When world-renowned garden designer Piet Oudolf began working on New York's High Line along with James Corner's Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, he had an inkling that the elevated park would become a popular destination. Now, more than a decade later, over 7 million people visit the park each year, including Oudolf, who is known to make a surprise appearance now and then to witness his creation evolving with the seasons. We recently had a chance to join the Dutch master gardener on one of his strolls during his trip to NYC for Friends of the High Line's September-long celebration of the Chelsea Grasslands. Read on to see what he had to say about his creative process, how he got his start doing what he does and his gardening tips for aspiring green thumbs.
Using patches of plants and swaths of grass as his paints, Oudolf has changed the way we think about gardens.
INHABITAT: You’re thought of as a pioneer of the New Perennial movement. Can you explain what that is for people who are not familiar with that?
OUDOLF: I would say it’s about a group of people who were interested in plants and gardening but in a way that was not traditional. In a way that would serve the plant instead of you, yourself. It came from an ecological approach where plants like to grow together in an environment that they like and instead of what we provide for the plants. It grew very slowly out of searching for another idea of garden design because everyone was fed up with all this sort of beauty of English gardens where you just plant flowers and you cut them up and plant them back and it just stays. I missed a certain continuity at that time and that’s why I met those people that came from wilder backgrounds – native plants and ecologists. Then my eyes opened a little bit, and I thought if I just use plants that have more than just the beauty of flowers, if I put them down a little bit more irregularly and drop a few plants here and there that look more spontaneous. That is, in short, how I started to change my mind and also using grasses, which no one did in English gardens.
Grasses were forbidden in the border. We normally used them in the bigger landscapes and not as a gardener. Gardeners used probably grass in a pot or grass in the middle of the loam but nothing in the venues. I chased that idea with books about how to use grasses and perennials together and we had a nursery and we could already show how grass could look good with flowering plants. That’s how it started except that for the media they were looking for new ideas of gardening and they found us as a source for new pictures and new images for their magazines because our plantings looked very difficult.
That helped also for people to appreciate what we were doing. It’s a very complex method and took at least 20 years, but it became very popular and well seen today. If you looked at this grass 20 years ago, people would say why don’t you cut it down or why don’t you cut it back, but today they say yeah. We showed people how you could use different plants and see beauty in something that probably was not seen as beauty.
INHABITAT: How do you select plants differently from other gardeners?
OUDOLF: I would say plants have color, and gardening is mostly based on color and decoration, but if you work outside your private realm, you notice that the color is only temporary for two weeks, three weeks and then if color is gone and there is no structure then you lose the whole idea of a good garden. We work with plants that at first place have good characteristics – structure or texture. Character in the sense that they look good and they have a good appearance, and then color is an extra thing. Color is to create an emotion or depth of anything you want after structure. Because you can imagine if you have a garden that is all in red that it has another whole expression when it’s only white. Red is more dramatic and white is more sort of silent, so we can play with colors and that comes on top of all the other things that are important.
INHABITAT: When you began this new way of gardening, was there a lot of pushback?
OUDOLF: There are a lot of people, maybe not garden designers but in the world of plants, a lot of people that were looking more ecologically at plants from the point of view of habitats, communities and I grew to know a lot of them and that is why my thinking started to change. I discovered that I could do something much deeper and nicer by following the sort of rules of what plants like… That I could work with plants that work well together and not just use plants that I like.
INHABITAT: Instead of just choosing plants you want and forcing them to grow?
OUDOLF: Yeah, it’s like you adjust the soil to the plant; we try to get the right plants for the soil we have but this is a different thing of course and we can bring in any soil but still the High Line is about communities, plants that live together and don’t push each other out.
INHABITAT: Do you have a favorite part of the High Line?
OUDOLF: There are many. I think the Northern Spur, these parts, the Chelsea Grasslands and then also at the end with the round benches and the flyover of course. It also depends on the season like when it’s autumn and the leaves turn color and you can have another specific area that you like most so it all depends on the seasons as well. The whole garden drives on seasonality and it’s not about the beauty of the flowers, it’s the beauty of the season.
