Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

Part 1 – First Visit to Hummelo – with carexTours

November 27, 2016

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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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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

lindaB November 27, 2016 at 11:11 am

Oh, my! Visiting Hummelo was on my list of “must see”s this past year and I never managed to make it happen.
Lucky you, James, and thank you for the wonderful pictures and commentary. I always enjoy your postings.
Best regards for the season to come in your lovely part of the world at Federal Twist.
Cheers!
Linda

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James Golden November 28, 2016 at 11:18 am

Thanks, Linda. Good to hear from you.

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Helma Sjamaar November 27, 2016 at 11:46 am

Your writing has the sane natural flow as Piet’s designs. Very well written and thank you for sharing!

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James Golden November 28, 2016 at 11:21 am

Thank you, Helma.

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Nora Sirbaugh November 27, 2016 at 8:27 pm

Thank you so very much for sharing. Just finished reading one of Piet Oudolf’s and Noel Kingsbury’s many collaborations and find the work fascinating. And how very generous of him to spend so much time explaining his work to you all! Soooo envious. I will have to trek south to Delaware to see the garden as it emerges there.

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James Golden November 28, 2016 at 11:22 am

Thank you, Nora. I think lots of us are looking forward to the reality of the Delaware Botanic Garden.

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Hanna Packer November 27, 2016 at 8:31 pm

Beautiful pictures and very easy going narrative. I am so happy to have met you and really admire your posts.

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James Golden November 28, 2016 at 11:23 am

Thanks, Hanna. I believe I’ll see you on Dec. 8 at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

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Tony Spencer November 27, 2016 at 10:34 pm

It’s great that you could connect with the Dutch mothership there James. Truly the fascination and complexity is pretty much unending, and it changes with every step and shift in light and season.

Small detail. It’s Helenium (not Helianthemum), possibly ‘Moerheim Beauty’.

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James Golden November 28, 2016 at 6:58 am

Thanks, Tony. I can’t imagine what neurons misfired to give me that strange portmanteau word. Corrected.

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Rebecca November 27, 2016 at 10:50 pm

James, this so doesn’t need any corrections, what a wonderful recount of our very special time in this magic garden. Piet was so incredibly generous with his time and knowledge. What a thoughtfully written piece, it truely reflects our morning and your photos are stunning. Thank you James

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James Golden November 28, 2016 at 7:00 am

Thanks, Rebecca. I hope you’re enjoying the approach of summer in Australia.

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Lynda Harris November 28, 2016 at 5:11 am

Hello James,
I really enjoyed this post and your super photos – wow, what an inspiring garden! I met Piet Oudolf once and he was so friendly and quickly put me at my ease (I was rather in awe of meeting the great man!). When I was at Jardin Plume in Normandy I found out that Sporobolus heterolepis (Prairie Dropseed) was beautifully scented so am a big fan.
Best wishes, Lynda

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James Golden November 28, 2016 at 7:03 am

Hello, Lynda. Jardin Plume is another garden I want to visit. I think we’ll be in southern France late this spring but no chance of being anywhere near Normandy. When the Sporobolus flowers on the High Line, I always want to visit at night. Its fragrance is very strong and, in the dark, the plants seem to be reaching out to touch you.

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John Schucker November 28, 2016 at 8:04 am

As one who loves woody plants above all others, I am most moved by gardens in which trees and shrubs play the most important roles and so I have not taken as much interest in this style of gardening. After reading this, I do have several questions.
Did Oudolf, like you, James, ever state that the natural conditions of the site of his home led to the evolution of his prairie style?
Would a high water table make this choice an obvious one or, at least a practical one?
Since it seems the great American prairie must have been his main inspiration, can you say, very roughly, what percentage of perennial plants he has used at Hummelo are US natives? 50%? 75%?
What is the origin of the name Hummelo? It doesn’t exactly sound like a Dutch word to me.

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James Golden November 28, 2016 at 11:38 am

Hi, John. I don’t think the conditions at his garden had much to do with the evolution of his style. Its influences go back to Mien Ruys’ work in Holland and German plantsmen, many of whom used American prairie plants and grasses, and developed them as garden plants. I believe it’s just a matter of chance that Hummelo is on sandy soil with high groundwater, which you can imagine is common in The Netherlands.

