When I became seriously interested in gardening, ornamental grasses were just starting to gain popularity. I, of course, paid them no attention because I wanted to create an English Garden on the Prairie. I now find my own myopia mildly embarrassing but I still admire my stubborn striving after what I thought was beautiful.
One book that really influenced my move away from English style gardening was Piet Oudolf’s Designing with Plants [Timber Press, 1990]. Oudolf, who’s Dutch, emphasized plant shape, a totally eye-opening concept for me. All I’d ever considered before was color and bloom time. Now I saw umbels, spires, plumes, buttons and globes instead. He suggested working with black and white photos of your garden to eliminate the focus on color. From that angle of my garden, I saw I had mostly “blobs,” so I set to work to change that and discovered many, many wonderful plants like cimicifugas, Culvers Root, astrantias and globe thistle.
Another thing Oudolf taught me was the value of a long season of interest. Prairie plants were commonly featured in his plantings, including ornamental grasses for their sense of movement and ability to stand up to winter’s snow and wind. Coneflowers, which I’d previously rejected as coarse and common, have a long season of interest and feed the finches as well. Their elongated daisy shape is one of Oudolf’s categories, one which includes rudbeckias and asters, sneezeweeds and helenium. And when the petals fall away, a “button” shape is revealed that adds lasting interest into the winter months.
Don’t cut everything down!
There is beauty in decay. This is another interesting Oudolf lesson that has changed my gardening style. Fall clean up is one of those “rules” of gardening that can be broken if you plant the right things. Minnesota winters, even in the age of global warming, are SIX MONTHS LONG. I realized didn’t want to look at barren featureless beds for six months of the year, so I planted more grasses, more sedums and coneflowers. These are plants that retain their shape through much of the winter, and It then makes makes sense to clean up what remains in the spring. Then instead of creating a broad plane of nothingness in the fall, you have beauty and mystery to look at.
Evergreens like the juniper ‘Skyrocket’ have become a strong structural element in my front garden, and that led to the boxwood hedges that run along the sidewalk in the picture above. The contrast between the flowy grasses(little bluestem) and the stiff formality of the boxwood is now the sort of thing that excites my interest. I’ll sculpt the boxwoods into a hedge as they fill in, and may even consider emulating, on a much smaller scale, the swoops Oudolf has in his Dutch gardens. Who knows what’s next? That’s the beauty and enduring fascination I have with gardening. You’re never “done” but you always get another chance to get it right or change it all completely.
If you’re interested in seeing more of Piet Oudolf’s work, check out the High Line website. Oudolf was the plantsman for that wonderful project that really highlights many of the points I’ve made in this post.