Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

A place for melancholy

February 8, 2017

Perhaps I should title this post “In defense of melancholy.”

Attracted by the mist and the sun rising behind the trees this morning, I opened a living room door, leaned out and took this photo of the garden. I posted it on Instagram. Several people commented, a rather rare occurrence on Instagram, so I interpreted this to mean they found this image particularly appealing or moving in some way. One of the comments was, “heartbreaking,” another, “haunting.” I compared it to a painting of the Hudson River School. Someone else said, Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic painter (and a favorite of mine).

What do these comments have in common? I think they point to melancholy … to my sensibility one of the most powerful emotions experienced in the garden, and in the landscape. And it’s a much richer and fuller emotion than most people–today–believe.

I’m reading Melancholy and the Landscape:  Locating Sadness, Memory and Reflection in the Landscape, by Jacky Bowring, published by Routledge in 2017. Here are two brief quotations:

“Melancholy is at once complex and contradictory. For some it is an emotion, for others a mental illness, or even a mood, a disposition, an affect, an effect. Melancholy’s extensive history ranges across everything from cures for something considered a disease, to paeans to its poignant beauty. While in the Dark Ages the ‘melancholy of monks’ –also called acedia –necessitated a redoubling of prayer and an extra dose of courage, by the Romantic era melancholy was a source of inspiration for the poetry of Milton, Coleridge and Keats. Melancholy imbues artworks from Dürer’s Melancolia I (1514) to Anselm Kiefer’s Melancholia (1989), literature from Shakespeare to Sebald, and music from the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen to Nick Cave.  But it is to the landscape that this book turns.”


“The overcoming of a single-minded pursuit of happiness needs to be yoked to an inclusive re-engagement with the breadth of emotions. Melancholy’s marginalisation results not only from a fear of sadness, but from the pervasive hesitancy about showing emotion that characterises the modern Western world. Even the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley revealed how his fear of displaying emotion limited his full appreciation of an evocative landscape, something which he later regretted. In a letter to ‘T.P. Esq.’ (Thomas Peacock), describing journeying through Switzerland, Shelley explained how, The hay was making under the trees; the trees themselves were aged, but vigorous, and interspersed with younger ones, which are destined to be their successors, and in future years, when we are dead, to afford a shade to future worshippers of nature, who love the memory of that tenderness and peace of which this was the imaginary abode. We walked forward among the vineyards, whose narrow terraces overlook this affecting scene. Why did the cold maxims of the world compel me at this moment to repress the tears of melancholy transport which it would have been so sweet to indulge, immeasurably, even until the darkness of night had swallowed up the objects which excited them? (Shelley, 1845, p.96)”

I don’t know if anyone will read this, so I leave it as a reminder to myself to return to this subject at greater length in the future.

For anyone interested, I highly recommend Jacky Bowring’s intriguing and fascinating exploration of melancholy in the landscape.




The modernist tea house in van Mierlo’s Japanese water garden, a magical bridge of steel plates, and massive wooden bollards forming an entrance passage (back left).

As a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour in August 2016, I joined a simpatico group of international garden travelers with a special interest in the work of Piet Oudolf and many practitioners of the garden design movement he largely founded … the Dutch Wave, often called the New Perennial movement. The carexTours itinerary gave us an intense overview of Piet Oudolf’s work and Dutch Wave design, as well as glimpses into work of several other major garden designers–including two gardens by one designer very atypical of the Dutch Wave, Noël van Mierlo, the subject of this post. Seeing the two van Mierlo gardens was a revelatory experience, making us think about what a garden is, and giving greater insight into the distinguishing characteristics of the Dutch Wave.

For more information on future tours, just click on carexTours.


I didn’t know what to expect the morning we started out on our visit to two Noël van Mierlo gardens. My Dutch-American friend Carrie Preston, who has lived in The Netherlands for many years, had told me a bit about him, that his gardens has received several national awards … but coming after a visit to Piet Oudolf’s very different Vlinderhof only the day before, I certainly didn’t expect the architectural, highly choreographed gardens we were to see. Van Mierlo’s stunning gardens are a dramatic break from the Dutch Wave style that has been flourishing in The Netherlands for the past two decades.

