I have long been a fan of the garden designer Piet Oudolf. Dutch born Oudolf has championed a new style of planting and landscaping known variously as ‘new European’, ‘new wave’ and ‘new naturalism’. Whatever you want to call it, it has become THE design style of the early 21st century and his ideas of large blocks of perennial planting have captured the imaginations of gardeners, designers and urban landscapers alike. Grasses such as molinias and calamagrostis and rudbeckias, echinacea and heleniums are all classic Oudolf plants. But it’s not just the visual impact of his design and planting style that have made his ideas so popular. His choice of plants, often inspired by the prairies of North America, tend to flower in later summer and autumn. Whereas many of the more traditional English cottage garden plants have given up the ghost by August, gardens planted with these late flowering perennials are just coming into their own. They also leave behind stunning seed heads and skeletons as the garden descends into winter which gave structure and interest. Another attractive feature of these perennials is that they tend to need little attention. Many benefit from the ‘Chelsea chop’ in late May and need dividing every 3 or 4 years but other than that they can be left alone. The other huge plus is that the plants are loved by pollinating insects. In many ways it is a much more sustainable approach to gardening particularly for parks and country houses which used to rely heavily on intensive and expensive bedding schemes.
Piet Oudolf’s style of planting has proved to be hugely popular with urban planners. The mass planting works particularly well on a large-scale where the dramatic effect of large blocks of colour can be seen at their best. Parks and urban areas in Germany, Sweden, the UK and America have all had the Oudolf treatment. Perhaps his most famous and inspirational project to date is the High Line in New York, a public park built on an old railway line raised above the streets of Manhattan.
There is something painterly about Oudolf’s designs. The blocks of colour created by sedums, eryngiums and eupatoriums make you feel like you’re looking at a work of art. The first Oudolf planting scheme I saw was at RHS Wisley where he had created his own take on the classic English country garden double herbaceous borders. It was an impressive sight but it was his garden at Pensthorpe Wildlife Reserve in Norfolk which really blew me away.
I’ve wanted to visit Scampston Walled Garden for some time now. Scampston is the largest example in the UK of a privately commissioned Piet Oudolf garden. In 1998 the owners decided to transform the derelict 4 acre walled garden and rather than restore it in a historical way they decided to go for something modern. It’s a brave choice to try to combine the old – a late 18th century Regency house and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown grounds – with something contemporary. For me it worked incredibly well and I loved the combination of old and new.
The Piet Oudolf area is contained within the walled garden. A path initially takes you around the edge of the garden. Known as Plantsman’s Walk, the high brick walls on one side and tall beech hedges on the other give the impression you’re walking into a maze. Deep borders are filled with hydrangeas, geraniums and the fabulously red wine coloured leaves of Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ and the unusual berried Actaea alba. From here a path leads into a series of ‘rooms’ divided by more beech hedges. I particularly loved the Katsura Grove. I had heard of this mythical tree, whose leaves smell of cinder toffee, from my tutor at college but I have never come across them before. You know when you’ve been told something is fantastic and then when you experience it you wonder what all the fuss was about, well I’m please to report I wasn’t disappointed – they really do smell like toffee. Beds were planted with multi-stemmed Katsuras (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) and underplanted with Aster divaricatus. It was a beautiful combination and both plants have gone straight to the top of my ‘plants to buy for my next garden’ list. From here paths lead off into areas with more traditional style borders backed with beech hedging and planted with late summer flowering perennials and grasses. But it was the central perennial meadow which was the showstopper. Divided into quarters with a circular pool at the centre each section is planted with a rich palette of colours punctuated by swaying, tactile grasses. And it was teeming with bees, butterflies and hoverflies.
Currently one end of the garden is boarded off. The old glasshouse, in desperate need of restoration has been removed in sections to be repaired with the help of Lottery funding. It will be an impressive sight once completed looking out on to the hub of the garden. It’s a pity more thought isn’t given to construction work on tourist sites though. I remember as a child my dad complaining that wherever we went on holiday in Europe there would always be scaffolding or a crane spoiling the very view we had travelled so far to see. The Italians though had a very nifty idea. They used to – I don’t know if they still do – hang huge canvasses over the building which is being restored. The canvas would have an artist’s impression of the restored building which would hide the worst of the building work. It wasn’t perfect but vastly superior than a lot of plywood and a big blue lottery sign.
