Honest To Piet

For some gardeners there comes a defining moment, the Aha!, Eureka!, the Epiphany, the window has opened, the lightbulb has illuminated, the veil has been lifted. (That last one was a post.) The corner has been turned, our eyes can now see the truth of it. This feeling came to me as I was reading the Piet Oudolf/Noel Kingsbury book, Designing With Plants.

A lifetime of gardening was under my belt, thousands of plants had been grown, by seed, by division, from purchases, from passalongs, and some just grew in our gardens by themselves. Always learning, always striving to make the space in which we were living, be it Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, California, Texas or Tennessee, in two different locations, prettier, better, right.

June 1, 2009 SF1 054 (2)
But there was something missing from all of these endeavors Pre-Piet, a philosophy that encompassed the why of it. What was the vision, and more importantly, how did the vision fit into the natural world around us? (Above: The Lurie in Millenium Park, Chicago, Illinois, a Piet designed garden.)

June 1, 2009 SF2 077 (2)
Designing With Plants was the prescription spectacles that allowed the garden to come into focus. We could see it clearly now, armed with the information and photos found in the text. We could now work with, rather than against what Nature has intended. (Above: Also from The Lurie.)

All human gardening is a battle against the evolution of birth, death, decay and regrowth of botanical beings that are preordained to sprout, grow, flower, reproduce and die. Ecosystems follow their own rules with lichens breaking down rocks, making way for grasses, then herbaceous plants, shrubs and finally trees. It works very well, thank you, without our interference.

We can try to reorder these innate growth patterns, but it will always and forever be temporary, our efforts. In an astonishly short time, all will revert back to the wildness, the grand plan that cannot be altered.

And so it seems, that instead of doing battle against, we should work with the design of the universe already in place. Let us plant like nature does. The best way to learn how to do that is to look around at unimproved areas. Go out into the countryside and observe. Take notes and photos. What is growing where, how do the different plants relate to each other? Pay attention to the growing conditions, be they wet or dry, sunny or shaded, rocky or sandy or brick building clay.

Incorporate what you have learned into your landscape. Plant in drifts but let the plants weave together. Allow the dead and dormant stalks to stand and reseed. Train your eye to see the beauty of frost on the remains of the growing season. To some degree, let it be. Do not spray chemicals that will remove the wildlife from the growing equation. Be vigilant about invasives, if you want to pretend you have some control. Remember it will all revert to its own destiny when you turn your back.

Give up on anything that is too high maintenance. Make it easy on yourself, for as my mother used to say, life is too short. And as I say, Onward.


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26 Responses to Honest To Piet

  1. Great photos again. We love the work of Piet Oudolf and have visited some of the gardens designed by him. Near here we have Trentham Gardens which were recently redesigned partly by Piet and partly by Tom Stuart-Smith. If you like Piet Oudolf you will like Tom Stuart-Smith. I shall find my photos of some of their work and use them in some future blogs. Watch this space. By strange coincidence we found out that the head gardener at Trentham, Clive Mollart, is related to me. Small world.

    Thanks Green Bench. How lucky to be able to visit gardens designed by Piet himself. They are such an inspiration. I do know of Tom Stuart-Smith, thanks to UK gardening magazine subscriptions, and I agree his work is top notch and of the kind that most appeals to me. Small world, indeed!

  2. Marguerite says:

    Dear Frances,

    Often I am transfixed by your photos….and indeed this time, the photos you chose to illustrate what you were saying were so so beautiful…. I could take each photo and sit with their colors and plants at my desk for inspiration. But today….. today, it was your words and the kindness inherent in them that left me breathless.

    Having taken care of a difficult garden (difficult in the sense of a challenging but beloved child) , a wonderful family with the normal slings and arrows of parenthood, two adored aged parents each with their own byzantine medical personas, and an equally adored special needs dog, the truth of your words were stark in their wisdom (yes, thanks to Piet, but it was YOUR gloss on his message I most appreciated).

    One can nobly advocate for one’s garden and people, but there is a natural trajectory to this thing called Life, and at best, fighting it leaves one trying to outrun a bullet; you can exhaust all your energy as for as long and as far as you can, but you can never never best it…… and if you try, it leaves you with nothing but a broken heart and a sense of failure. One can live with failing a garden but to fail those you love….. living with that …. OY. Thank you for reminding us this a.m. that one must conserve the energy that we receive as a gift, and use it to nurture what we love within the parameters that are given. Thank you for reminding me on this frosty morning that first, I must PAUSE (oh , SO hard to do….), just listen (even harder ) and watch carefully to divine the TRUE limits, not the ones that seem obvious and would be the first to defeat us. Pausing gives us a chance to choose OTHER limits. There is always another choice , even if we don’t see it at first. Then , create beauty within the REAL limits…. and enhance the situation to bring beauty and joy to whom you love.

    Thank you, Frances. Your blog is such an inspiration.

    Dear, dear Marguarite, thank you for this heartfelt response. It fills me with joy and sadness and no words of mine can add to what you have so eloquently expressed. May your life bring you joy along with the trials and may your garden be a place of serene peace to you and others.

  3. I am lucky enough to see two of Piets gardens in the Chicago area, Lurie and one he did at Midwest Groundcovers in St. Charles. I have read his book several times and could keep reading it over and over to try to understand his philosophy. I can’t follow it exactly in my small garden but I am trying to incorporate some of his ideas.


