July 19, 2024
Piet Oudolf’s Work Is Never Done

The influential garden designer’s creations depend on a deep understanding of seasonality, climate and time.

All my designs start with the plants. Whichever site I’m working on — here it’s Hauser & Wirth’s new gallery in Minorca, Spain — I first learn about what palette of species will grow well in that climate and soil. Once I have a list of options, I then look at things like structure and seasonality. As a garden designer, I work with plants, not paint, and my process is about composition and how things develop. Time is such a big factor in what I do. A garden isn’t like an exhibition, which is installed for just a few months; the plantings must continue to evolve over years.

The Hauser & Wirth gallery’s at its busiest during the summer months, when most Mediterranean species are past their best, so we had to be imaginative about the varieties that we used. The result is a combination of plants that provide structure and texture, and flowers such as euphorbia, echium, helichrysum and agapanthus. In this image, I’m revisiting the project after the inaugural season to see what’s working and what we need to edit. A garden’s never ready.

Plants and gardening became a healthy obsession for me in the 1970s after I left my parents’ restaurant business and got a job at a nursery. At that time, the way people approached green spaces was highly decorative, labor intensive and formal. But I was interested in how gardens could be more sensitive to their environment and more spontaneous in their composition. The nursery my wife, Anja, and I created at Hummelo in the Netherlands in the 1980s was developed hand in hand with my design work, giving me access to a broader array of plants, specific types of perennials and grasses that had previously been hard to source. It allowed us to connect to growers across Europe. We were interested in how we could use species that’re well suited to their location, and in a naturalistic way. Through this method of design, we opened people’s eyes to other aspects of plants beyond flowers. There’s beauty in a seed head in winter, and in the bird feeding on that seed head. A lot of my projects — for example, the High Line in New York, which I did with James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro — are public, and within such spaces you can see how visitors now engage with the environment. People are increasingly aware of how important gardens and plants are to us as humans.

For my part, I’m just doing my best and working hard. To have had the influence I’ve had is hard to understand, as I still feel like I’m focused on the ideas, which are essentially quite intellectual and ecological. But plants have always been a tool for me to express my innermost feelings, and so I’m very at home in what I do. I just keep going until I feel happy and satisfied. I see myself as a mixture of an artist and a craftsman: I need a client so that I can do my work, but I know that what I bring to a project is unique, and that I have a strong signature. What we do as garden designers is beautifully complex, and there’s an art to that complexity.

This interview has been edited and condensed.