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Garden Design: Learning to Plant the Piet Oudolf Way

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Garden Design: Learning to Plant the Piet Oudolf Way

November 12, 2019

A personal tour of Hummelo, the Netherlands home and famed garden of designer Piet Oudolf, would be pretty near the top of any keen gardener’s wish list. But this dream becomes a reality—albeit in a virtual sense—when you enroll at Learning With Experts, an online school where you can take courses with all manner of experts.

Planting The Piet Oudolf Way, a course with Oudolf and his long-time collaborator Dr Noel Kingsbury, costs $195 and is one of many horticultural programs on offer, ranging from how to choose and care for roses with David Austin’s senior rosarian, Michael Marriott, to designing small gardens with designer Annie Guilfoyle. We enrolled in Piet Oudolf’s course to see if distance learning is as good as the real thing.

Photography courtesy of Learning With Experts.

 Miscanthus sinensis &#8
Above: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ is one of Oudolf’s signature grasses.

The courses are cleverly designed to be very user friendly. You can dip in and out of classes, watching them at your own speed; re-watch them if you want to. At the end of each class you can send an optional assignment to your tutor for feedback and advice.

 cAbove: In Planting the Piet Oudolf Way we are given a ringside seat at Hummelo at its peak in September. Kingsbury and Oudolf wander the gardens picking out key focus areas and breaking down the planting style, pinpointing why certain combinations work. There are plenty of less studious moments too, where you can be mesmerized by the exquisite beauty of Oudolf’s garden. We could happily watch a feature-length version of these videos.
cAbove: In Planting the Piet Oudolf Way we are given a ringside seat at Hummelo at its peak in September. Kingsbury and Oudolf wander the gardens picking out key focus areas and breaking down the planting style, pinpointing why certain combinations work. There are plenty of less studious moments too, where you can be mesmerized by the exquisite beauty of Oudolf’s garden. We could happily watch a feature-length version of these videos.
 Actaea racemosa (Black Cohosh) adds height and airiness behind grasses.
Above: Actaea racemosa (Black Cohosh) adds height and airiness behind grasses.

Each session focuses on a key element of design, kicking off with plant structure. “The idea is not to copy nature, but to give a feeling of nature,” says Oudolf of his style as we learn about each group of plants. There are verticals (such as Veronicastrum virginicum or the fluffy haze of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’), spikes and spires such as Sanguisorba canadensis or Stachys officianalis that provide dynamic focal points in a scheme.

We also learn about plumes such as astilbe or the hazy flowers of Calamagrostis brachytricha, balls and buttons and umbels – a group that includes some of Oudolf’s favorite and most effective plants such as Eupatorium maculatum or Sedum ‘Matrona’.

Further classes investigate how different plant shapes can be combined and why those combinations work. Why, for example, does a hazy swath of Deschampsia cespitosa can create a sense of mystery in the garden? Why do the bleached out balls of of Echinops ritro work so well against the airy white seed-heads of Scutellaria incana?
Above: Further classes investigate how different plant shapes can be combined and why those combinations work. Why, for example, does a hazy swath of Deschampsia cespitosa can create a sense of mystery in the garden? Why do the bleached out balls of of Echinops ritro work so well against the airy white seed-heads of Scutellaria incana?
Oudolf&#8
Above: Oudolf’s planting plans, shelved in his studio.

While most gardeners obsess over color, we learn that form is actually much more important for a longer season of interest; for Oudolf it’s fundamental that a plant performs over a long period of time, not just during its flowering season. A closer look at Hummelo through the seasons illustrates how the garden evolves from spring through summer and late autumn when the garden becomes a tonal sea of blonde and brown forms, and into winter when those same shapes are dusted in a coating of frost.

 Echinacea varieties and hazy purple Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian Sage) mingle in Oudolf&#8
Above: Echinacea varieties and hazy purple Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian Sage) mingle in Oudolf’s garden at Hummelo.

Can the Piet technique be mimicked? Oudolf is a planting genius, perhaps the most influential garden designer of his age, but there is much to learn in these classes and besides all that, it’s just a joy to hear him talk about how he puts it all together.

For more of Oudolf’s garden designs, see:

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