The Northern Spur, a bridge of plantings over 10th Avenue, is one of Oudolf’s favorite parts of the High Line. “We have very shallow soil here,” he explained. “This is one of the places where the soil is only this deep so it was one of the places where I had a big doubt about if anything would grow here for a longer period. I used the most aggressive plants here – aggressive in the sense that they are very strong and durable and you can see they are still doing well.”
INHABITAT: What’s your process when you are selecting plants for a certain piece?
OUDOLF: For the High Line, we have a narrative…a story that is told by the architects. We enter in a woodland situation and that opens up to metal and then continues into this water landscape or swamp landscape. We get the whole story from this sort of storybook and I translate that into plants. When I read a story of what I like, I get a picture in front of me and then for every part of the High Line I put together a sort of palette of plants; a sort of number of plants that could work in that character of what they have written down. It’s like a stage play and we have this play and in it needs so many people and he plays that character and the other plays that character. That’s how I put it together. I put them together in a palette and then I put them on paper but it’s a whole process that is very complex because it’s more that… I get the script and then translate that into what you see now.
INHABITAT: Have you ever had an experience where you designed a garden and then came back and thought this is not what I was expecting or what I wanted?
OUDOLF: Yeah, once I plant it and I leave, my work depends mostly on the gardeners afterwards because it’s not an architect who leaves the building and the building will be there for 100 years. When I leave the garden and it’s not taken care of, then you would lose it within two years; you lose the whole idea. It’s complicated because everything you see is sort of three dimensional but the gardener’s time is a big part of it too. We live in a time where things change and if you don’t realize that things change then you cannot do it right. You need to know that some trees will livee 50 years, some trees will probably die in the coming five years, you will never know but in a way you have got to keep that in mind. You have to be open for all the changes.
INHABITAT: What have you learned over the years from visiting the High Line and seeing it evolve?
OUDOLF: One of the things that you learn most from is where the garden runs over hundreds of houses or apartments or buildings. So one building is just a restaurant which is very hot, another building is just an apartment which is not too hot and then you have a part where it’s very cold and in the winter everything freezes to solid. That’s what you first learn that plants react strongly to those local climate changes, micro-climates. That’s why we lost so many trees because they run over warmer areas, they have got a very cold spell in February when the trees are already starting to grow and then the trees grew because they thought it was the coming spring. It’s the building underneath that heated them up and that’s how you lose plants but you have to accept it.
INHABITAT: What are some tips that you have for gardeners or the biggest mistakes that you have seen or learned from?
OUDOLF: For private gardeners and people who love plants, the biggest mistake is that you buy plants that you like on first sight. Instead of thinking about they will work in your garden.
INHABITAT: Could you talk a little about your new book that’s coming out?
INHABITAT: When you see people interacting with your work, are you surprised at how much people love it?
OUDOLF: Yeah, I think gardening of plants is something that everyone has in them. You buy flowers to bring home, so there is something in you…why don’t you buy a brick for your wife? [Laughs] Because it has something sentimental and it has something that probably is in our genes that we love plants because we are attached to nature because we are part of it. When you bring this back, people are probably getting connected to what they don’t know; connected to something they don’t know about. I think it’s something that reminds them maybe of their childhood being in the wild with their parents or whatever.
There is a longing for this connection of what I just said that plants connect with people in a sense that you don’t even have to go for it but when you are here it happens to you. The other way around is people longing for something that they have in mind that could help them opening their brains. Solve their problems with the world or the environment by opening themselves…that could help them in their future lives and how they take care of the world. I think it’s one of the biggest powers of nature and you connect yourself to that power stream. It’s like an electric current loading on. I can imagine – it did that to me. The only thing I can do in my work is find tools to express myself, that was the starting point. I felt so powerful that I could do something that will show people maybe how I am, the beauty I see in them. For me, it was a tool.
Photos: Yuka Yoneda for Inhabitat
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.