A year ago I was in Hummelo, The Netherlands visiting Piet and Anja Oudolf’s garden. It was a calculated visit. Months before I arrived, I knew I would be in the Netherlands in April 2012 to visit the Floriade (the once every decade international horticultural event) and that I had one day, April 22, that I was free to travel from Amsterdam to Hummelo. (see my blog post April 5 2012) The journey, although not short, was easy, the Dutch rail system being oh so European and efficient. The tricky part was when we arrived at the train station (in Doetinchem de Huet) and expected taxis to be waiting, which they were not. A couple hours later, we managed to hire a taxi which drove us the relatively short distance to Hummelo, where the oh so gracious Anja Oudolf greeted us.
Anja, as pictured, dressed, I remember remarking in my mind, in her wonderful blue sweater and bead necklace, asked us a few questions: Where we were from? (Boston, USA) Had we seen any other of Piet’s gardens (Yes, Wisley, High Line, Battery Park, Lurie Garden/ Millennial Park), had we read any of Piet’s books (Yes, all of them). Confident then that we knew what we were looking at, Anja set us a themos of coffee and some cookies in the shed and left us to explore the garden.We had two hours alone in Piet Oudolf’s garden.
I am a huge admirer of Oudolf’s work. If garden designers had groupies, I would be an Oudolf groupie. Why? Because of serendipity. The first Oudolf garden I was ever in was the Lurie garden, the first spring after it’s completeion ( May 2005). I had never been to Chicago, I had never heard of Piet Oudolf. I arrived in Chicago a half day before my intended reason for the visit. My hotel was across from the (now famous) Lurie Garden/ Millienial Park. I wandered over. Almost immediately I felt a sense of calm. It was a beautiful spring day, warm and bright. The Garden was busy, yet even in the midst of a major city the plantings allowed privacy and peace, so much so I sat by one of the rivulets, took off my shoes and socks and put my feet in the water. I was completely at ease, almost serene. I looked around me at the (then) mostly unfamiliar plants and asked “how was this done”? When I learned who had done it, I began my quest to learn the how. That is how I became a Piet Oudolf groupie, and why seven years after my chance visit to the Lurie Garden I was standing in Piet’s garden.
April in the north of the Netherlands is early for garden visits. As you can see by the photographs, very little was in bloom.
But, as I often say, it is always a pleasure to be in a garden, and having visited a number of Oudolf gardens in bloom, and having studied his books (Dream Plants for the Natural Garden, Landscapes in Landscapes, Designing with Plants, Plant Designs/ Gardens in Time and Place, and the recently published Planting: A New Perspective), I could imagine the garden in bloom. Even more, I could experience what few chose to experience, the bare bones of a garden. So, what I wanted to get from my visit to the Oudolf garden (in addition to paying hommage) was a sense of how the plants were put together – to gain a sense of the structure of the garden and the flow of the plants.
The garden is a long rectangle,
bordered with impressively shaped mixed hedges.
Within the hedges large areas are devoted to perennials, as one would expect from the garden of a designer who champions perennials, very little grass, hardscaped paths, a number of outbuildings (whose function I couldn’t be sure).
By April 2012 the famously iconic shaped yew hedges had succumbed to rot from flooding and were gone; where they once stood in the front garden was now devoted to – yes! – perennials. Also, the nursery which Anja and Piet had run for many years was gone, replaced by the studio and the trial garden. As interesting as it was to see what was planted in the established front garden, it was perhaps more interesting to see what is planted in the trial gardens behind the house, in front of the new studio. Here I could see which plants Oudolf was testing to use in future projects, if they passed his requirements.
Of course the two hours passed too quickly. As we were preparing to leave, Anja came out to say good bye and asked if we would like to meet Piet, who was working in his studio. She took us into the studio where Piet was on a phone call with a client in Sweden. He graciously paused his phone call to stand up and greet us, ask us where we were from, thanked us for coming. We were allowed to take some photos. It was a memorable day.