I also don’t think the high water table is a particular benefit. I’d think the opposite, actually, but I’m just making assumptions. His designs for other gardens always take the local conditions into account, so conditions at Hummelo are not particularly relevant.

I believe Piet has said he didn’t recognize the value of the “Great American Prairie” until he traveled to the midwest to begin work on the Lurie Garden in Chicago. At that point, he saw the prairie (or remnants of it) and realized how beautiful it could be, and it prompted to change his concept of the Lurie Garden to include many actual prairie plants. The term “prairie” is used very loosely in Europe to refer to any meadow style garden with grasses and perennials. In the US, we use the term much more narrowly to refer to gardens closely resembling real prairie. I wouldn’t venture a guess as to the percentage of US natives used at Hummelo. It’s probably high, but many of the plants are selections that were made over many years in Europe, based on original US growing stock.

You know … we never appreciated our own native asters until the Europeans took them and made them into good garden plants. And that story is repeated over and over with other perennials.

Hummelo is the name of the place where the Oudolf’s bought an old farm house, so it’s just a place name.

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John Schucker December 2, 2016 at 7:54 am

Thank you for the replies. You make an interesting observation about our native plants being appreciated as garden plants first in Europe. It puts me in mind of the extensive work of John Bartram and his regular shipments of US native plants to England. Globalization really is nothing new if one considers the movement of plant species around the globe over so many centuries even before the discovery of the “New World”.

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James Golden December 3, 2016 at 10:42 pm

Yes, our native plants traveled to Europe, then returned altered. So what’s native? Not to mention how climate warming is changing the growing ranges of so-called natives.

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hans ringers November 28, 2016 at 11:23 am

I read your very nice story about Piet Oudolf’s garden. It is funny that you remember so many details of that visit.
And there was more to come: in the afternoon we met Peter Jancke in his garden! I will send a picture of you in Piet’s studio ( facebookpage). You took fantastic pictures of the garden, James!

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James Golden November 28, 2016 at 11:43 am

Thanks, Hans. I hope to cover Peter Janke’s garden visit in a future post. And you should know you’ll see yourself in some photos I have yet to post!

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Michael B. Gordon November 28, 2016 at 6:20 pm

James,
I am pleased that you finally got to Hummelo. I hope to get there myself one day. Until then, I’ll get a vicarious thrill hearing about your trip. I have never seen the view of the countryside beyond the back garden from the studio roof. It puts the garden in context with the larger landscape. Thank you!
Michael

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James Golden December 3, 2016 at 10:45 pm

Michael, the garden was entirely different from what I had imagined. I’ve seen it in so many different stages over the years (in photos) that I expected it would have stood still and remained the same in some respects. But it has changed and will continue to do so.

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Zem November 29, 2016 at 10:32 am

Very interesting blog about your tour in the garden of Piet Oudolf.
I enjoyed the beautiful photo’s.
We visited this amazing garden several times in the past years. Last time was when Piet’s wife stopped to run the nursery. Very interesting to see on your photo’s how the place of the nursery has changed.
I see forward to more blogs about the garden tour in Holland!
Best greetings, Zem.

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James Golden December 3, 2016 at 10:47 pm

Zem,
Yes, the old nursery was really changed dramatically. I remember photos of the new garden where the nursery had been, but all the plants have grown so very much, it looks entirely different now.

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andrew peake December 4, 2016 at 9:23 am

Fascinating article, I loved that you showed the design process and hand renderings. In transitioning from his hand sketches to computer draftings was he scanning his sketches and editing digitally and did he mention what program did he use to do his digital presentation drawings. I am a designer and draft on my computer, the process he uses intrigues me. He must have a massive budget for marker pens.

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James Golden December 4, 2016 at 9:37 am

Andrew, I so wish I had asked. Someone has told me he scans his final had-drawn plans into the computer and that those scans become the basis for the design documents. But I still don’t know how he “automates” the generation of plant quantities for the design. I’m sure I know people I could ask and will when I get a chance.