Why are van Mierlo’s gardens so different? Dutch Wave gardens emulate the look of nature … rather, they take their inspiration from the look of nature and intensify that look. They are about display of perennials and grasses, and an intensely emotional response to those plants, about the biological entities, the plants themselves, in all their glorious variety and multivariate forms through all seasons. They seem to work on some primal emotional level. Trees, structure, stone, water are not necessary, or even representative of the Dutch Wave–the focus is on the herbaceous perennials and grasses–though they may be present, and important parts of, individual gardens.

Japanese Water Garden

Noël van Mierlo’s Japanese water garden, in marked contrast, is about structure, texture, line, shape, about complexity (a complexity made to look simple), not about an emotional response to plants. It is a cool, meditative garden, a garden for musing. (It is also very much a continuation of the house, a series of outdoor rooms well suited to private enjoyment or social occasions.)

The designer selected Ginkgos of substantial size and great character to give the garden an atmosphere of mystery and age.

The garden is quiet, contemplative, observant of small details, almost opposite to the delight, exhilaration, and high-pitch of feelings often evoked by Dutch Wave plantings. It subtly juxtaposes natural and manmade morphologies to create a unified experience.

Architectural Garden

Van Mierlo conceives the garden as a series of rooms and frequently refers to its floor, walls, ceiling. When I asked him for names of designers he admires, he mentioned Lake Flato and Tom Kundig–both architects–architects known for designing structures that sit easily in a natural, often wild, landscape, and for artfully crafted structures. You see architecture in the impressive use of the huge wooden bollards that form the entrance portal, in the refined lines of the modernist, yet sensuous, tea house, in the carefully selected and positioned rocks used to anchor the garden in the landscape, in the sensitive selection of trees with great character (trees too are part of the architecture of this garden) …

…in the thick steel plates that gracefully bridge the pond, appearing to be suspended just above the water’s surface (quite a structural engineering challenge), designed in collaboration with noted Dutch metal artist Xander Spronken

… and in attention to appropriateness of materials and to the smallest details, as in this carefully crafted transition from gravel to lawn.

Surface transitions are handled with great care and attention to detail.

All through the design and construction process, he strives to find and use the finest craftsmen available for garden pavements, finishes, lighting–and planting.

Because this garden is a dramatic departure from plant-centric Dutch Wave gardens, it was a powerful reminder to those of us on Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour that gardens take many, and vastly different, forms.

So did carexTours add the van Mierlo gardens as a “palate cleanser,” perhaps, served between courses of Dutch Wave gardens? I don’t think so. Carolyn wanted to make us think.

Strangely, although it is certainly an architectural garden, full of complicated structural challenges, a garden difficult and costly to create, requiring heavy equipment, expensive materials, and precision in construction …

… it is a garden about ecology, far more so than most Dutch Wave gardens are … a garden that, in fact, creates habitat.

The water’s edge creates a broad range of habitats for plants.

Opportunities for Novel Ecologies

Among its many other attributes, this is a garden for a connoisseur of plants and ecological design though, ironically, van Mierlo does not select the perennials in his gardens. That’s not really such a strange concept if you compare garden making to other art forms. Think of him as the director of a theatrical performance or a film. He is the artist, the director, as well as the curator of expertise, and he has a talent for working with others. As with all garden challenges–architectural, structural, construction, Van Mierlo knows and uses experts and highly skilled craftsmen. In this case, his expert is an extremely talented plantsman, Ruurd van Donkelaar. (Van Mierlo does take a direct role in selection and placement of distinctive trees, the “walls” of the garden and the pillars holding up the sky, the ceiling of the garden.)

Carex greyii, an American native – one of the largest specimens I’ve seen was in the Japanese water garden.

Look at the care van Donkelaar used in designing this water’s edge habitat. The rocks, gravel and plants are composed to create a “natural” transition from the water to the land, with a finely graduated differentiation of novel habitats to cover the pond liner and create a natural-looking transition, over a distance of only about three feet, of plants selected for suitability to their positions in water or on the drier edges; note the attention to scale in the planting, with miniature plants growing even between the small pieces of gravel. The design is elegant, restrained, possibly more natural than natural (a “created natural”).

Only compare this to the crude transition below, one I recently photographed elsewhere …

… which, I think, makes the artfulness of the van Mierlo garden clear.

