Tag Archives: Piet Oudolf borders at Wisley

A day at Wisley

An attention grabber! The Pink Pantser in the RHS Wisley glasshouse.

We like to end up our UK garden trips at Wisley, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticulture Society about an hours south from London. It gives a context to what we have seen and it is interesting to look at the evolution of some of the recent plantings and reflect on styles and designers over time. The twin Piet Oudolf borders are a personal favourite. And they are certainly standing the test of time with considerably lower input than the classic double herbaceous borders. They were not without controversy when first planted in 2000. I still recall talking to an English visitor in our garden here. I commented that we were heading over to the UK to look at contemporary planting directions and he replied disdainfully, asking if we would be planting in a herringbone design as they had at Wisley.

The Oudolf borders July 2, 2017

The Piet Oudolf borders are not in fact a herringbone design and when we got to see them, they were a delight – soft rivers of colour. Those rivers give a sense of form to a garden which has no hard landscaping. In case you are interested in the background to these borders, I quote the instigator of this planting. “I started talking to Piet about these borders in 1997 with plans agreed in 98/99 with planting using 17000 9cm plug plants in Jan.2000.The only significant change to Piet’s maintenance regime was to mulch the entire borders with 6mm quarried gravel in c.2004 to a depth of c.60mm.This was `topped  up` in 2009.”

And back at the same time of year in 2014

There is considerable restraint and knowledge in the selection of plants. It is a lot more than just picking for flower colour. Obviously, compatibility in growth habits is an issue but so too is a high level of uniformity in height, an ability to stay upright without staking, repeat flowering without the need to deadhead and a succession of blooms and foliage interest from spring through to autumn. Allied to that, there is no place for dominating thugs in this type of planting, nor for prolific seeders. I would guess a fair proportion may be sterile (in other words, not setting viable seed) which usually prolongs flowering, eliminates seeding issues and keeps the plants true to type. When we did a count on our last visit, we estimated a proportion of about 3 perennials to each grass in these borders. Each river of colour is comprised of just a few different plants. I think it was looking at the composition of several rivers that led us to the 3:1 ratio. The borders have to work equally well viewed looking up or down the slope and also close up, so the individual combinations of plants are as important as the mass effect. For those readers trying to keep echinaceas going, over time these borders have apparently shown that E. pallida is short lived while E. purpurea is longer lived. It is multiple visits that help us to understand better how these plantings are put together and managed. You can never take it all in on just one visit.

Detail of one river in the Oudolf borders

I posted earlier on the Missouri Meadow as observed over our visits.  In 2014, we saw the new South African meadow in its infancy. This is Professor James Hitchmough again, as was the Missouri Meadow but in this case, the focus is on South African plants, not North American ones.


South African meadow 2014

and three years on in 2017

Three years on, the dominant plant at this time of the year is the eye catching Berkheya purpurea, which Mark covets for our garden. It is a thistle. The maintenance regime on this meadow is clearly more hands-off than the Oudolf borders. It will be interesting to see it again a few years’ time. With agapanthus, kniphofia, crocosmia, nerines, geraniums, eucomis, osteospermum, gazanias and more, there is quite a mix in there including a few that would be thugs in our climate. We love these meadow plantings and find the range of meadows illuminating but our London friends (one a keen home gardener) could not relate to the whole idea of a South African meadow in this context. So that was an interesting response.

These friends had recently been to Great Dixter and expressed surprise at Christopher Lloyd’s dramatic ‘subtropical’ garden being taken out and seeing conifers going back in instead. It became a little clearer when we came across the Wisley project along similar lines. The conifers are being used as a framework for subtropical plantings. This is not a combination that would ever occur to a New Zealander but we will reserve all judgement until we see the finished product. Sometimes it is good to be surprised. Conifers are long overdue a revival and who knows? Maybe a new combination will launch a new fashion. Or maybe not.

Tom Stuart-Smith plantings were a delight

There is so much more to Wisley. The Tom Stuart-Smith plantings in front of the glasshouse really appealed to us this visit. They had seemed a little ‘blocky’ and amenity in style when young. Now the combinations and the relaxed style of mature plantings is a highlight. The trial grounds included both echinaceas and nepetas as well as coloured lettuces. The national collection of rhubarb never fails to amuse – though more the concept of it than the reality, I admit. I have posted an accompanying album of more photos to Facebook again. It starts with the succulent cake and ends with the Famous Five and the issue of whether George was a boy or a girl.