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Tony Spencer December 4, 2016 at 10:21 am

Hi James, Yes, Piet’s hand-drawn plans are scanned and then I believe he uses Sketchup to trace the outlines of the grouping, which then auto-calculates the plant numbers per M2. He also uses Excel as part of this process and to track the plant lists.

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James Golden December 4, 2016 at 10:35 am

Thanks, Tony, for the rest of the story.

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Denise Maher December 4, 2016 at 1:26 pm

So glad you’re blogging on this amazing tour, James. It’s probably my oversight, but I didn’t see a month. I’m thinking August or later from all the Joe Pye Weed in bloom. The view from the studio might be a favorite . I’m surprised that more large gardens don’t incorporate an opportunity for such a view, moving from the immersive, ground-level experience to an Olympian/bird’s eye view. Even in my small garden, I love the change in perspective just several feet off the ground brings.

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James Golden December 5, 2016 at 4:40 pm

Denise, you’re right. I just inserted the month–August as you deduced. I agree. Ever since Claire Takacs photographed my garden for Gardens Illustrated, and used a ladder to get high-level views, I’ve wanted to create some kind of “observatory” to allow views over the garden. So far, cost has been prohibitive but I’m still working on the idea. I’d like something unobtrusive hidden by trees and large grasses, but capable of holding about four people seated.

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Eric S December 7, 2016 at 7:21 pm

I suppose drones’-eye-view photography/video is now possible. Perhaps we can look forward to such images which could well inform garden-makers as well as those of us who yearn to understand a garden at another level (pun intended).

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James Golden December 10, 2016 at 11:04 pm

Ha. Someone actually flew a drone over it last spring. It was amazing to see the garden from 450 feet above.

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Nell December 15, 2016 at 6:00 pm

In the image above Oudolf plunging through the planting, are those rosy-purple plants in the foreground ironweed (Vernonia), or Joe Pyes, or…? Unusually red color in either case — fabulous. Seems too early in the day and the season to be simply an effect of low light.

Now on to Hermannshof, please!

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James Golden December 15, 2016 at 9:16 pm

Nell, they are Joe Pye. In The Netherlands, the Joe Pye Weed has a much more intense color than in the US. I think the difference in color is attributable to climate and the light, not necessarily to genetics. In all the gardens we saw, the Joe Pye Weed was much more colorful than it is over here. I may be wrong. I want to find Reisenschirm and try it next year.

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Sarah December 20, 2016 at 11:17 am

James,
Wonderful photos! It’s almost like being there. Someday…..
It’s also fascinating to see the plans for the future Delaware Botanic Garden. I have been following the story of how Piet became involved and know a local designer who is apparently going to be managing the meadow planting…. Will be interesting to see it come together.
Happy Holidays!
Sarah

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James Golden February 15, 2017 at 9:46 am

Thank you for commenting, Sarah. I missed your comment and am just seeing it. Yes, Greg Tepper is the new director of the Delaware Botanic Garden. I believe the Oudolf meadow will be planted next fall.

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Jane Finlay December 31, 2016 at 7:45 am

A really enjoyable blog James, thank you. I’ve visited Piet’s garden in Hummelo and it is a joy. My inquisitiveness regarding the Joe Pye matched the cutiosity of your other readers. I asked Piet’s wife Anya: it is Eupatorium maculatum ‘Atropurpureum’ and if you want it to come true to colour and form it is essential to specify from cutting only (not seed). Hope that helps?

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James Golden December 31, 2016 at 9:31 am

Thanks, Jane. That makes sense. Perhaps all the Eupatorium I’ve bought were grown from seed, but I hope not. I know Reisenschirm is a cultivar grown by Oudolf and others, and it is supposed to have a more intense color. It isn’t easy to find in the US, but I know at least one west coast nursery that carries it, so I’ll give it a try.

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Allison Davies March 16, 2017 at 5:13 pm

I would love to follow your blog. Thanks,
Big Oudolf Fan
Allison

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