In contrast to the colour of the perennial meadow the adjoining area consisted of blocks of one type of grass, Molinia caerula ssp caerula ‘Poul Peterson’. It was simple, striking and hugely effective. It was impossible to walk through without stroking the grasses. There are other areas too, a small orchard and kitchen garden and the landscaped grounds which, on this occasion, we didn’t have time to see, but these really are the sideshows to the spectacular centrepiece. Designs, styles and plants come and go in gardening just as they do in fashion and interiors but I think the influence of Oudolf will be around for some time to come. If you can, try to visit one of Piet Oudolf’s gardens or parks – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Thank you for this Louise, I am a big fan of Piet Oudolf and have been since I saw one of his early planting schemes at New Farm (I could be wrong about the name of this). I would agree that his beds at Wisely are probably his least successful and that Pensthorpe is just amazing. I saw the High Line in mid-winter just after the hurricane and the planting was still interesting. I will add Scampston to my list of gardens to visit! The Italians still put up the painted canvasses over restoration work and as you say it does help mitigate the first effects of scaffolding etc.
Pleased to hear about the Italians still using those canvasses, maybe we should adopt the idea. I would love to see the High Line it just looks incredible. Oudolf has designed another garden in Somerset which opens soon so I’m hoping to visit there. If you do get to Scampston I’d recommend a visit to nearby Helmsley Walled Garden as well. 🙂
Thanks for the recommendation
I just checked and it was Bury Court. It was the first time I’d seen grasses used ornamentally and I loved the style, which has now become much more defined.
Will look up Bury Court. Thank you. 🙂
It was a very early garden of his so maybe it wouldn’t seem at all revolutionary now
Julieanne Porter (@GwenfarsGarden) said:
Scampston has been on my list for a while & you have just reminded me that I really should, particularly as I live in Yorkshire now (though Yorkshire is quite large).
Oudolf’s planting can look like a painting, kind of impressionist like.
🙂 Yorkshire is a huge county. I know when we’re driving north that it seems to take forever to get from Sheffield to the border with Co. Durham. It has been one of the reasons why we’ve never been before, but it was worth it. I was trying to think of the artist I saw at the Ashmolean who used tiny lines of colour to build up larger blocks of colour because that’s who Oudolf reminds me of. Can’t for the life of me think of the artist’s name though. 😉
A grand day out 🙂
I’ve been meaning to visit Scampston for quite some time now, it really isn’t that far from me. I really should make more of an effort, though perhaps I’ll wait until the glasshouse has been restored now.
We have too but it’s always felt a bit too far. We got stuck behind a tractor going up the infamous Sutton Bank. Still I’m glad we made the effort. I think the glasshouse should be finished for next year. They’re going to use it as a resource centre for teaching courses but a section of it will be devoted to plants.
Reblogged this on Linda's wildlife garden and commented:
Awesome thank you for sharing have a blessed day
Backlane Notebook said:
Yes he’s awesome and inspiring. A friend showed me images of his borders at Wisley taken a few weeks ago and they are remarkable in their simple beauty and I can’t wait to see them.
The scale of his planting and the bold colours are just so pleasing to the eye. Hope you get to see his Wisley garden soon. 🙂
I’ve really enjoyed reading your post, Louise. I’m also a huge fan of Piet, his prairie-style of planting and use of grasses. We were lucky enough to visit Scampston Hall a few years ago, while on holiday in Yorkshire. I found out one of his gardens was in the area and just had to see his work first hand. As you say, I was not disappointed – totally the reverse! It was magnificent. I could rave about it all for ages, but to me the greatest impact came from the block planting of the Molinia grasses – totally different! There were several benches positioned there, too. A lovely spot! Have you seen photos of it from above? It gives the most amazing viewpoint of the whole garden, and it’s various areas. Totally inspiring!
