Based in the Dutch countryside town of Arnhem, Oudolf is known for lush, green projects across the US — from Battery Gardens in NYC to Chicago’s Millennium Park — along with projects in England, Ireland and Scandinavia. Oudolf, 70, fell in love with the outdoors as a young boy. “We climbed over the fence to a nature preserve every day. We built huts, climbed trees and freed rabbits from poacher snares,” he says. Decades later, his designs and career are being celebrated in a stunning new book: “Oudolf/Hummelo” (Monticello Press; $50).
Written with gardening author Noel Kingsbury, the book is named after Oudolf’s personal garden in Arnhem and is ideal for green thumbs who have been seduced by Oudolf’s deeply beautiful plantings.
We caught up with Oudolf, to talk about designs, Hummelo (which he and his wife Anja have tended to for the past 30 years) and his personal tips for home gardeners.
Of all the projects I designed, the High Line is my favorite. It is the most satisfying because it is public and in a neighborhood that has evolved so much over the past decades. The founders, architects and people who take care of it make the park unique and hard to compare with any other green space.
We escaped the city because we wanted to grow plants and we needed space. Hummelo, also the name of my hometown in Holland, is in the middle of the countryside nestled among farmers.
I travel a lot to see clients in the Netherlands, in Scandinavia and England and I’m in the US five to six times a year. Wherever I go, I love to visit botanical gardens — especially the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Also in NYC, the High Line has very good gardeners, who are well trained and eager to share their plant knowledge with visitors.
When I’m designing a private garden, the personality of the owners and their lifestyle comes into play. Most clients know me from my public work. Most of my work is challenging, but I don’t see it that way at the start. I see it as an opportunity to do something beautiful; the challenge arises only when you are looking back.
When working on small urban gardens in NYC — places like rooftops, backyards or terraces — go for what catches your eye. Onions (bulbs) are easy and lovely. You can plant onions that look good for seasons like summer or spring — just make sure they’re not eaten by deer or pests.
There are a lot of great “starter” plants ideally suited for all types of environments. For shade, top plants include ferns, epimedium, tiarella and geranium; while shady grasses like luzula and carex are great. For sun, veronica, aster, salvia and sedum work. Great grasses for sun include briza and featuca.
Low-maintenance is often interpreted as no maintenance. But I always find “less maintenance” to be a better phrase. Even though most traditional gardens are high-maintenance, you can create less maintenance by working with plants like perennials and grasses. They live for a long time, are strong and lend themselves well to local soil conditions. Use enough species and varieties to cover all seasons. And don’t forget bulbs.
Products from Sneeboer, the Dutch hand-forged garden tool company, are among the best in the world. These are tools made for work, and not for beauty. They are stainless steel, very old-fashioned, blacksmith tools — super-serious! I recommend three essentials: a hoe, secateurs and a spade.
I like to read monographs about plants (and fiction — in that order). My favorite gardening book is Rick Darke’s “The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes.” I also like “Peter Korn’s Garden” by Peter Korn. Other books might be all about oak trees, or magnolias or phloxes. For fiction — “We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas; “The Trip to Echo Spring” by Olivia Laing; and “Butcher’s Crossing” by John Williams.