Master of the Dutch Wave
















By Ann Rosmarin

Piet Oudolf, one of the worlds’s most famous and innovative garden designers, lives in Humelo, a village in the Netherlands that is essentially flat, with verdant pastures, and often coated in mist and perpetual rain. I left Sonoma in the worst drought in decades and I wondered what I could learn from this watery landscape to incorporate in my garden designs in Northern California. I was soon to discover a man who combines a wealth of knowledge and artistic vision.

Oudolf, master and protagonist of the Dutch Wave Garden Movement, is a tall, taciturn fellow with rugged good looks and passionate about plants and gardens. His signature style focuses on woody plants, long-lived perennials and ornamental grasses, with a natural look, valued for their structure and combined in masses to float seamlessly in hazy clouds of colours and textures.

Sonoma County Garden with brown flowers going to seed podsHis contemporary designs are inspired by nature and even more dramatic in fall and winter: Plants are left to fade, wither and die as the seasons wind down into winter and left to cut back in stages so there is always seasonal interest. Plants transform from light pastels, deep blues and rich purples into browns and blacks, architectural and sculptural, stripped bare. Seedpods and stems are left to create textural contrast and visual interest as well as providing food for birds and insects and shelter for wildlife.

Oudolf selects plants that have inherent, sturdy form, rather than relying solely on the blooms: Meadow like, able to withstand being flattened by rain or frost. He talks about the importance of structural, re-blooming plants providing vivid interest throughout the seasons and filler plants that are “only used for foliage colour, becoming formless or even untidy after midsummer”. He also uses a wide range of plants to create a “matrix planting”, a backdrop and within this restrained matrix, he designs waves of densely planted, repeating and blended perennials in layers, creating a rich tapestry of colour and texture.

Piet’s gardens display a seemingly spontaneous but planned wildness, a sensitive awareness of the site and the climate he is working in. He is a master at framing the view, “borrowing” landscape features, and the effect of these ephemeral landscapes is dramatic, especially when set in contrast to the glass and steel of urban settings such as the gritty New York Highline area and Chicago’s Millennium Park (The Lurie Garden).

Here in Sonoma County, I have designed our gardens to echo some of the ideas of the Dutch Wave Movement and these include a mixed planting of rugged perennials that can withstand drought and deer. The beauty of this approach is that the density of planting discourages weeds and the seasonal combinations of perennials and transparent effects of grasses continue to create a show well into winter.

It is only when walking through Oudolf’s own personal garden in Humelo that one grasps the uniqueness and magical beauty of his garden. Paths are narrow and winding, forcing one to touch and interact with the plants, lose sight of the horizon and lose oneself in the details. Tall grasses sway in the breeze, and butterflies and birds alight. Plants are discovered in ever-changing combinations, creating an atmospheric world, often blurring the edges.


Walking within this wild, mesmerizing and stunningly beautiful garden, I was transported to a feeling of time long ago, and wondered whether the blurred edges were part of his design or simply my emotional response to a masterpiece.

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