Maybe we could see it coming: the style of garden design changing from formal Victorian borders to simpler English cottage gardens, and on to the easy sway of Oehme/Van Sweden gardens of grasses. But now it’s here, the stunning High Line casual meadow look. Designed by the Dutch garden master, Piet Oudolph, it’s anything but casual.
Maybe we could see it coming: the style of garden design changing from formal Victorian borders to simpler English cottage gardens, and on to the easy sway of Oehme/Van Sweden gardens of grasses. But now it’s here, the stunning High Line casual meadow look. Designed by the Dutch garden master, Piet Oudolph, it’s anything but casual. It takes a great deal of thinking and planning to get that unstudied, unstructured meadow look.
To see a diagram of Oudolph’s garden plans is to be dazzled by design complexity and plant choices.
Groupings of salvias intersect with short fluffy grasses and move onto puffs of astilbe floating in a mass next to a stand of black-eyed Susan. The impact of these extensive drifts of perennials comes from the large numbers of each species stretching as far as space will allow. It could mean 20 of a kind in a smaller garden or 100 in a large space.
As Oudolph developed his style over the years, he tested many perennial varieties for beauty, color, and endurance through the growing and dormant seasons. Just as important as having the plant shine in its prime, is maintaining an interesting shape, size, and seed pod attribute as it dies back in the fall and survives the winter. Then, the variable individual plant skeletons will wave in the wind through the frost and snow and intrigue the eye with a winter landscape.
Grasses fly in the breeze, foxgloves lean over to drop seeds, asters form dark smudges of heads, and sedums turn into rusting sculptures. Thistles, so beautiful in the summer, look spiky and sharp, small shrubs turn orange, as beige and gold grasses arch over the smaller plants.
For the private gardener, the appeal is making the High Line work in your smaller personal garden space, adapting the choice and scale of plants to what appeals to your own taste. You can form smaller rivers and streams of colors and shapes, experimenting with plants already tested and listed by Oudolph as successful perennials to use for a meadow of your own. His recent book, “Planting – A New Perspective,” co-authored with Noel Kingsbury, is not only beautiful but also useful. It offers advice on plant varieties and making plans or grids of plant selections. The directions are exhaustive and detailed, so there is much to choose from.
There are quite a few public and private gardens designed by Oudolph, besides the very special High Line garden we can all visit down on 14th Street and now stretching on the old rail tracks above the streets as far as 30th Street.
There is a huge installation in Chicago, several in Sweden, and a few in England, plus more listed online if you Google his name. It is a great pleasure to look at the different adaptations to city and country sites.
The private gardener can take many different approaches, suiting his plantings to his soil and exposure, his sun and shade values, his desire for wildness or more contained beauty. He can use many grasses with small groupings of flowering plants or many different favorite flowering choices with occasional grasses. There is no end to possible combinations.
It does take work and thinking, but the reward will be a small or large meadow of your favorite shapes and colors, changing through the seasons and amazing you with your own design style and creativity.