Thanks you! 🙂 He is a bit of a genius I think. The grasses were fantastic and would work well in a smaller space too. I did wish I could get up above the garden to see it from that perspective. I have seen the photos and it does look so good and as you say, inspirational. 🙂
Oh, I am officially envious now. I do love that massed planting of molinia, and the katsura grove is beautiful. I moved my Aster divaricatus today, to where I will be able to see it from the kitchen sink, it is a beautiful plant. I am so very tempted to try a shocking pink monarda, I’ve never had any luck with them before, but maybe here… Thank you for sharing – it must have been really inspirational to wander round.
🙂 It was a bit of a detour for us on a visit to my parents but we’ve been saying for years we should go. A friend has photographed the gardens there a few times and said it was well worth it…. and it was. I was very envious of the healthy monardas. Mine always succumb to mildew or are mauled by slugs. They even had a monarda that was happy growing in a shady spot – it was called ‘Pawnee’. They have a plant identification list for all the plants in the garden which you can buy for 50p. They’re marked as to where you’ll find them and they also have little numbered tags in the garden. It’s such a great idea, I wish more gardens would do it. It’s well worth the trip and if you’re in the area you can combine it with a visit to Helmsley Walled Garden too.
Scampston is a wonderful garden and I have visited it at different times of the year. This is the best time of all to see it, as the planting is spectacular.
There is a nursery attached to the garden, and they will propagate any plant in the garden for you, if they can!
I saw the nursery but resisted temptation. 🙂 I have run out of space for new plants. It’s good to know that they will propagate plants for visitors. 🙂
Anna B - digtheoutside said:
Hello Wellywoman!! I’m currently on maternity leave and that also means leave from blogging and reading, however, I’m getting back into it and this post is the first I’ve read in such a long time!! Adam was given a trip out to Scampston for his 40th and we are due to go at the end of September! Really looking forward to it and lovely to read all about it in your post. Hope you and Pianoman are well. 🙂 xx
Hello Anna, Congratulations!! Hope you, Adam and your little one are well. I’ve missed your posts but I had a feeling you had more important things going on. 😉 Scampston should look fab then. Have a great day. We’re both well, thank you for asking. It’s all quite hectic but good. 🙂 xx
I think I will take a look at this garden as soon as I can – as a member of the RHS I might even be able to get in free 🙂
I think I saw a sign which said RHS members get in free in October, might be best to check that though. We just paid to get into the walled garden which was £7 each. An extra £2 means you can walk around the landscaped park too.
Thanks for that info!
A really interesting post, and such clever design. You’ve reminded me of a tree at a nearby arboretum (Westonbirt) that smells like candyfloss. I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s amazing.
Hi CJ, We go to Westonbirt, so I’ll keep a look out for that tree. 🙂
I had not heard of this garden before and have clicked on the link, it looks like a garden I would love to visit. Do you think there is a best time of year to visit?
Hi Julie, I think mid-August through to the end of September is probably the best time to catch all the late season perennials. 🙂
I’ll play my usual role of damperer. I haven’t been, but the three people I know who have saw it quite differently. Tim Richardson wrote well about it in the New English Garden, echoing and amplifying Charles’ Hawes’ thoughts here: http://thinkingardens.co.uk/reviews/the-walled-garden-at-scampston-by-charles-hawes/
and perhaps Abbie Jury’s comments here: http://jury.co.nz/2014/08/08/grasses-anyone/
Why do I quibble? Because I do wonder if you did actually share any of these doubts or reservations but feel unable to mention them?
Thanks for your comments. Everyone feels and views a garden differently and we all visit with different expectations. I visit gardens generally to have a nice day out, as bland as that may sound. Life is hectic and quite stressful at the moment and visiting a garden, for me, is a chance to escape, to relax among plants and to return home to work and my own garden refreshed and inspired. I am more than happy to complain about a garden if it doesn’t meet expectations – see my posts about Sissinghurst and Kestle Barton.
