As nature intended
Acclaimed Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf is leading the naturalist planting movement. Hannah Stephenson finds out how to capture the look at your home
If you like swathes of ornamental grasses rubbing shoulders with perennials that look like they’ve been planted together all their lives, then Piet Oudolf is the expert garden designer to follow. He’s among the leaders of the naturalistic planting movement, which favours ornamental grasses that provide movement and structure, accented with perennials that bring colour and form. His drifts of grasses create a soft, misty background for other plants.
Oudolf, who has designed gardens across the world, from RHS Wisley in Surrey to Pensthorpe in Norfolk and ground zero on Manhattan Island, is encouraging us all to go natural with a new iconic Horticultural Heroes feature at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show this summer.
The Dutch designer is creating a whimsical walk-through feature using drifts of herbaceous perennials and grasses synonymous with his painterly style. He doesn’t like plants to be supported, preferring them to grow into each other, propping each other up.
“To achieve a naturalistic style, the planting has to look more spontaneous than classical plantings,” Oudolf says. “It has to look composed, but not wild — it must be integrated.
“My style in the Hampton Court garden is where groups of perennials are placed in a more dominant field of grasses, and I hope the public will take inspiration from that. The grasses include Sporobolus heterolepis, Stipa barbata and within that we have 20 different varieties of perennials, which bring the colour.” He advises gardeners to give their outdoor space all-year-round interest, which is why he so loves grasses, whose structure and movement provides interest in the cooler months. “Think about winter-flowering shrubs, hellebores, snowdrops and crocuses. Winter interest can also be provided by the leftovers of plants, such as seedheads,” Oudolf says. “Most grasses we use are easy to control and not rampant. In general, there are as many aggressive perennials as there are grasses, but you need to know what you are doing.” His favourite grasses include Stipa barbata, which has an elegant flower and blends with perennials as it moves with the wind. He also favours Echinacea pallida and Eryngium alpinum, better known as sea holly and monardas. Most of the perennials he prefers are easy to grow. Here, RHS chief horticulturist Guy Barter — who points out that using tall, handsome plants in drifts requires space and abundant sun — has put together five of Oudolf ’s favourite plants and a guide to growing them...
1. MONARDA ‘BEAUTY OF COBHAM’
This plant (inset) has tall, gorgeous pink summer flowers beloved by pollinators, and purplish leaves that tend to exceed 90cm in shady spots, so good supports are advisable in domestic gardens. It appreciates watering to fend off mildew and keep the plant flowering well. The monarda looks best in groups of three (or more, if at all possible).
2. ECHINACEA PALLIDA
If you’re looking for late summer flowers, coneflowers are a wonderful addition to your borders. They’re a magnet for pollinators, producing pink flowers around a dark ‘cone’ — as long as the soil is not too dry and they are well staked, as the 1.2m stems can be weak in gardens. They require full sun to thrive.
3. LYTHRUM SALICARIA ‘SWIRL’
With spikes of pink flowers on 80cm stems, this very robust plant likes dampish soils and will put up with light shade. One for the wilder parts of the border that will flower freely if the spent spikes are cut out. 4. SALVIA X SYLVESTRIS ‘DEAR ANJA’ Blue and purple flowers and scented foliage make this 90cm plant a good choice for sunny borders. It’s drought-resistant, but one for warm-sheltered southern gardens, unless cuttings can be kept indoors in winter.
5. VERONICA LONGIFOLIA ‘PINK EVELINE’
Veronica longifolia ‘Pink Eveline’ produces magenta flower spikes borne over a long period from mid-summer, although you’ ll need to deadhead it regularly. This graceful plant will attract bees and other pollinators, and is also a favourite among flower arrangers. It grows to around 60cm tall.
NATURALISTIC: Glasshouse borders in summer at RHS Garden Wisley, designed by Piet Oudolf