The plantings demonstrate deep knowledge of ecology-based planting as well as plant sociology (plants’ preferences for growing in large or small groups, solitary plants, and so on). Anyone familiar with the German habitat-influenced perennial movement will recognize such groupings as these, which consider both plant ecology and sociology:  “solitary plants along the water’s edge in moist gravel,” “bog and pond plants,” “plants for moist conditions in small groups,” “solitary grasses and ferns,” “backyard bulbs in small groups between groundcovers,” “solitary plants under trees,” and plants for use in various depths of water. (These are my rough translations of the Dutch labels on the planting plans.)

Some of the plants are so unusual (to me) that I misidentified them. What do you think the red-leafed plants in this photo are?

I thought I was seeing a new Heuchera with a ground cover of green Tiarella cordifolia. I was wrong. It’s a Saxifrage (Saxifraga cortusifolia ‘Rubrifolia’).  And look at this miniature bit of nature between stones and a steel bridge plate. Viola, moss, baby ferns, seedling Saxifrages …

… these plants aren’t just surviving, they are reproducing and creating habitat in a garden less than two years old.

The Garden Entrance

The entrance to the Japanese water garden is subtle and understated. We might call it an example of Wabi Sabi, appreciation for the beauty in the lowly and humble.

From the entry passage, used wooden bollards block the view into the garden, then gradually break apart into an abstracted series of verticals, giving glimpses in.

These solid, bulky forms (they are seven or eight feet tall) are given an elegance and visual interest by plantings of carex and low shrubs at ground level and red berried Euonymous europaea (Spindle tree) that catches the eye and carries it upward. A very Japanese characteristic–the display of subtle variations of color and texture across the worn surface of the wood, the play of light and shadow, is another Wabi Sabi touch.

From the other side, the Euonymous are even more colorful, and beautifully offset by a few low grasses.

Van Mierlo works to achieve a balance (he uses the word “unity”) between the many different elements of garden composition …

… the floor of the garden (paving, water, ground covers, pathways, bridges, rocks, turf), the walls and furniture of the garden (structures, plants, seating, sculpture, trees), and the garden’s roof (tree canopies and sky). This striving for unity of effect is visible, too, in his placement of such “added” elements as the client’s sculpture–for example, this mysterious piece, seen above and more closely below …

… the black figure has been positioned before the water, in an emotionally meaningful context of grasses and shrubs that suggest a figure in hiding, waiting, musing …

… and so too, with this grouping of small tree trunks sloping in the shade, van Mierlo captures the eye with a subtle effect achieved as part of many elements in balance. Walking the garden is a richly sensory experience. Note (below) how gracefully the garden moves from a naturalistic path to a more formal passageway, which is necessary to accommodate space limitations at the border of the residential property …

… bringing the garden visitor around to this lawn, and then the house and its outside entertainment areas.



Even on the utility, or entertainment, side of the garden, artful plantings and simple appointments continue the contemplative atmosphere.

This Rodgersia adds color and texture to a mixed border on the water’s edge.


A simple basin of water rests on a stone pedestal wrapped in closely trimmed yew.

The Japanese water garden is very much a journey. Movement from the entrance is choreographed by landscape and structural elements to carry the visitor into the garden, across the bridge of steel plates to the tea house, then around the far side of the pond on a simple path embellished by ecological plantings, around the back of the property, onto the lawn and entertainment precinct of the house …

… that journey can continue across the pond again, with resting places in the tea house, and around the lawn. It is a compact journey, but it offers compelling transitions in mood.

To see a video showing how the garden was built, click here.

The other garden we visited, the Stream garden, contains many of the same elements, and it too uses water and rock as principal elements of composition.

The Stream Garden

Noël van Mierlo introducing his just-planted Stream garden. Note the high dyke in the background.

The other van Mierlo garden we saw was newly constructed and very recently planted. The Stream garden is located in front of the owner’s house in the polders (low land rescued from the sea), and it is surrounded, at a distance, by high dykes. It appeared to be a difficult site for a garden, offering little of interest.

The owner’s home, with many of our tour group waiting to enter the garden.

Since such land is intrinsically lacking in interest, though it does has its own sense of place, van Mierlo’s client specifically requested a landscape that would bring him to another place …

A planting of Acaena, a plant of subtle and unusual beauty.