As for Scampston I did genuinely love it. I had a read of Charles Hawes’ article. The molinia in his photo of the grass garden looked a bit small, as if they hadn’t filled out but they looked full and fabulous last Friday and I didn’t feel it was contrived. For me the perennial meadow looked stunning and I thought the silent garden was well named – I thought the silence referred to the simplicity of the space and the silence and stillness that created for my mind. The cut flower garden didn’t work for me, but as it is currently being used as a project for local school groups I didn’t think it was appropriate to complain about it. I would much rather put my own ideas to one side in that case if children are being encouraged to grow and learn to love plants. And yes, the veg garden was, well a veg garden. The thing is I hadn’t gone there to see veg I’d gone for the Piet Oudolf planting and that part of the garden delivered. I spent a lot of time at university having to critique books, museums and galleries. Unfortunately the outcome has been a difficulty to just enjoy these now without finding fault. Perhaps I could look at gardens and planting in a much more critical way but I would hate to lose the ability to just enjoy them.
You could be right that you would lose that pleasure. Worth heading up your comments about gardens with that proviso though?
Though I think you’re not quite right about everyone being different in how they see things – I’ve found over and over that when people do allow themselves to be critical they all tend to say the same things.
I think perhaps it’s the way the overall design of the garden fails to work well – (and has the mound gone?) rather than the individual plantings so much that has led people to think this garden fails. And that is perhaps not Piet’s particular skill.
A most enjoyable, and interesting, post. I’ve always been in two minds about his designs and plantings, and although they certainly work on a large scale in certain places I still prefer the more traditional English informal garden. xx
Thank you Flighty. That’s the great thing about gardening, there’s plenty of room for lots of different tastes. The world would be a boring place if we all liked the same thing. 😉 xx
Have just been to Scampston on Sunday. Completely bowled over so much better than all the pictures etc. Did you know that there is only 1 gardener looking after all the gardens. A man looks after the veg patch and a lady does the plants for sale. Amazing.
We hope to go back in the spring.
Hi Sue. I didn’t know that and that makes it all the more fabulous that it is so well-maintained. I just wish we lived closer. 🙂
I like his style of planting too but as you say it works best on a grand scale and people are often disappointed when they try to imitate it in their small plots. I think it can be incorporated to an extent but a garden only with perennials and grasses is just not pleasing year round.
Tony Spencer said:
Great to come across your blog Wellywoman.
I am undeniably an Oudolf fanatic with a blog dedicated to the New Perennial Movement. For the past ten years or so, I’ve been experimenting with translating his approach to planting design in my relatively smaller scale garden here in Canada.
I’m commenting because of the replies above that “it works best on a grand scale” etc. While a home garden will never be Pensthorpe, what it lacks in size – it can make up for in intimacy and nuance.
I humbly offer up my own garden as evidence it can done well. I won’t say it was easy but it begins with a different way of looking at plants.
See the photos here and sorry for linking but it makes the point:
Hi Tony, Thank you for your comments and the link. Wow! Your garden is stunning. Whilst I think Piet Oudolf’s schemes work best on a large scale simply because of the drama they create I completely agree with you that they can be used for inspiration on a much smaller scale. I have beds in my back garden which are planted with a small selection of the plants and grasses he uses. It may not have the same impact but it is possible to distill his ideas into a garden. 🙂
Tony Spencer said:
Thanks WW. Sounds like we’re on the same page. This mode of planting design is still very much in a state of becoming and there are no hard and fast rules. That’s part of what makes it so rewarding (and at times difficult) – gardeners are the true frontier.
If ever curious, drop by our Facebook group called ‘Dutch Dreams’ which focuses on naturalistic planting design. Formed last year in the wake of a Gardens Illustrated Tour to Hummelo and the Dutch Northern Provinces with Noel Kingsbury, the membership comes from all over the world, and is growing dare I say it, like a weed!
Hi Annette, I agree a garden with just perennials and grasses would be difficult to live with in spring and even winter but then so are gardens that are just shrubs. It’s getting the balance throughout the seasons and I do think that is the joy of Oudolf’s ideas, as they extend the season. My own garden has areas which shine in spring and early summer and then the focus moves to an area inspired by Oudolf with late season perennials and grasses. I can see why some people – perhaps non-gardeners – who commission an Oudolf style garden are then disappointed at some points in the year. I know his planting isn’t for everyone but I do like how it gives landscaping another style of planting. 🙂
Thanks for sharing your impressions of your visit to Scampston WW. It’s been on my list to visit for a while. I have read Piet Oudolf’s books with great interest over the last few years. If the weather should perk up in the next few weeks we hope to visit Trentham Gardens, which contain a couple of borders designed by him. Christina’s comment mentioned Bury Court Gardens, which was the subject on an article in yesterday’s ‘Telegraph’ magazine. I think you should be able to find it online. No need to buy aster divaricatus. I usually have divisions going spare so will gladly send you a couple when you arrive at that new garden.
