‘Rock star’ designer coming to local botanical garden

Coastal Point, October 30, 2015
By Laura Walter

Considered a “rock star” of landscape design, Piet Oudolf has headlined in gardens worldwide. And he’s coming soon to Dagsboro.

With a thick shock of white hair, this Dutch master of meadows toured Delaware Botanic Gardens (DBG) the first time on Oct. 18. Located on Pepper Creek, the 37 acres of forest and former soybean fields are waiting to become a world-class public garden a mile east of Dagsboro. Plans call for the first phase to open in 2017.

Oudolf has agreed to transform about 1.5 acres into a colorful, rippling meadow.

Gregg Tepper and Sheryl Swed watch as Piet Oudolf and Raymond J. Sander shake hands over the Dutch plantsman's plan to create a meadow for the Delaware Botanic Garden.

“Oudolf is becoming recognized as one of the most transformative garden designers of our time,” stated landscape architect Rodney Robinson. “His influence spans an international scale. I can’t think of a better garden designer to launch the Delaware Botanic Gardens.”

Oudolf’s association with the garden will increase its visibility, said Holly Shimizu, former executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden.

“It’s wonderful to have someone as well known and as experienced as he is. … His work will bring large numbers of people to come,” Shimizu said.

“We want to build enthusiasm, build support,” Shimizu said. “[We’re trying] to get people excited about the natural beauty of Delaware.”

Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: Piet Oudolf takes a look around at the area he plans to sculpt into a meadow at the Delaware Botanical Gardens in Dagsboro.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: Piet Oudolf takes a look around at the area he plans to sculpt into a meadow at the Delaware Botanical Gardens in Dagsboro.Oudolf liked the garden’s goal of using mostly native plants, which he’s aimed for in designing for the High Line in Manhattan, Millennium Park in Chicago, The Battery in Manhattan, Trentham Gardens in the U.K. and many more.

Oudolf said he was especially attracted to the public nature of DBG.

“My work is for sharing,” the designer said. It’s rare for a beautiful tract of land to have the resources to publicly become what the botanic board envisions, he noted.

But that’s why the Sussex County Land Trust leased the land to the garden for dirt-cheap ($1 annually for 99 years). The land will be used by those “who have a greater vision,” said Dennis Forney, head of SCLT.

But Oudolf said the people are just as important as the land, since they’re the ones who will maintain the garden in perpetuity.

Beauty in the meadow

Board member Diane Maddex was blown away when she first saw videos of Oudolf’s “ethereal” Vlinderhof butterfly garden waving in the wind.

“He takes native grasses, and he adds color in the most imaginative ways,” Maddex said of the Netherlands garden.

Oudolf has co-authored several books, which sit in the Annapolis office of landscape architect Meredith Beach.

“The way he puts plant combinations together are incredible … very inspired, very proactive and very colorful,” Beach said. “They’re meadows, but they’re very designed meadows, so they look natural but controlled, so lots of color, lots of activity and texture.”

When Forney, her father, allowed her to come to the garden for Oudolf’s visit, Beach was delighted to potentially see his entire gardening process from start to finish.

“Seeing sort of how his mind puts it all together … there’s so much complexity, so many layers come together to make a designed meadow,” Beach said. “He’s probably the most famous landscape designer that there is. So to have one of his creations [here] is unbelievable. … His designs are iconic. They’ll be landmarks, just like the High Line is.”

The garden will also become a place for landscape architects and designers to learn.

The artist at work

Pausing to look at plants and chat with guests, Oudolf moved through the gardens on his own timetable. While his hosts discussed a soil test, Oudolf walked slowly, snapping photos and just starting to understand the place. He wasn’t ready to announce any big plans yet.

“Do you have any idea when you come somewhere for the first time?” Oudolf said. “The fact is that it’s just impressions that you have. … I’m always sort of blank, open, don’t think too much the first time, just let it come.”

Eventually, his ideas will start to layer upon each other.

Oudolf said he wants people to “feel part of” his creations, although everyone feels something different.

“What does it do to people? Some people see it more as just a nice place, and other people see it as a very emotional place, some people see it as a very interesting place.”

“His work looks so effortless, but it’s so hard for anyone to recreate what he does, and that’s what separates him,” Beach said.

Hovering at the edges is filmmaker Thomas Piper, who is finishing a documentary on Oudolf.

“He lives up to this sort-of romantic notion of an artist. He works by himself, he has no office, he works in his studio alone,” Piper said. “But I think … this is just his outlet. He found his medium. It happened to be plants. To me, it’s no different than being a painter, sculptor or photographer.”

Piper had previously wrapped filming in February. But Oudolf thought the film could end with the start of Delaware’s garden.

“Maybe this is the end of the film and the beginning of something else,” Oudolf said.

“We just have attracted some wonderful people to this project, and it just continues,” said DBG Board of Directors Member Ray Sander.

Oudolf only learned about the project a few months ago. One DBGer was Facebook friends with Oudolf and broached the idea with him. After chatting with the board via Skype, Oudolf added a 24-hour detour to an existing U.S. trip.

After the more formal tour and introduction on Oct. 18, he enjoyed a second, more leisurely stroll the next morning.

Oudolf has informally agreed to work on the garden’s design, with the more official documents to be signed in the coming weeks. But it will cost some money to get a world-class designer involved.

“This signature Oudolf meadow presents a special naming opportunity for a donor who wants to support this central feature of the Delaware Botanic Gardens,” the board stated. “All contributions to making this meadow a reality in the next few years are equally welcome.”

For more information on the gardens, membership and donations, visit www.delawaregardens.org or www.facebook.com/delawaregardens.