Gardening with grasses

We were entranced by the Piet Oudolf borders at Wisley

We were entranced by the Piet Oudolf borders at Wisley

Years ago I was editing garden descriptions and amongst the plethora of developing gardens or tranquil havens filled with birdsong, I came across one which claimed to have “a fascinating collection of grasses.” Fascinating seemed to be overstating the case. I think I toned down the adjective. It has taken a long time to win us over to the merits of grasses here, even though we have some lovely native varieties in New Zealand.

Big grasses need big space

Big grasses need big space

I have never actually seen grasses used in a breathtakingly beautiful way in gardens in this country though I have seen some handsome amenity planting combinations. The problem lies, I think, in how we use them. For starters we tend to limit ourselves to varieties which are knee high or lower. Even worse is the habit of forcing innocent grasses into an edging role where they are destined forever to be like an untidy fringe. And yes, mondo grass (both black and green), liriope, Carex Frosted Curls and blue fescue – I’m looking at you here. Grasses by their very form are designed to grow in the round, not to be forced into a narrow row as an edger. Nor indeed do I understand the obsession with uniform edging plants on all garden beds and borders in this country but that is another matter.

It wasn’t until we went to look at summer gardens in the UK that we were won over by grasses. We had heard slightly disparaging comments about the Piet Oudolf twin borders at Wisley (the RHS flaghip gardens) – a chevron design in grasses, I think somebody told us sniffily. It wasn’t that at all. Twin parallel borders were united by rivers of colour and texture flowing from one to the other with grasses featuring along with other plantings. Not knee high grasses, these were at least waist high and integrated with other carefully chosen perennials. It was an inspirational planting.

On the same trip, I saw the most exquisite grass I have ever seen at Beth Chatto’s garden. I don’t even know if Stipa barbata is in this country but it was light, ethereal and remarkably beautiful. Since then, we’ve seen grasses featured frequently in British TV garden programmes. One of the reasons we subscribe to Sky is to get gardening shows on the Living Channel.

Early view of the Wisley Oudolf borders before the glasshouse was built (from Penelope Hobhouse's book "In Search of Paradise" - magic

Early view of the Wisley Oudolf borders before the glasshouse was built (from Penelope Hobhouse's book "In Search of Paradise" - magic

The common threads to making these plantings work are:
1) Inspired combinations. Grasses are not planted with other grasses. They are integrated into mixed plantings which are carefully managed to look naturalistic in style. Grasses don’t generally suit formal plantings.
2) Forget grasses which are ankle high to knee high. Statement clumps are at least waist high and often considerably taller. This of course means they need quite a bit of space.
3) Big grasses plus big plantings result in a big effect. It rarely scales down effectively. Therein lies the problem – not that many of us have the space to garden on this sort of scale. Those of us who do have space (and it needs to be sunny, well drained space), have usually cluttered it up with mixed plantings including trees and shrubs. These exciting perennial plantings using grasses are usually only perennials, not mixed borders. The aforementioned Oudolf borders at Wisley are around 150 metres long by 11 metres wide – each. While that is on a grand and public scale, you really can’t expect to replicate it in miniature in a border which is only a metre wide and three metres long.
4) Many of these successful plantings have their origins in a garden interpretation of American prairies. It is a managed but not manicured style of gardening. It is some distance away from the classic herbaceous border and it is a long way away from the formal garden rooms genre we have adopted so enthusiastically in this country. It does not combine well with clipped hedges.

Set the grasses free. That is not original. I read it somewhere and it was a NZ writer though I can’t recall who. Stop trying to straitjacket them into contrived and managed combinations. If you have your grasses in a situation where they require grooming and regular combing, it is likely that you are straitjacketing them.

We were told that the Oudolf borders we so admired at Wisley required only a third of the labour input that the classic herbaceous borders needed. Partly that is because they don’t need staking or deadheading. They are cut down in late January (for us that translates to the end of July or late winter). I imagine by that stage they are quite scruffy so it is not a style that will appeal to tidy gardeners. But despite that scruffy stage, these prairie styled plantings contribute a great deal to the ecology of an area, feeding birds and wildlife. It is different to wildflower meadows in that it is managed plantings in varied combinations, often within a somewhat formal layout and with tight weed management. It is not random or self sown. This is not a style we seem to have picked up on this country. We are still mulling around as to whether we have the right position to try.

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.