Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

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I’ve been in love with Piet Oudolf’s gardens since I came across a copy of Designing with Plants by Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury while browsing in Barnes & Noble in 1999. I’d never before seen the kinds of startlingly romantic, lush, naturalistic, absolutely stunning plantings I found in that book. I was smitten, and I haven’t gotten over it since. So when Carolyn Mullet, a well known garden designer from the DC area, gave me the opportunity to join her carexTours‘ Dutch Wave tour last August, I jumped at the chance.

The carexTours itinerary was structured to give us a superb overview of Dutch Wave design, as well as glimpses into work of several other major garden designers in The Netherlands (and one in Germany), all packed into a week of two garden visits (sometimes three) each day. Come to think of it, we visited a couple of magnificent nurseries, a museum, a garden tool maker, and a palace too. Over the next few months, I’ll be reporting on my own experience on this great tour.

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Piet Oudolf talking with one of the carexTour members.

Unlike many staid and rather academic garden tours, Carolyn’s was a hoot. She collected a really fun group of simpatico designers, garden makers and nursery owners from Canada, Sweden, Lithuania, Greece, the UK, Australia, Tasmania, and the US. The international appeal of the Dutch Wave style was certainly evident in the geographical diversity of our band of travelers. I can’t remember ever having such a good time touring gardens.

Since Piet Oudolf is the leading proponent of the Dutch Wave style (he more-or-less invented it), this post is about my first visit to Piet Oudolf’s home garden, Hummelo–the ‘omphalos’ of Dutch Wave gardens. We also visited two other gardens designed by Oudolf–Vlinderhof, an extraordinary and relatively new public garden, and a small private garden none of us had heard of before, Tuin aan het Weeltje (this was the favorite of some)–but I’ll describe our experience at those gardens later.

Hummelo is particularly important because it is Oudolf’s home garden and the place where he experiments and trials plants, and where his wife Anja operated a very famous nursery for many years.

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When the carexTours coach dropped us off at the end of Piet’s driveway, and we walked to the house entrance, everyone was full of anticipation, perhaps even a little nervous. We were about to meet “the man”.

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Part of our group started down the entrance immediately on our arrival at Hummelo, Piet Oudolf’s home garden.

Piet is typically Dutch, not one to brag about being one of the most famous garden designers on the face of the earth, certainly not a glad hander in the American style, actually rather reticent to mix it up with a bunch of strangers, but we quickly discovered a man of generous spirit who became intensely engaged when asked a question about plants, and gave far more than we had reason to expect. I wasn’t watching the clock, but it seemed he spent the whole of about two hours with us.

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Piet Oudolf introducing the carexTour group to his garden, Hummelo.

After a brief introduction and Q&A to get a feeling for who we were as individuals, Piet took us to the garden in front of his house. One of the first things he showed us was this 25-year-old border, evidence that the Dutch Wave–or ‘New Perennials’ style as it’s known by many–can result in highly stable plantings if the appropriate plants are used in the right place. Behind the border you can see parts of the great hedges that make a formal contrast with the wild exuberance of the plantings.

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We roamed freely, looking at plants and plant communities, frequently asking Piet the name of a plant, questions about why he designed a planting in a certain way, or about the history of the garden.

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He told us it had been a rather rough summer in the front garden. Too much rain, combined with a naturally high water table, had damaged some plantings and outright killed all his Baptisias. This was a familiar story to some of us who already knew his famous “wavy” hedges had been removed a few years before for the same reason–high groundwater.

The front garden, and I’m judging only from images I’ve seen of the garden over the years, appears to be much more thickly planted now than in the past, with a lot of block planting and quite a bit of mixed planting too. Piet told us that he’s letting the plants take the lead in the back garden, and intervening minimally, but it appears some of this freer approach may be the practice in the front garden too. He does experiment constantly.

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Piet also told us he has found that Sporobolus heterolepis (Prairie Dropseed) performs so well in his conditions that he’s using much more of it now than in the past. In fact, he’s using it in place of several other grasses. There are billowing clouds of it in the front garden where it works almost as a matrix plant. You see masses of it,  often mixed with flowering plants, such as the small, delicate flowers of a tiny lythrum (I think he said it was from Russia), as shown below …

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A tiny Lythrum from Russia

… or in combinations with much bolder plants like bright red Helenium.

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Red Helenium with Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica)

Big “camel-back” hedges have always been a prominent part of the border of Piet’s garden. Here they enclose exuberant plantings rollicking like a sea surface of varied colors, forms, textures and shapes, accented by occasional spire-like emergents.

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I particularly liked this simple planting of the dramatically flowing grass, Nasella tenuissima, and formal hedges right up against the front of the house–another example of contrast between billowy forms and straight edges.

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And another contrast below, with huge umbels of flowering Joe Pye Weed against delicate grass tracery.

