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  • Jennifer Jewell





The name Piet Oudolf is one of those rare names in the plant world that stands a good chance of being recognized even by people not in the plant world. His name is synonymous with a very particular and particularly emotive planting style - rich in large swathes of naturalistically grouped herbaceous perennials (often North American wildflower and prairie plants) and characterized by dramatic seasonal dynamics and ecological grounding.

Envision: you’re standing in a grassy meadow filled with late summer colors – the grasses are high and in seed, the colors of the field are a natural blend of various heights and pools of golden blond, nut brown and dark chocolate brown, there’s dark green and mid green – late summer yellows, burnt orange, wine reds – the wind is riffling the seed heads, flower stalks and grasses, the sky is blue. Bees and birds add the universal hum that marks life. Time is both tangibly moving, yet easily so – slowly.

This is how I think of a garden by Piet - as he is known. Most people’s response to his gardens is both physical and intuitive – it is food, it is beauty, it looks simple and complex.

In the business of plantsmanship and powerful garden design since the mid- 1980s, in the last few years, Piet’s already successful career has been further expanded by the completion and opening of the High Line Gardens in New York City, on which Piet served as garden designer. Additionally, a book, Hummelo (Monacelli Press, 2015) chronicling the span of Piet's life and career at Hummelo, his private family home and garden in the Netherlands, was co-written by friend, fellow plantsman, garden designer and writer Noel Kingsbury and published in celebration of Piet's 70th birthday.

To top all of that, a new documentary filmed and produced over 2 years by Thomas Piper “Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf,” opens on June 13th in New York City at the International Film Center, at which both Piet and Tom will be present, another opening will take place in Los Angeles on June 29 at which Tom will be present. Garden Design magazine is one of the media sponsors.

This week on Cultivating Place we’re joined by Tom via Skype to speak with us about the life, work and broad cultural impact of this passionately creative, visionary plantsman and his own journey making this movie.

"You can be botanist and know a lot about how plants are built up, you can be an ecologist and know exactly what community a plant grows in and where it grows in the world. I am neither - I know a lot of plants because I love plants, I know where they grow because I love to see where they grow.

Plants for me are a medium - a medium to bring out emotion - a very strong emotion into the field. That’s why I always took every opportunity to go outside the private garden, If I like it - everyone will like it. That is really what I always thought: if I do what I do for just two people, that is too little."

Piet Oudolf

FIVE SEASONS: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf

Piet Oudolf is well known and revered Dutch garden designer and plantsman. Even if you’re not sure you know his name, if you saw one of his public gardens you would know the style of garden and planting design which he is widely attributed as having started and led worldwide. He came on the European garden scene with his first book "Dream Plants", which was published in 1990 and cowritten with fellow plantsman, Henk Gerritson.

"Dream Plants" introduced the gardening world to a whole new set of favorite garden plants focused heavily on seasonally dynamic herbaceous perennials and self-seeding wildflowers. His characteristic planting palate and style is sometimes known as the New Perennial or the Dutch Wave movement in Garden design.

If Piet Oudolf first came into the European public eye in a big way with his first book in 1990, it was in 2004 when his groundbreaking planting designs in Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millenium Park that the US was solidly introduced to his creativity. Although Piet had completed other gardens in the US prior to Lurie, including a garden in New York City's Battery Park, Piet himself cites his design and realization of Lurie Garden as a turning point in the maturing of his work in terms of design and planting style and process.

According to the Millenium Park website, Lurie Garden is "an urban model of responsible horticulture, and provides a healthy habitat for a wide variety of plants, animals, and insects – and people. Lurie Garden is a leader in landscape architecture, garden design, responsible maintenance practices and dynamic public programming in an urban environment. The garden offers a four-season experience blending Chicago’s past, present and future with bold design, dramatic form, and intimate spaces. Its design pays homage to Chicago’s transformation from flat marshland to a city heralded for investing in extensive green spaces, or 'Urbs in Horto' (City in a Garden)."