We’ve often thought of stopping off at Trentham on the way up the M5 to see family but so far haven’t got round to it. I saw that article on Bury Court but still haven’t got around to reading the paper … maybe one night this week. Thanks so much for the offer of aster divisions. It’s very kind and I will gladly take you up on that offer, hopefully sooner rather than later.
rusty duck said:
It’s a style I’m just starting to experiment with on a sloping bank. I have this vision of a sea of grasses and perennials creating waves in the breeze but whether it will be easy to construct and maintain on a steep hill is another matter altogether. The Katsura tree has to be one of my favourites. I had one in a previous garden and immediately planted a small tree when we moved here. The scent is incredible.
I love the sound of your bank. Perhaps there are ways you can adapt your plans to work. I hope so. 🙂
Wow, between your excellent post and the comments, there’s a lot going on here! I remembered that there’s a cercidiphyllum japonicum outside the design studio at Capel; I love to watch its leaves change through the seasons. One of the earliest field trips I did via Capel was to Wisley. Having been bowled over by the orchard area, I then climbed the mound to see Oudolf’s planting leading down to the glasshouse – it was staggeringly beautiful, even in October. I fell in love with Eryngium ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ amongst many other beautifully fading perennials. I saw his work again in early July when I went to Bury Court Farm with college. Because of traffic, I missed the walkround with owner John Coke but thought PO’s planting added so much to the gardens. If I could remember the names of all the plants, I’d blog about it -haha! 🙂 What a great idea to provide a plant list at Scampston, well worth 50p! That garden is a long way from London but I’d like to see it one day, Pensthorpe too. So many beautiful gardens, so little time!
It is a long way. It was quite a trek for us even – lots of winding roads and a steep bank jammed with caravans struggling up it. It’s a gorgeous part of the world though with lots of gardens to visit nearby – Helmsley, Millgate, Castle Howard. It would make a perfect weekend of gardening visits. Pensthorpe takes ages to get to as well, otherwise I’d go back. It’s more than 6 hours for us to get there. We can be in Edinburgh in the same time. 🙂 Piet Oudolf has designed a new garden though in Somerset so maybe if you’re visiting Bristol you can visit there too. I know, I have a list of places I want to visit but not much time.
Whew! A really interesting post and follow-up comments, Louise – blogging can be such an education, can’t it? I remember being impressed with Pensthorpe and will pencil in Scampston for a future visit – whether gardens contain elements of what we would like to have in our own garden or not we should still be able to appreciate them for a range of other reasons.
Hi Cathy. Thank you. Scampston is lovely and it’s in a part of the country with lots of other gardens to visit so would make a perfect short break. I should work for the tourist board. 😉
Ann Ali said:
very interesting to read all your comments about Scampston. We do indeed only have 1 main chap looking after it. I work in the plant nursery trying to grow as much from the garden as possible for sale but I also help a small amount in the garden, mainly at hedge cutting time. And we do have a volunteer who does one day a week. Tony grows the veg. It’s a constantly full on busy job for us all and we all try to keep a high standard in all areas of the garden. It’s nice so many enjoy it. The most enjoyment I get is all the wildlife, birds, butterflies and bees. It’s full of them in summer and now of course the perennial meadow is full of flocks of finches eating seeds. Even if your not keen on this type of garden you have to look to the wider benefits for nature in your surrounding area. Also I made myself a new garden in a house with only a 5m by 5m garden and because of piet’s inspirational planting I ended up with a garden in flower in Yorkshire from feb to nov. The house then sold to a lady who said wow when she came through the gate. You can experiment and make your own garden as diverse as possible and by studying piet’s planting can end up with a mini scampston in your own garden. A programme on with Christine Walkden at the moment called Glorious garden from above shows Scampston on programme 4. For all of you, it will show us at it’s best. Hope many more visit and enjoy the gardens as much as Paul (head gardener) and I do.