Dutch master Piet Oudolf is routinely hailed as the world’s greatest gardener, described as a “design genius” by the likes of Esquire magazine and the UK’s Telegraph. He has a shelf (or should that be shed?) full of internationals gongs to back up such praise, including the prestigious Veitch Memorial Medal, a 150-year-old prize awarded by London’s Royal Horticultural Society to “persons of any nationality who have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement and improvement of the science and practice of horticulture”. I ask Piet if he considers himself an artist as much as a gardener, and the reply is that he’s a combination of both: “You cannot stand out if you are not different to other people.”
And stand out the 74-year-old most certainly always has, long established as horticulture’s ever-evolving renegade, tearing pages from the gardening rulebook like weeds from a lawn. Famed for mimicking the natural wilderness in his designs, you won’t find fastidiously pruned flower beds and neatly strimmed edges in Piet’s parks, rather spontaneous, textured expanses of sweeping grasses and rippling perennials.
Piet is also lauded for his consideration of gardens during fall and winter, finding the beauty in decaying plants in their quite literal autumn years, while embracing nature’s usually ignored. “That was always part of the idea,” he says. “Why should a garden’s beauty only be in the flower? It can be in the seeds or the heart or in the character of the plant. It is about the atmosphere. It is about the time of the year.” It can also be in the skeletal, frosted stem of a plant come winter, but fall, he says, is the season he most loves. Not too hot, not too cold. He can still sit comfortably outside, and reflect.
“All of the plants I use have a purpose for a particular season and a particular place in the system of my designs.”
His designs have graced parks, gardens and urban public spaces in many of Europe’s and North America’s major cities like London, Chicago, Copenhagen and Toronto. He is still so in demand with international architects and city planners that, he reveals over the phone from his home in the Netherlands, he chose to stop accepting commissions last January (“I love my work, but as you get older you want a little privacy, to create a little bit more space in life.”). He has also co-authored several horticultural tomes and even bred his own plant strains.Piet’s most well-known project is undoubtedly High Line in New York, a 2.3-kilometre-long section of railway viaduct that has been turned into an elevated urban park.
“New York is a major attraction, but there are smaller scale projects that are significant,” says Piet. “I have created several neighbourhood parks in Sweden, for example, that are of great importance to the local communities. I know what it does for the people that live there.”
Throughout the decades, Piet says that it has been his mission to create greater awareness of the importance of such spaces, “of what plants can do for the soil, for your soul and for the environment”.
His entry into the horticultural industry came rather late, occurring around aged 25 when he began work at a garden centre. I ask if he’d always been a creative soul.
“I don’t know. I was curious all of my life. I didn’t know how to grow up, you know. I was a not an easy child. I didn’t finish school. I didn’t know what to do. I just lived lived my life, so to say, but always curious.”
Did that curiosity spill over into your experimental approach to gardening?
“I think so, in the sense that I always wanted to go a little bit deeper than people would normally want to go. I wanted to know more about plants, about how they grew, the ecology, and how they worked together. And I think I was always interested in design, and the architecture of plants. You could see them as characters, or you could see them as architectural structures. I could express myself by working with plants, as you do in art.”
There is, I wonder, perhaps no better metaphor for the beauty—and fragility—of life, than a garden.
“The garden is a metaphor for so many things that can touch you so, so deeply,” says Piet. “It’s about birth and rebirth and life after that. I would say it’s a metaphor for more than life; for lives.”