On a chilly afternoon in February, we headed to the Royal Geographical Society in London’s South Kensington, for a very special evening - an evening in the company of Piet Oudolf and Monty Don.
Maggie's, everyone's home of cancer care
We were there as guests of Maggie’s, a wonderful charity which provides free cancer support and information in centres across the UK and online. The first Maggie’s centre opened in Edinburgh in 1996; the evening at the Royal Geographical Society formed part of the launch celebrations for the launch of the twenty-sixth centre, at the Royal Marsden Hospital, opened by HRH The Duchess of Cornwall just the day before.
Maggie’s centres are unique spaces. Combining creative architecture and restful outdoor areas, they offer spaces which straddle the hospital and the home, to offer reassurance, therapy, community, solitude, solace and so much more. We’ve contributed to these amazing spaces where we’ve been able to over the years, most notably for the opening of the fantastic greenhouse at Maggie’s Manchester in 2016; you may recognise the trug of tools in front of HRH The Duchess of Cornwall here.
So when we were invited to a talk to be given by world-famous garden designer Piet Oudolf, who has designed the garden at the new Maggie’s centre at the Royal Marsden, we weren’t slow to accept the very kind offer.
A grand evening out
The evening took a relaxed format, with Piet and interviewer Monty Don sitting comfortably on stage, and reviewing Piet’s life and work; almost a horticultural ‘This is Your Life’, but without the big red book. The two men have known each other for many years - you may recall Monty interviewing Piet for ’Around the World in 80 Gardens’, back in 2008 - and their evident pleasure at talking gardens and gardening made for free-flowing and entertaining conversation.
The first surprise was that we’ve been saying Piet’s name wrong all these years. The ‘Ou’ in Oudolf is like the ‘ou’ in ‘house’. So many apologies to Mr Oudolf, and to Dutch speakers everywhere.
As Monty and Piet chatted about Piet’s early inspiration, we heard how he was much influenced by fellow Dutch gardening pioneer Wilhelmina (‘Mien’) Ruys but also by the traditional English style of gardening. He instinctively felt that the beautiful bright colours of perennials need to be set against a backdrop, and starting working this into his designs.
Tip 1: “Always design a garden from head height; the aerial view of a planting plan doesn’t tell the whole story of how the garden will look.”
He loved plants, and felt the plants should always come first in a garden. He started growing plants in a trial nursery as he found difficulty in getting hold of the plants he wanted to use in his gardens. It was when Piet moved towards a wilder style of gardening, working with Henk Gerritsen, with whom he wrote ‘Dream Plants for the Natural Garden’ that his style evolved to use his beloved plants in a more natural setting.
In 2000, in a collaboration with Arne Maynard, Piet won Best in Show at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Tip 2: “If a plant disappears, plant it again. But if you’re still disappointed with that plant the second time, take it out. Instead plant something different which will thrive in that spot. No third chances!”
It can be more complex to plant small gardens for year-round interest, Piet explained, than planting on a large scale. With space, you can spread out and give free rein to your creativity. Over the years he’s honed the skill of designing in four dimensions; the fourth, of course, being time. He can see it in his head, he says, and designs year-round interest into each garden from the outset.
One of Piet’s first well-known civic projects was Chicago’s Lurie Garden (2004). He explained how he entered the competition to design the space; listening to him speak, you’d think it had been a simple process to win the international competition and then come up with a design to do justice to this huge canvas.
Tip 3: “Use 9cm plants when planting, or even plugs, if you have the luxury of time. They use less space to produce, and grow faster once they’re in the ground.”
Since then Piet has worked on many high-profile spaces: New York’s High Line , over 2.5km long and just 8-12m wide; the Gardens of Remembrance, close to the site of the World Trade Center; the Glasshouse Borders at our own RHS Wisley, first created 20 years ago and due to be refreshed in time for a reopening in 2022 (TBC).
Tip 4: Piet doesn’t weed his own garden. “You try, but you soon give up.”
He confesses he’s not awed by the sheer scale of some of these projects. He plans it all out meticulously in advance on paper, and then simply transfers a grid onto the ground when it comes to planting. But he did admit that he finds pop-up installations a challenge, because they have to work straight away. In a garden, if he plants an oak, it becomes important in 50 years’ time, nature does the work; in an installation which lasts only a few months, or a week, a la Chelsea, the pressure is on for instant results.
At the end of evening a Q&A gave the audience the opportunity to get personal benefit from Piet’s experience and knowledge. His responses gave a fascinating glimpse into his thinking. On soil, he simply advises: “Make the plant feel comfortable.” On palettes, he explains “Don’t choose colour. Choose plants that have colour. I use echinacea because it’s echinacea. That it’s purple is incidental.” The plants always come first for Piet.
Tip 5: “Don’t waste time with poppies. They look good for a few weeks, then you have a gap in the garden for the rest of the summer.”
Most tellingly for this modest man, when asked about what he’d like his legacy to be, he focused on the future. “My gardens bring ecological benefits - they use less water, less maintenance. My legacy? You'd have to ask the people.”
With many thanks to Maggie’s for arranging this wonderful evening in the company of these two most engaging and knowledgeable gardeners.
To read more about Maggie's and its work, visit maggies.org.
To read more about Piet Oudolf, visit his website at oudolf.com.