… one that reminded him of his many summers walking rocky streams in the mountains of Austria. When questioned about that, the client said, “Have you seen Lord of the Rings?” That was enough of a clue.

This is largely a linear garden built along a very natural-looking artificial stream, with wider areas encompassing the residence and associated buildings and a pond at one end, and a play area outside a terminus marked by great wooden bollards, at the far end. The trees used here are, like those in the Japanese water garden, selected for unique form and character.

Stone, which is not normally present in The Netherlands, is a prominent feature in both the Japanese water garden and the Stream garden, but more so here, and its artful use is an essential element in the success of this garden. It is used to …

… create sense of place in a site that is essentially a blank canvas. But the stone does more. It makes the gardens “belong” in the landscape by virtue of its sheer physicality. Stones are selected with great care for shape, for how well they work in groups, for color, texture, size. And the stone helps to unify all the elements of the garden floor–gravel, wood, plants, paths, water.

Stone adds an element of mystery too, a primal sense of presence, much as we experience in ancient sites such as Stonehenge, or at many lesser ancient sites.

They also suggest (as above) the natural geologic processes of nature (here an artful illusion), processes that work over millennia, and thus introduce a sense of the immense time scales of geologic processes (hints of Lord of the Rings here?). Strewn across the landscape, they suggest they might have had a glacial origin. It’s all sleight of hand, of course, but a very effective magic show. The rough, worn surface of the wooden walkway continues the color of the stone in an alternative material, an organic material, that again suggests the concept of Wabi Sabi.

The stonescaping, and the intentional irregularity of the wooden walkway, create a strong sense of place, which will “mature” as the rocks and wood age in place.

The log wall (above) will age to a color that approximates the grey of the stone and of the three vertical wooden bollards. This wall is essential; on the other side, is an active marina, operated by the owner of the garden.

A line of wooden bollards, a common sight along waterfronts in The Netherlands, demarks the far end of the garden, separating a children’s play area from the garden proper. Even here van Mierlo uses mounded sand, rock, and grass to suggest a feeling of seaside play.

One of our tour members couldn’t resist this swing.

Van Mierlo says his gardens are about making connections. Just as his design approach is one of collaboration, a bringing together of parts, making many creative talents work in unison for a single goal, so too he aims for all the parts of the garden–stones, trees, structures, paving, water, plants–to achieve a unity of effect and feeling. I think he certainly achieves that end. These are extraordinary gardens.

* Photographs 1, 2, 10, 27 and 28 of the Japanese water garden were provided by Noël van Mierlo.



As a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour in August 2016, I joined an extraordinary group of international garden travelers with a special interest in the work of Piet Oudolf and many practitioners of the garden design movement he largely founded … the Dutch Wave, often called the New Perennial movement. The carexTours itinerary gave us a superb overview of Piet Oudolf’s work and Dutch Wave design, as well as glimpses into work of several other major garden designers, all packed into a week of two garden visits (sometimes three) each day. We also visited a couple of magnificent  nurseries, a museum, a garden tool maker, and a palace. Over the next few months, I’ll be telling you about my own experience on this great tour.

If you know of someone who might like a garden tour as a very special Holiday gift, I can’t think of a better place to go than carexTours. Just click on carexTours anywhere in this post for more information.

Having seen hundreds of photographs of Vlinderhof, I arrived expecting something extraordinary. I certainly found that. What I hadn’t expected, probably because I was so dazzled by the photos of the plants that I wasn’t paying attention, was finding a well used public park, so very different from Piet Oudolf’s own personal garden at Hummelo, which we visited in my last post on Carolyn’s Dutch Wave tour.


My first view of Vlinderhof was from the high ground at its edge. Vlinderhof is just a part, though a very dear part, of the much larger Maximapark near Utrecht. It occupies a shallow bowl of space shaped by berms built up on this front side and screened from the larger Maximapark by a loose circle of hedges and trees.


Space is precious in The Netherlands where individual houses have much less land for personal use than in the US. So public parks are well used amenities and, in general, the Dutch pay far more attention to the quality and maintenance of their parks than do Americans.

I think you can see this landscape literally radiates a sense of care and appreciative use.