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When you read about the importance of plant structure and seed heads in a Dutch Wave garden …

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The highly geometric seed heads of Veronicastrum virginicum tower above neighboring plants

… this is what is meant. This Veronicastrum virginicum flowered long ago and its stately, complex, symmetrical spire-like seed heads will help carry garden interest well into winter.

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Above, an extraordinary effect of light combined with color and fragile grass form suggests a floral ‘explosion’ caught in the bright sunlight.

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Gothic, twisted seed spires of Veronicastrum fronting Verbesina alternifolia

This complex arrangement of forms above shows the beauty of unusual plant combinations allowed to create their own dramatic surprises–here red Helenium, blue Lobelia syphilitica, tall Verbesina alternifolia, and the twisted, gothic squiggles of brown Veronicastrum virginicum seedheads. This is a masterful composition.

Below, in the space between the front garden and the facade of the house, you get a sense of the greater openness of the early Hummelo.

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After stepping a few yards back into the front garden, much of that space seems to disappear in the fullness of the garden proper.

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That large hedge you see is actually a tunnel. There’s a great deal more going on here than I have space to explore in this blog post …

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… because we still have to see the back garden, where the nursery used to be, and Piet’s studio. Below, between the back of the house and the back garden, is a kind of perennial and grass anteroom, to give the visitor a kind of breathing space, analogous to a musical interlude, before plunging into the garden proper.

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Piet invited the group to view the garden from above, and took us all up to the roof of the studio. This is what we saw.

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Though I’d never been in the garden before, I quite clearly remember photos of the back garden soon after the nursery had been cleared away and initial plantings had been completed. The garden then was much leaner, with Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerester’ used like sentinels throughout. Those Calamagrostis plantings have grown much larger and fuller now. You can see how their golden late summer color almost dominates at this time of year.

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Above, the back garden looking from the other side of the studio roof. Large masses of Joe Pye Weed dominate near the studio but a huge variety of perennials and grasses compete in the space beyond.

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Piet explained to us that he was trying something new in the back garden. If I understood him correctly, he’s intentionally letting the garden go, allowing the plants to intermingle and compete, just to see what will happen. He’s always experimenting, and you can be sure he intervenes when he thinks it appropriate.

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Here Piet Oudolf is plunging through the garden, members of our troop straggling behind him (he’s a tall man with a long, fast gait). Note the tall, thick plantings.

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This figure below is not a statue, it’s a painted cut-out, a remembrance of the old nursery, Kwekerij Oudolf.

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And here is the studio, quite an attractive building …

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… banked on this side by tall, flowering plants …

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… and on the entry side, by massed grasses, here Spodiopogon sibericus (a grass not used frequently enough) …

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… with Calamagrostis and some Deschampsia in front.

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I love that he allows grasses to grow in the cracks between the pavers.

Once we were inside his studio, Piet indicated he had something special to show us. He had just finished work on a new meadow garden to be planted at the future Delaware Botanic Garden, and we would be among the first to see the plans. He then laid them on the table before us.

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He also tried to give us some impression of his design process by showing us a selection of plant lists and notations …

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… and hand drawings to illustrate the evolution of the design process.

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Then he set down at the computer to show us the completion of the process from hand drawn plans to finished designs.

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While we were on the roof of the studio, I had noticed other visitors had begun to trickle into the garden. We were no longer alone. So once Piet completed his computer presentation, we said our goodbyes and took our leave, walking the long distance from the studio at the back of the property to the front of the drive to board our coach.

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After we boarded, and as the coach pulled away from Piet Oudolf’s Hummelo, our band of “Wavers” burst into spontaneous applause! Enough said.

(During the tour of Hummelo, I listened but didn’t take notes. I believe I’ve reported our visit accurately. But because this was such an important part of the tour, I invite corrections in the Comments to this post.)

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October into November

November 21, 2016

‘I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ – John Keats

 

I don’t have much to say about these autumn photos of my garden. The rising light of morning and the lowering light of evening create a palpable atmosphere. Better silence, after these few words.

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(For the record, I should note this isn’t a single mass planting. There are many intersecting paths, ponds, seating areas, and possibilities for encounter down there.)

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Federal Twist will be open for the Garden Conservancy Open Day this coming Saturday, along with nearby gardens just across the river in Bucks County, PA:  Paxson Hill Farm and Jericho Mountain Orchards. We’re happy to have as guests Broken Arrow Nursery, Atlock Farm, and Orchard Jewelry.

Click on the photo for more information.

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An article on Federal Twist is in the September Gardens Illustrated. This issue won’t reach the US until sometime near the end of September. So here, forthwith, a scan, which I realize may be difficult to read (click images to enlarge them, click again to enlarge more).

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That evening sun go down

August 10, 2016

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‘I hate to see that evening sun go down.’

The line comes from W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues, composed by the man called the father of the blues. I think the power of this lyric comes from the sheer poetry of words and image. Why did Handy say “hate to see”? The image of the lowering sun is an evocative one, but it contains a hint of the dark to come, one William Faulkner recognized when he named a short story about a husband lying in wait to kill his wife ‘That Evening Sun’.

