How to Design a Garden ala Piet Oudulf

Piet Oudulf is famous. One might even say he is to landscape design what Mick Jagger is to rock n’ roll.

Strangers call the Dutch designer by his first name. Journalists jostle for an interview. And people flock to his gardens as they would a rock concert, whether it’s the High Line in New York or the Olympic Park in Stratford.

Many of Oudulf’s gardens are in chic locations or attached to big-name architects, but the reason people return again and again is his planting.

The signature Oudolf style calls for drifts of grasses, perfectly suitable perennials, and garden beds that look beautiful even in the depths of winter.
The signature Oudolf style calls for drifts of grasses, perfectly suitable perennials, and garden beds that look beautiful even in the depths of winter.
(Photo: Esther Westerveld/Flickr)

Dynamic, Playful, and Breathtaking Designs

Oudulf’s designs – which experts agree exemplify the New Perennial Movement – offer something unmistakably wild and alive.

Countless gardeners and landscape artists have dog-eared Oudolf’s book, Planting: A New Perspective. A quick perusal of the photographs on its pages will tell you what the fuss is all about. 

The signature Oudolf style calls for drifts of grasses, perfectly suitable perennials, and garden beds that look beautiful even in the depths of winter.

His plant combinations are dynamic, breathtaking, and playful: designed to captivate across all four seasons. You are as likely to marvel at decaying seed heads in winter as you would a spring blossom.

Here are some of the basic principles of Piet Oudolf’s style that you can use for your own garden

Oudulf's gardens offer something unmistakably wild and alive.
Oudulf’s garden designs offer something unmistakably wild and alive. (Photo: Ryan Somma/Flickr)

1. Garden for all four seasons.

To create a four-season garden, start by planting perennials and grasses that thrive in your area. The more resilient the plant, the better it will withstand changes in weather.

Learn whether the plants are perennial or short-lived. “That is the most essential thing,” says Oudulf. “If you create a garden, you want to have it for a long period, not just for a season.”

When the flowers wither, leave the plants in place instead of cutting them back. Sturdy stalks and dried seed pods will stand up to frost and snow, coated in white. In the dead of winter, they will take on a fascinating otherworldliness.

To create a four-season garden, start by planting perennials and grasses that thrive in your area.
To create a four-season garden, start by planting perennials and grasses that thrive in your area. (Photo: John Lord/Flickr)

2. Plant grass in hazy masses.

Grasses set a mood in a garden, much like candlelight at a dinner table. Plant grasses in masses to create a soft, blurred background for other plants. The effect is a romantic, easy-going look.

“Grasses have very long lives and are stress-tolerant,” once said in an interview. “They don’t need as much water or care as perennials do.”

Plant grasses in masses to create a soft, blurred background for other plants. The effect is a romantic, easy-going look.
Plant grasses in masses to create a soft, blurred background for other plants. The effect is a romantic, easy-going look. (Photo: John Lord/Flickr)

3. Follow the 70 percent rule.

Oudolf says perennials fall into two categories: structure and filler plants. Structure plants should invite visual interest until autumn at least. Filler plants are only used for flower or foliage color, becoming formless or even untidy after mid-summer.

Around 70 percent of a garden should be filled with structure plants. You can plant filler plants throughout the remaining 30 percent. For structure, choose repeat bloomers, long-season perennials, and grasses.

For structure, choose repeat bloomers, long-season perennials, and grasses.
For structure, choose repeat bloomers, long-season perennials, and grasses.
(Photo: Martyn Wright/Flickr)

4. Keep it simple.

When designing a garden, keep it simple. Oudulf is of the opinion that two or three layers should suffice. The idea of layers is to help the eye discern order in the tangle of leaves and stems. This, in turn, helps the visitor make sense of the garden.

For instance, evergreen shrubs in the background and perennials in the foreground are enough to create strong visual focal points.

“Make a list of plants you want to use,” Oudulf says. “Don’t choose from pictures, but by flowering time, height, color, and texture.”

The idea of layers is to help the eye discern order in the confusion of leaves and stems. This, in turn, helps the visitor make sense of the garden.

5. Brown is a lovely color, too.

Gardens remind us that life is a cycle, and every phase of the sequence is at once beautiful and necessary.

If gardens look breathtaking in the summer, by autumn and winter they should be heart-rending, as the yellows, purples, and pinks fade into shades of brown, tan, and eventually black. Plants must look as good in decay and dormancy as they do in the first unfurling of spring.

“Gone are the days when brown and yellow foliage was seen as compost material to be cleared away as quickly as possible,” says Oudolf.

Gardens remind us that life is a cycle, and every phase of the sequence is at once beautiful and necessary.
Gardens remind us that life is a cycle, and every phase of the sequence is at once beautiful and necessary.

“Sharing with Lots of People”

Now in his 70’s, the wintry-haired Oudulf does not intend to rest on his laurels. He has in fact taken an interest in growing food. 

Still, the naturalistic, perennial meadow style he pioneered exerts such an influence that you see it in local pocket parks throughout the world.

“Every time I do a private job, I think, ‘This is beautiful and great, but who is going to see it? Two people and their guests,’” he says. “My only interest is sharing my work with lots of people,” he says.