Vlinderhof (which means “butterfly garden” in Dutch) only came into being recently. The idea for an Oudolf garden in this place came from local resident and gardener Marc Kikkert, shown above talking with our tour leader Carolyn Mullet. Long an admirer of Piet Oudolf, Marc conceived the idea of turning an unused part of Maximapark into a garden that would be designed by Oudolf. He led the effort and worked tirelessly to develop interest, public support, funding, and then to implement Oudolf’s design for Vlinderhof.

Under Marc’s guidance, volunteers planted the entire garden, and all maintenance continues to be done with volunteer labor. This is an extraordinary place, one I wish could be emulated in the US.

Vlinderhof is amazingly young. The paths were laid out and trees planted in autumn of 2013 and the perennials were planted in spring of 2014, so when we visited with carexTours in August 2016, the garden was only a bit over two years old.


Walking through Vlinderhof I was amazed at the maturity of the planting. The plants envelope you as you stroll the wide paths, meandering among huge billowing mounds of perennials and grasses. This is the reverse of traditional island bedding because the vast majority of the garden space is planted. The paths are simply a way to make your way through.

Much of the garden is anchored by pylons of an immense white Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum ‘Snowball’) that must be at least 12 feet tall.

Here you can see several of the huge Joe Pye’s scattered across the garden. The human figure in the left center demonstrates the scale of the Vlinderhof plantings and gives a measure of the height and breadth of the Eupatorium structures.


But areas of shorter plantings allow views through to other parts of the garden.


Though most of the plantings are blocks of perennials and grasses, Oudolf varied the shapes and sizes of the blocks, so here we see what appears to be a linear stream of blue Asters running through the other perennials. The large white towers of Joe Pye are ubiquitous, carrying the eye across the garden and up to the sky, creating a dazzling, joyful, experience on a bright summer day.


Here some members of our tour group  appear dwarfed in the distance by the undulating waves of plants. (Can you find them?)


A few open areas and beautifully designed seating make it easy for residents to use Vlinderhof for recreation and leisure. This woman has ridden her bicycle to the park and is reading a magazine.

The seating is designed with elegant form and made of natural materials that complement the exuberant plantings. The flat, gray color and rounded shapes modulate the bright sunlight, so the eye sees a pleasing range of darker and brighter shades as it moves over the curved surface of the seat. The attention to detail at Vlinderhof is remarkable.


The same is true of the plantings … the fireworks of a simple grass (Deschampsia) lightly overhanging the bright Echinacea … the contrast of the light, feathery grass with the solid, brightly colored flower disks.


And here, the umbellifer to die for, Selinum wallichianum, with its fine fern-like foliage, emerging from the background of the same Deschampsia …


… and a closer view, just so you can appreciate the flowers.


Here horizontal layering of the stalwart prairie grass Sporobolus heterolepis, backed by Aster tartaricus ‘Jindai’, which will flower in the autumn, and a block of pink flowers behind …


… and here a bold planting of Liatris spicata and Echinacea.


Though we visited on a very bright day, with the sun almost directly overhead …


… Oudolf selected a number of intensely colored flowering plants capable of holding their own, even under the harsh light …


… as well as some beauties I’ve rarely seen, such as this Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) …


… and plants more familiar to us in the US … the flowers of Heuchera villosa …


… and the seed heads of Monarda bradburiana …


… the tall almost black spires of Cimicifuga ramosa ‘Brunette’ against a pink flowering Toad Lily (Tricyrtis) …


… here a “stream” of Echinacea flowing between Aster tartaricus (an autumn bloomer) and Palm sedge (Carex muskingumensis) …


… and a bright orange Helenium.


Vlinderhof gives visitors huge scale, an opportunity to stroll through tall, thick plantings that dwarf the human form …


… as well as many smaller delights where you can become absorbed in the details of flower form and structure, as with the reflexed petals of this Echinacea pallida, which probably looks its best at this moment of disintegration …

… the decorative seed heads of Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccafolium) …

… or this mass of Scutellaria incana introducing a rare blue into this large planting.

Vlinderhof is a joyful, “big sky” space. On the bright, warm August day we visited, the plants seemed to exist for our pleasure. The tall trees at the edge of the garden were waving in the breeze, the park visitors lay on the ground, picnicked, bicycled, read, chatted. I think the proof of the success of this Oudolf design is that people seem to love to use it. They appreciate it and don’t abuse it. There’s clearly a feeling of mutual respect, which we need so desperately in this troubled world.

