – and other gardening gurus – can inspire us with new ideas for the new year.

A book going on my own personal wish list is “Planting: A New Perspective,” by Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf. Published in 2013, it’s a handbook on how to achieve the Oudolf style. And now, the column will take a break until the new year. In the meantime, happy gardening, whether from an armchair or in the mud!

Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.

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