Piet Oudolf and New Wave Planting

I’m going to take a moment and let you consider the idea of “new wave” gardening. Go ahead and make a joke about incorporating the spirit of Devo into your perennial border. There, that was fun, wasn’t it? OK, let’s move on.

Gardeners do love their fads. Cottage gardens, tropical gardens, and Mediterranean gardens have all come in and out of vogue over the years. It seems like every plant combination has been tried; one wonders how anyone could possibly come up with a new way to arrange the same plants. But I was inspired by the garden designs of Dutch nurseryman Piet Oudolf from the minute I picked up his book Timber Press.) Oudolf and a few other garden designers in Europe have created a new movement in gardening—what they call “New Wave”—and his books do a wonderful job of describing this new approach to garden design.

The guiding principle of his work is that structure, form, and texture should take precedence over color. Yeah, you heard me. Don’t plant a garden of purples and blues. Put shapes together, and then think about how colors fit into that.

Oudolf looks at the shape of a plant and classifies it accordingly. That doesn’t just mean looking at the shape of a flower—after all, the plant won’t be in bloom all year. A category of plants that form spires or spikes might include foxglove and salvia, but it might also include upright forms of grasses. Plants that create screens and curtains could include the airy meadow rue, but also tall, wispy grasses or even fennel or purple verbena, two plants that produce flowers on tall, thin stalks, giving the sense of height without blocking the view behind them. He takes the same approach with color, considering not just flowers that bloom in shades of red and burgundy, but grasses and foliage that provide those colors, too.

Second, he prefers perennials to shrubs and trees. He appreciates the fact that perennials change constantly, and that they are beautiful as they live and as they die. In fact, he considers the shape of a plant throughout the year, realizing that even as stalks become brittle and die in winter, they can still be part of a design.

These constant changes give a garden its mood. He writes that, “Some gardens, particularly those created by landscape architects, are like monuments: frozen…A garden that shows the cyclical nature of the gardening process is one that has emotion and mood.” To capture mood, he considers how light falls on plants, how wind and rain move plants around, and even how flower stalks look when they are laced with dew-covered spider webs or covered in frost.

Finally, he chooses plants that are hardy, appropriate to the climate, and that spread gently without being invasive. That approach allows plants to grow into each other, creating an almost shaggy, overgrown look that is both natural and abundant. These are not necessarily “no fuss” plants—they might require deadheading, dividing, mulching, and feeding—but the goal is to choose plants that can reach their full potential in the climate and soil you have, and that aren’t bothered by pests and disease. In Oudolf’s gardens, the plants must be able to stand up for themselves. Pull your socks up, plants! Solve your own problems. I like that approach.

Some of his favorites are ornamental grasses; cimifuga (also called black snakeroot), which produce tall spikes of flowers followed by small, sturdy berries; and some well-behaved varieties of persicaria or knotweed. While knotweed had earned a bad reputation as an invasive plant, the varieties he favors, including Persicaria amplexicaulis, will spread slowly without getting weedy. He’s also not necessarily opposed to a weed if it can fall into step and play nice with the other plants.

What I love most about Oudolf’s books is that his writing is so honest and opinionated. Most of the full-color, coffee table gardening books I buy are pure eye candy. I can’t claim to read them for the articles; it really is all about the pictures. But even when Oudolf is writing a straightforward directory of plants, his personality shows through. His entry on echinacea, or purple coneflower, begins, “It is extremely frustrating to have to admit that Echinacea is not reliable…They will not tolerate any competition from neighbouring plants: within two years they will have disappeared….we keep hoping, against our better judgment, that in the end we will be able to find the right spot for them, where they will be blessed with a long and happy life.”

Piet Oudolf’s newest book, Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space, was just published by Timber Press. It’s dreamy. Check it out.