On leaving, I continued to be astonished that this garden, so different from Hummelo, demonstrates yet another side of Oudolf’s talent, his ability to continue to respond to place and human need with extraordinarily creative design.


To see Dutch photographer Hans van Horssen’s videos of Vlinderhof, click here.


In praise of weather (again)

December 14, 2016

Old English dun, dunn, of Germanic origin; probably related to dusk …


I think color is a good place to start, though perhaps not dun … rather gold, orange, black.

Three inches of rain left the garden wet, plant tissues saturated. A state that … especially in fog …


… makes grasses radiant, and many perennials, dramatic, blackened specters. Such scenes can evoke varied, sometimes opposing feelings.


This scene of glowing golden grasses and blackened stems of Inula suggests both radiant beauty and the roiling motion of an upheaving ocean swell, a turbulent center about to erupt. The symbolism is ambiguous, though even the imminence of chaos can be visually appealing from an aesthetic distance.


Here the man-made chairs introduce scale and a human element (another kind of distance), and begin to suggest a narrative. This scene has some kind of story and is easier to read. It tames the raw feelings accompanying the entirely vegetative scene.


Not just the idea of chairs now, but a very specific kind of chair, easily recognized by many gardeners as the Wave Hill chair, a version of the Gerritsen Rietveld chair. So this concept introduces a human, and very specific, culture and history into the garden. The concrete pavers and gravel suggest design intent … clearly a conscious opposing of order and chaos …


… as does the stone circle, with its own human associations–community, ritual, Jens Jensen’s council ring, perhaps the charmed state of being inside and not outside the circle.


Human scale and implied human presence again, but in a dramatically different color palette. Fawns, soft grays, a blue-green algal patina. A comforting scene suggestive of Monet. So different from intense colors of the grassy images …


… though if you look closely, change scale, these colors are hidden in other parts of the garden, as here in the lichen crusted rock.


Implied narrative again … curved path and curved stone wall, rhythmic placement of grasses, a bench, the intersection of paths … all signs of intentional design, and of movement from one place to another, to a place out of view. But in contrast …


… scenes like this might be read as nightmarish, apocalyptic, a fantasy of darkness ruling over lesser dark powers. Yet from an aesthetic distance, the scene also has (for me) a powerful emotional charge and a kind of severe beauty like an expressionistic painting. The tall, dead multi-stemmed tree off to the side towers ominously; it’s threatening, overwhelming … some change seems immanent …


… but this centered view of the same tree isn’t. Its position suggests stability, a cross perhaps, or a stylized flame, and to me something more … ceremony, magic, mystery, secret rites … like the stone circle.


This change in background color and the thinner lines of the dark elements create a feeling of lightness …


… and the burnished orange of this pollarded willow transforms the intense oranges and blacks of the grassy scenes into a glowing goblet of color. The willow seems to preen like a peacock.

Then colors change …


… here, though I don’t know whether it’s the angle of the light or some other visual effect, the grasses are mostly pale pastels …


… and here too, the lighter grasses allow the darker orange of the Lindera glauca ‘Salicifolia’, and the dark browns of the Baptisia and Datisca cannabina to play more dramatic roles.


So much depends on weather…

… seeing the garden after Hurricane Sandy passed through several years ago, I first realized a garden undergoing destruction can be like a kind of artistic papermaking. (That may sound strange unless you’ve watched an artist making paper.) Most of the garden had been blown away, but the few ragged standing plants and, more to the point, the mass of compressed vegetation on the ground surface, was strangely beautiful, with different colors, shapes and textures shining in the wetness. Ever since, I’ve had a fondness for the more destructive aspects of the dying garden.

But to appreciate this requires some adjustment in expectation of what a garden can be.



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.


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.


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”.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 …


A tiny Lythrum from Russia

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


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.


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.


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


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


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.


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


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.


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


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 …


… 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


And here is the studio, quite an attractive building …


… banked on this side by tall, flowering plants …




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


… with Calamagrostis and some Deschampsia in front.


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.


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


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






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


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.


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.)


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.


(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.)































Open Garden, Saturday, Oct. 8, 10-6

October 4, 2016

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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Federal Twist in Gardens Illustrated

September 1, 2016

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

‘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 […]

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Water from the sky

August 2, 2016

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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