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.