If you are a Piet Oudolf fan - this is a book to add to your collection. Produced in a stylish glossy magazine format it contains photographs and sample planting plans, from a broad range of his commissions for private and public clients. Visual images and partial planting plans, some in centre-fold style double-page spreads, give a flavour of each commission, alongside text which sets the planting in context. However, you will not find sufficient detail to explain how to do it or to see the visual effect of combinations identified in the planting plans. The images and detailed plans do not relate to each other. For some people, this will restrict the book to a 'nice to have' coffee table glossy. You have to study the plans, some with a magnifying glass,and re-read the text carefully to understand and appreciate what is going on in the various projects. If you are dedicated you can pick apart Piet's designs. It's extraordinary to see quite how structured they are yet look so natural.
The book reads in order of project size, starting with the smallest and progressing to the largest. But if you delve into the chronology, what becomes apparent is Piet's progression over time from perennial plantings with grasses used as accents; to plantings today consisting of 75% grasses with a few forbs; moving from planting in blocks, to blocks blended drifts and islands with scattered accent plants, to matrix planting with accents in thematic schemes.
The change appears to date from 2004 - Lurie Garden, Chicago when Piet first used blocks and drifts with accent plants using a large percentage of local wild flora - a departure from his normal plant palette. There is also a meadow feature using a matrix planting of grasses. This appears to have been a career-changing moment leading later to large-scale matrix plantings such as the High Line, Nantucket, and Berne Park; but also prompted Piet to totally rip-up his own garden and start again, removing lawns, clipped hedges and trees that represented 30 years of effort and also the nursery to give more room for experimenting with plants - this man takes his work (hobby?) seriously!
The hidden narrative of the book is Piet's movement over time towards increasingly complex and subtle plantings producing a more naturalistic look, with reduced reliance on a contrast with sculptural clipped hedging in the traditional Dutch manner. I feel this narrative would have been more easily understood if the commissions had been presented in chronological order.
Matrix planting produces a more natural look but requires a chef's knowledge of its ingredients and is most effective on a large scale. Piet clearly believes the future for public plantings lies in combining aesthetics, and ecology in this more naturalistic way. I personally believe juxterposing perennial plantings in blocks transposes easiest to the smaller scale of a domestic setting. The art installation at Graflicher Park, shows how block planting in borders with accent planting repeated throughout the design can give a planting coherency, and be visually stunning on a smaller scale.
Most readers will love the book for it's collection of photographs and easy to read text. Some will appreciate having a visual retrospective of Piet's work. For others, the value will lie in studying the design methodology. In this context, 'Landscapes' is as potentially a useful reference book as 'Designing with Plants' and 'Dream Plants for the Natural Garden' making a triology that complement each other. Piet is always very open about his planting methods, and seeks to encourage their wider use in public plantings. Understanding the design methodology, of course, is not enough to be successful; you still need to know your plants!
Readers may therefore find most helpful the projects at R.H.S. Wisley, Potters Fields Park and Skarholmen Park where Piet has combined in bands, islands or concentric circles perennials that are aesthetically compatible, provide a long season of interest and do not out compete each other. Such plant groupings can be easily transferred to the domestic setting, and may be the best reason why you should buy this book.
This handsome portfolio recognises the landmark importance of Piet's work. It demonstrates how a career can take off in later life - Piet was in his mid-fifties when commissions suddenly escalated in 2000 and even now, at an age when most of us have retired he is still learning, accepting new challenges and experimenting with new concepts.
Piet Oudolf is surely the most creative and accomplished plantsman and garden designer the world has seen since Mien Ruys (also from the Netherlands). With this book he continues to touch and inspire people around the world to engage more fully with the seasons and experience an emotional connection to their gardens. And as always, he leaves us wanting to learn more!