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Water from the sky

August 2, 2016

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So our brief, but heavy, thunder showers last week changed their duration. Instead of 20 minutes of heavy, deluge like, rain, it came for hours, over and over again.

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High Summer

July 29, 2016

It’s late July and I haven’t posted on the garden’s progress for over six weeks. So much for my garden diary … After a drought of several weeks, we’ve had a long period of frequent, often violent, thunderstorms with torrential rains, mostly lasting only 20 or 30 minutes, but certainly stressful for my structural perennials and grasses. […]

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June 1 – Rush to summer

June 8, 2016

Once warmth arrives, the garden luxuriates in planty fleshiness, growth proliferates, detonates in slow motion.

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Broughton Grange: the garden with no point

May 4, 2016

‘”I started collaging as an escape from making meaning. I got tired of writing poems, of trying to make sense – verbal sense. It is a relief to make a different kind of sense – visual sense. One must think, of course, but it is an entirely different kind of thinking, one in which language […]

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Holding pattern

April 21, 2016

Until summer arrives to ripen the garden, I’ll be looking back to last summer. Click on the photo to enter the time machine.

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Which way, please?

April 7, 2016

The garden in early April is mostly invisible. This is its skeleton. By mid-June the rapidly growing perennials and grasses will make most pathways disappear, creating a new landscape, a virtual new topography.

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Clean slate

March 14, 2016

The burning and cutting is done. Within a month, with warmer temperatures,  thousands of grasses and perennials will break the surface, and a textured plain of green will emerge.

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A review of “The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer” by R. William Thomas and the Chanticleer gardeners

February 5, 2016

“The entrance to the Chanticleer garden, in a wooded countryside just outside Philadelphia, could be described as a portal into a horticultural parallel universe … The brief is simple: innovate, innovate, innovate. There are more ideas at Chanticleer than any one garden could reasonably be expected to accommodate, and visiting is an intense experience for […]

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Re-imagining nature – a review of Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

January 24, 2016

(This review originally appeared on the Thinkingardens website.) “The founding fathers of modern environmentalism, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, promised that ‘in wildness is the preservation of the world.’ The presumption was that the wilderness was out there, somewhere … and that it would be the antidote for the poisons of industrial society. But […]

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A Garden in Movement

January 18, 2016

  I just received the pdf of the January article on Federal Twist in Garden Design Journal, published by the Society of Garden Designers (UK). Be forewarned, it’s readable if you click two times, but really a hassle to get through unless you have a large screen.

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Gravetye Manor

January 16, 2016

The following article by Gillian Vine is from the Otago Daily Times online edition – 17 January 2016 – on the history of Gravetye Manor, home of William Robinson, one of the early progenitors of the naturalistic tradition in gardening. (Thanks to Facebook gardening friend Scott Nickerson of Queenstown, New Zealand, for posting it there.)

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Federal Twist in Garden Design Journal

January 5, 2016

Federal Twist is featured in the January 2016 issue of the Garden Design Journal, a publication of the Society of Garden Designers (SGD) in the UK. Photos by Andrea Jones, noted garden photographer, and words by me. I can’t recommend you get a copy. It’s seems not to be available in the US, except among the […]

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Garden diary: remembering winter

December 27, 2015

We had a taste of it. On December 5, a little frost, a thin crust of ice on the pond. Later, a sunny day, the temperature moderated and it’s been warm ever since. Now we’re past the winter solstice, and still no winter.

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Landscape architects in the making

November 18, 2015

Not until after the fact–during it, really–did I realize how gratifying it would be to have a bunch of landscape architecture students come for a visit.

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Ending the season at Chanticleer

October 30, 2015

Autumn is a glorious season in the garden. I took this photo in the gravel garden at Chanticleer last weekend. I like complexity (not chaos; there is a difference). This teeters on the edge, but I think the striking forms of the Yucca rostrata and Agaves and trailing blue-gray ground cover make a strong, legible statement […]

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Pictures vs. words

October 27, 2015

Recently I discovered an intriguing blog, The Brown Advisor, in this case referring to “the great landscape gardener, or place-maker, Lancelot ‘Capability Brown’.” I quote this from the blog, quoting Joseph Addison: “‘Words, when well chosen, have so great a Force in them, that a Description often gives us more lively Ideas than the Sight […]

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Garden Diary: The garden in between …

October 3, 2015

I call this the Edgar Allan Poe season in my garden …

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The Old Rectory at Naunton

September 23, 2015

“I’ve always been drawn to plants which are on the wild side, drawn to gardens which are on the wild side, which feel like they might just be tumbling into something quite primitive and unmuddled with. The way I garden is to let things go almost to the brink of being lost, and that’s often […]

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Green, green

August 23, 2015

Green, green grass of home

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Catch as catch can

July 7, 2015

I’m leaving for England for a month tomorrow. Last weekend, I realized I hadn’t documented the garden’s summer progress, so I made the rounds.

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