How to Garden Au Naturel

One of the highlights of my career was meeting Piet Oudolf at his home in Holland. I’d long been an admirer of his nature-inspired style, but this was my first chance to see his garden in person. At first the landscape appeared very natural as if the plants had sprung up on their own, but on closer inspection I saw the thought behind the design. The garden was enclosed by an undulating hedge that both carried the eye and gave the space a sense of order. Piet used principles such as repetition, contrasting textures and focal points to create a compelling vista.

P. Allen Smith and Piet Oudolf

When I met Piet in the U.S. he invited me to visit his home in Holland and I gladly took up the offer.

Piet Oudolf's Garden in Hummelo in the Netherlands

In this photo you can see a few of the clipped evergreens that gave Piet’s garden a sense of order.

Planting: A New PerspectiveHis most recent book Planting: A New Perspective (Timber Press) frequently finds its way to my desk. In it Piet tells us to consider complexity as well as coherence. Choose a diverse group of plants, but create unity with repetition. He further advises us to intermingle plants using a combination of primary plants, matrix plants and scatter plants. He describes this approach like a fruit cake; the matrix plants are the batter and the other two types are bits of fruit. For example you might plant a large sweep of an ornamental grass with repeated groupings of perennials and shrubs. This is, or course, an over simplification. If you are interested in replicating Piet’s style I highly recommend his book. It’s an easy read that puts the possibility of creating a naturalistic garden within reach.

Piet Oudolf Garden in Ireland

Notice the repetition of color and how the grasses light up in the sunlight.

Piet Oudolf Garden at Pensthorpe Nature Preserve in Norfolk

Piet’s gardens are designed with four seasons in mind. This landscape will be interesting year round.

Piet Oudolf Garden Pre-planting

This photo illustrates how Piet lays out the plants using a grid that corresponds with the planting plan.

Conversely I employ drifts of a single type of plant in the gardens I design. This is classic Gertrude Jekyll. The interlocking drifts give a layered appearance similar to Piet’s gardens, but it’s the plant choices that dictate how contained or wild the garden will look. If casual is the goal, ornamental grasses are a favorite choice and I also like to use native perennials such as achillea, rudbeckia, penstemon and liatris. And shrubs are essential. There are so many innovative shrubs these days that offer four seasons of interest.

Perennial Border at Moss Mountain Farm

This photo shows the mixed border I designed at Moss Mountain Farm. Shrubs, perennials and annuals are planted in interweaving drifts.

Raised Beds Planted in a Naturalistic Style

You can design a naturalistic garden in any size space. This garden is made up of four 4′ x 4′ raised beds.

Shrubs for Wildscaping

Little Lime™ Hydrangea paniculata
Little Lime Hydrangea
Spilled Wine® Weigela florida
Spilled Wine Weigla
‘Summer Skies’ Buddleia (Butterfly Bush)
Summer Skies Buddleia
Lemony Lace™ Sambucus racemosa (Elderberry)
Lemony Lace Sambucas
Tuff Stuff&trade Hydrangea serrata (Reblooming Mountain Hydrangea)
Tuff Stuff Hydrangea

Good to Know: Visit a Garden Designed by Piet Oudolf

Piet is brilliant at bringing the wilderness to our doorsteps. To see one of his wildscapes visit the High Line park in the middle of New York City or Lurie Garden in Chicago.

High Line Park in New York

A section of the High Line on Manhattan’s West Side.