Lurie was the first public garden that filmmaker Thomas Piper met of Piet’s and the experience stayed with him. Thus far, Tom's film career has focused on the lives and work of creative across the art and architecture fields, as and with his newest film on the life and artistic design process of garden designer and plantsman Piet Oudolf, he ventured for the first time into the field of landscape design. Tom spent the better part of 2016 and 2017 shadowing and traveling the Dutch garden designer and plantsman Piet Oudolf in order to document his design process and the influence of his work on the world of landscape and planting design.

It is about birth, life and death - that’s the garden’s life too. What happens in our whole lives, happens here in one year. I think that works on your soul, you know?...Beauty is in so many things you wouldn’t think of - beauty in ugliness, in death, in decay, in the unexpected.

I think it’s our journey in life to discover what real beauty is.

To find beauty in things that are at first not beautiful.”

Piet Oudolf

"FIVE SEASONS:The Gardens of Piet Oudolf

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So, what’s hard to get across in this conversation about the movie Five Seasons is the really effective way that Tom Piper captures some of the more ethereal aspects that are in part at the root of our gardening love and instinct. The movie is both titled and structured in Five Seasons – but in each season through the whole round of them, there are brief but important sections in which you are just looking at the garden in this moment. Sometimes it’s Piet’s garden at Hummelo, sometimes we are in one of the gardens he’s designed. But no matter where you are these scenes are quite captivating, intimate –not because they are gratuitous flower porn as we sometimes joke but because they are so surprisingly intimate - as though Piper got not only into Piet Oudolf’s internal view but into each of ours as gardeners. He seemed to me to capture those moments when we stand for a brief second at the kitchen window and lost track of time in between this dish and the next and just lose ourselves in the light filtering through the foliage; those moments where we’re on our way through the garden to do this or that and we stop just for a second and watch the way the light or the rain shimmers across a spiders web or the breeze catches and dances with the grasses fairy wand seed heads…..they are such fleeting moments, they are rarely planned and most times I would wager, we hardly remember they happened – we get pulled back out of the moment of sensual reverie and communion and we’re back at whatever it was we were at – the same, but better. I loved this aspect about the movie – and the more they connected to the way I sometimes perfectly connect with the garden and its plant companions, the more I liked it.

Maybe this is part of what Piet is referencing when he says at some point in the movie: “Gardening is a promise - it’s not always about what is there, but looking forward to what will be there."

The parallels between life and the nature of the garden is not lost on any of us, I daresay. But to follow Piet Oudolf’s creative and gardening process through his own home garden really highlights the parallels between this man and his garden of close to 40 years. We see him walking the garden in all seasons, we see him interacting with the flowers, with the seed heads, we see him gazing at its various elements and reflecting. The movie starts in the fall and ends in the late fall a year later – fall – the season of seed heads and skeletons seems to call to him more than any other season in the garden.

At one bittersweet point he notes “I am 71 - well into the fall I think. The beauty is still there, I won’t come back and they will….Beauty is in so many things you wouldn’t think of - beauty in ugliness, in death, in decay, in the unexpected. I think it’s our journey in life to discover what real beauty is. To find beauty in things that are at first not beautiful.”

I like the layered interplay that Piper uses to illustrate creativity, the garden and being a gardening and plant loving person in his lens on Piet Oudolf.

It is not all pretty flowers, but neither is life and in this lens we as people are firmly IN the nature of our gardens, not outside or above them somehow. Finding beauty in the ugliness and in the decay, in death even, one of the hardest parts of both life and love….is not always easy, but in the garden such lessons always seem like just another season of a longer and ongoing journey..whether you’re 22, 52 or 72…do you feel this?

What ugliness or surprisingly not-beautiful beauty has brought more life to your garden? I’d love to read about it or see it. If you have thoughts or stories to share, please send them by email through the contact page at (scroll to bottom of page), or write them in the comments of this episode’s post on Instagram and Facebook.

And if you liked this episode – and feel moved – SHARE IT WITH FRIENDS. - with every single plant loving person you can think of on this planet.

Because together we as gardeners make a difference in this world – in what we value and how we too embody and model these values forward.

The value we find in conversations like these is powerful action for positive shifts in this world. Thank you!

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