It was the encounter with Piet Oudolf’s work which encouraged me, along with so many others, to plant on a more expansive scale. I had read about some of the Dutch and German work with perennials but had never visited Westpark in Munich or Piet’s nursery at Hummelo in the Netherlands. But Piet’s garden for John Coke at Bury Court was eye-opening. I recall seeing the meadow of Deschampsia cespitosa with Trifolium rubens scattered through it like loose purple confetti. By today’s standards the garden layout seems quite mannered, but there was the beginning of a freeing-up of the plan so that plants were not just arranged in linear sequences but were all around, interacting in countless, often unforeseen ways. The balance between man and plant was readdressed in favor of the plant.
This seems to me the important catalyst. Using plants in these larger expanses inevitably means getting away from composing a merely linear flower arrangement, where plants seem like lines of suspects subjected to the scrutiny of an ID parade. The viewer is forced to ask, how do these plants relate to one another? It’s then a short step to looking into how they grow in their natural habitat.
I saw the Bury Court meadow, which is actually quite a modest area, in its prime, before the Deschampsia died out and the clover went rather leggy. It had such simple grace, as if it were just getting on with its own business of being grass and clover. Growing, flowering, and of course dying. Piet is the evangelist of decay.
At this time I was filling my own garden with short-lived verbascums, giant thistles, and other unruly things that suckered, seeded, and generally misbehaved. It was up to me to keep them in check. This is all very well on your own watch or if you are lucky enough to work with a gardener with lots of patience and understanding, but I gradually learnt that the spontaneous and slightly disorderly look I was drawn to had to be reined in a little if it (and me, I suppose) wasn’t to come off the rails. I remember once coming quite spectacularly unstuck when I enthusiastically recommended a clump of Sambucus ebulus, the handsome herbaceous dwarf elder, for a planting on heavy clay in the middle of France. The elder duly helped itself and in nine months covered an area about half the size of a tennis court, engulfing all before it in an inexorable flow of green. Sometimes a plant can be just a bit too happy.
As I developed my own practice I was able to expand my garden at home, and my experimentations with plants accelerated. The garden began to take some shape, and various patterns started to fall into place about how I was using plants.
I moved away from the idea of having very different types of planting in different areas of the garden, which I think I had inherited from all those Arts and Crafts gardens I had visited. This seemed more a collector’s approach than one in which planting is a tool to create and manipulate the atmosphere of a place. Instead I gravitated towards the concept that planting is like a medium that can flow between spaces, gradually being transformed by them to take on a character that emphasizes the physical setting or the desired mood in relation to the nature of the surroundings. So there might be a subtle gradient of change between different parts of a garden, but not sudden discontinuities.