Meadow priest Piet Oudolf joins botanic garden project

Cape Gazette, October 23, 2015
Barefootin', by Dennis Forney, publisher

Piet Oudolf looked across a former Sussex County soybean field last Sunday afternoon.

A tall Dutch man, with blue eyes and hair as white as milkweed silk, he began envisioning a meadow of texture, color and - most of all - beauty.

Greg Tepper, director of horticulture for the Delaware Botanic Gardens project, led Oudolf to a bronze-bloomed variety of wild fennel brought to the site by nature’s whims.

The internationally renowned grower, garden- and meadowdesigner, and author, brought out his iPhone to record details of the plant.

“I would plan to use mostly American natives,” said Oudolf as he fingered the fennel’s soft autumn fronds. Following a moment of hesitation, he added: “And maybe some nonaggressive, non-natives.” That brought a ripple of chuckles from a group that welcomed Oudolf to the 37-acre site - a site the group is working to transform into Delaware’s first public botanic garden.

Known for his design work on the Toronto Botanic Gardens, High Line Park in New York City, Lurie Gardens in Chicago and many others, Oudolf walked and talked as he toured the site along Pepper Creek, just northeast of Dagsboro, on Piney Neck Road. “I started my career by making gardens, then moved fromdesigning into growing. Now I’ve moved from growing into designing again. Building gardens is my life. It’s what I like to do. People give me the chance and I come.”

And give him a chance is what Delaware Botanic Gardens officials have done.

Following the two-hour tour, and dinner conversation that evening in Bethany Beach, Oudolf, according to project treasurer Ray Sander, signed on as designer for the meadow component of the garden. “It’s a handshake agreement,” said Sander, “and he said he will send us his proposal. He wants to do it and we want him to do it. He told us: ‘This is a beautiful place and we’re going to make it more beautiful.’”

A game changer

Rodney Robinson, landscape architect for the project, hailed Oudolf’s participation. “He will make this project get noticed his color, his texturing, his compositions. Right now it’s a park, not a garden. He will bring a garden quality to the project. The plant materials he will bring–they will mature much more quickly than anything else we do here. That will get people coming here and that will get people coming back. That’s what makes botanic gardens successful.”

According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Oudolf is “a leading figure of the ‘New Perennial’ movement, using bold drifts of herbaceous perennials and grasses which are chosen at least as much for their structure as for their flower color.”

Howard Katz is husband of landscape designer Barbara Katz who, along with Delaware Botanic Garden board member and landscape author Claudia West, worked to bring Oudolf to the site. “This will change the face of this project,” said Katz. “This will bring people from around the world.”

West brings her own high level of expertise to the garden board. She coauthored “Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for a Resilient Landscape” and is considered a leading voice in ecological landscaping.

She beamed when her fellow European arrived, unfolded his long frame from the back seat of a black Mercedes sedan, and strolled into the waiting and applauding group. A high priest in the native-plant ecological movement, Oudolf is a rock star in the world of natural and progressive landscape design.

“Before people believe in you, you have to do a lot of work,” he said. “You have to write books and make gardens. A lot of people are interested in this direction of gardening. It’s natural and allows us to enjoy the gardens and not just work in them. By bringing together gardening and nature, life can become more exciting.”

Oudolf then shifted to a higher gear. “We see more than most people, but we want more people to see what we see. By doing what we do, working together on projects like this, we can make more people happy. That’s why public projects are so important.

Slideshow photographs below by R. Chris Clark for the Delaware Botanic Gardens.