Creating Oudolf-inspired designs for your customers

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Updated Apr 15, 2019
Pictured is The High Line in New York City, designed by Piet Oudolf.Pictured is The High Line in New York City, designed by Piet Oudolf.

When you hear the name Piet Oudolf, it’s hard not to imagine some of his most notable works, such as The Olympic Park, The High Line – New York, Chicago Botanic Garden and more.

The Dutch landscape designer has certainly made a name for himself over the years, and many fans not only appreciate his designs but also try to channel his methods when working on their own projects.

When it comes to getting ideas for your own designs, why not take a page from the master’s book? After all, imitation is the highest form of flattery, and if you’re going to seek inspiration in the field of landscape design, it might as well be from one of the greats.

Natural and hazy styles

One of Oudolf’s most notable design characteristics is his ability to emphasize nature’s form, texture and the natural way plants work in harmony with each other.

One popular method he’s been known to use is creating a garden that features plants from all four seasons. Many customers flock to the idea of holistic-looking, natural gardens, so this method could be right up their alley.

Blooms and flowers will die and fade away, leaving stalks, stems and seed pods behind. Since this is inevitable, it’s important to embrace the decay instead of quickly trying to prune at the first sign of wilting.

Knowing full well that these blooms and flowers will not last, be sure to choose a selection that can still add interesting shapes and textures to the landscape, even when their bloom time is up.

A good place to start on a four-season garden is to take a look at grasses and perennials that will thrive in your USDA Hardiness Zone. The hardier that plant is, the more easily it can take on weather changes.

Instead of cutting back plants after they’ve begun to wilt, leave the stalks there. Once frost or snow hits them, it can create an entirely new look for the landscape.

As we said earlier, the lifecycle of plants isn’t meant to be forever, but don’t grab the pruning shears just yet. This is where some of your customers may need a bit of convincing but take your time and try to get Oudolf’s point across to them: don’t fear the color brown in a landscape. It doesn’t have to symbolize something dead, forlorn and forgotten.

Another popular method Oudolf implements is mixing flowering perennials and grasses to create hazy swaths throughout the landscape.

Much like the glow of candlelight can set the mood and ambiance of a fine dining experience, Oudolf says grasses set the mood in a garden. By planting grasses in masses, you are able to create a soft, blurred background for the other plants present.

The 70 percent rule and matrix planting

According to Oudolf, perennials fall into two categories: filler and structure plants. Where structure plants can help provide a clear visual interest until about autumn, filler plants are typically only used for their flowers, foliage and color. These eventually become untidy and, sometimes, formless after their bloom time has come and gone.

Oudolf teaches that at least 70 percent of a garden should be filled with structure plants, and the remaining 30 can be filler plants. When choosing structure plants, he recommends choosing repeat bloomers, grasses and long-season perennials.

For those who might not be as familiar with the term “matrix planting,” it can be simply defined as an area designed to emulate the look and function of a natural ecosystem found in the wild.

In the past, Oudolf has made the comment that matrix planting is similar to fruitcake: both are full of treats and shaped like rectangles. Good matrix plantings will depend on visually quiet and colorfully soft background plants, and grasses are one of the top selection choices.

Grasses are able to occupy a large amount of space for long periods of time, and many last year-round without having to be replaced.

Oudolf also suggests the use of native plants where necessary, but he does say not to use native plants just for the sake of saying you used them.

“It is important that planting schemes for biodiversity combine species which really support wildlife effectively as well as those which simply look good and tick the ‘native’ box,” he told Gardenista.

Repeating themes, layers and the color brown

More of Oudolf’s tried and true methods deal with repeating patterns and themes throughout the landscape, as well as adding in layers.

“Repeating plants at regular intervals adds rhythm and variation,” Oudolf told Gardenista. “It creates a feeling that ‘this is one place, with one design and one vision. Good repeating plants need to have a distinct personality and a long season of interest, or at least disappear tidily or die back discreetly.”

Take into account the naturally occurring layers that you see every day in nature. Trees create a main layer, followed by grasses and plants as another. The plants continue to add on to each other until there is an entire field full of layers.

When bringing this aspect into your customer’s landscape, be sure to keep it simple by starting out with only two or three layers. This keeps the layout simple enough for everyone to enjoy while subtly adding in the complexity brought out by layers.

A good way to start this off is to consider adding perennials in the foreground and evergreen shrubs in the back. This will create very distinct focal points in the landscape.

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