    Thanks for joining in here, Eileen. If one were rich, really rich, wouldn’t it be wonderful to travel the world and see every one of Piet’s garden creations. I have viewed the photos of them online, many times. They never fail to inspire me, as does this book.

  4. michaele says:

    In this hectic season of trying to do too much, your words and those of your commenter Marguerite were very calming. Today will be the better as I remind myself of the rhythms of Nature. Thank you.

    Thank you, Micheale. Marguerite’s words have entered my soul and will carry me throughout this day and beyond. I so appreciate you, as well. Bringing ourselves closer to that rhythm of Nature, is a noble goal.

  5. Layanee says:

    Painting with plants on a three dimensional canvas is not as easy as it looks. Your garden is beautiful and serene at this time of year.

    Thanks Layanee. The garden is feeding my soul at the moment, thank goodness for days that allow a slow stroll there. I can vouch for it not being easy to paint this canvas. It will never be finished, but that should be considered a good thing.

  6. Laurrie says:

    A thoughtful post, beautifully illustrated. One of the things I look for in the blogs I read is a sense of why… what is the gardener trying to do and how does it all work. I enjoy yours and this post gives some of the reasons!

    Thank you, Laurrie, how sweet of you to say those kind things. I am glad you enjoy visiting here.

  7. ahhhhhhhhh yes. Piet. For the Love of Piet. I, too, read everything I can about his philosophy, gobble up (with my eyes) the gardens he’s planted. Faire, let’s go see the Highline TOGETHER!

    Yes to that, Mary Ann. I need to see the Highline! I can’t get enough of Piet’s gardens!

  8. Great post, my friend. I’m lucky I never had to go through your epiphany, as my ideal garden is based on the native woodland wildflowers. As life gets more complicated, we do need to make things easier on ourselves, and you’ve shown how doing so can still be beautiful.

    Thanks MMD. You are lucky to have known the path which was best for you from the beginning. I am thankful that Piet and Noel opened my eyes. Like I know them, HA.

  9. dirtynailz says:

    Interesting musings, Frances. I think our biggest challenge as gardeners is learning to accept the things we can’t subdue or control. We spend decades manipulating our landscapes, and it’s hard to back off. Besides, what would there be left to putter with if we did?????

    Thanks Dirtynailz. It is a challenge to understand that we can’t win, and it is so much easier and better if we work with Nature instead of fighting it. But there will always be stuff to divide, move, get rid of, new plants to add, whole bed redos, it is endless. Thank goodness!

  10. Leslie says:

    Wise words and your garden speaks to their truth.

    Thanks Leslie. The garden speaks many words of wisdom to me….I just have to listen carefully.

  11. Catherine says:

    I just bought that book, and have flipped through it a little, but am waiting to really look at it after Christmas when I need some inspiration while waiting for spring. I left far more plants standing than ever this fall. We’ve had so many days of frost and fog and there really is a lot of beauty in those frosty seedheads.

    I envy you, Catherine, to seeing the words and images for the very first time of this amazing book. Do allow yourself time to digest the words, after looking at all the photos. Leaving the standing plants, and learning which ones to cut down earlier really makes a difference in the way the garden appears in winter. Such a good lesson, and good for the wildlife, too.

  12. Your final paragraph sums it all up nicely, and your frost-bitten pics are gorgeous. Great advice.

    Thanks so much, Pam. We have had many cold and dreary days with only a few sunny ones. The frost sparkles like diamonds when the conditions are just right.

  13. Christina says:

    Frances, you are making me curious about the book by Piet Oudolf “Designing With Plants”! Everyone who tries to design a garden in harmony with nature instead of battling her has my sympathy, because I firmly believe that it is the only way to do it. Your photos of The Lurie and your own garden are breathtakingly beautiful. Thanks for a great and inspiring post!

    Thanks so much Christina. If you only have one garden book on the shelf, this would be my choice. I have reread it so many times, and yet still am inspired by every single page. It speaks to me.

  14. Inanna says:

    Frances…I’m new to the blog by about two weeks…I, too, love Piet Oudolf’s art…however…I think your garden is very true to his vision and would be considered as beautiful to him as his is to you.

    Hi Innana, thanks for visiting and welcome! I do appreciate those kind words, more than you can know!

  15. Nicole says:

    Lovely photos and love the philosophy.

    Hi Nicole, thanks for stopping by.

  16. I dearly loved the Lurie. I’m so glad it was a defining moment for you Faire. I can see it in your gardens these days.

    Thanks Dee. Seeing the Lurie after reading the Piet book really helped me visualize what could be in my own garden. Inspiration everywhere, there. I have had to adjust some plant choices for our much warmer climate.

  17. I have that book. It’s definitely one of the best.

    The muhly in the first photo looks like its very own sunrise. Beautiful.

    Noel Kingsbury has had a couple of books published recently, ‘Natural Garden Style’ and ‘Designers at Home’
    all worth putting in the xmas stocking if you don’t have them already.

    Hi Rob, thanks and so nice to see you. The muhly is still hanging in there with the pink color, many things still are holding leaves, like the Magic Carpet Spiraea. I bought Natural Garden Style and enjoyed it, will look for the other one, thanks for the recommendation. I also have their Landscapes in Landscapes, which is a great study guide.

  18. ricki says:

    Piet consciousness has been seeping in almost by osmosis, but after reading this post I am determined to become proactive, i.e. buy the book and spend some fireside time with it. Thanks, as always, for the inspiration.

    HA Ricki, love that Piet consciousness! It does seem like I mention him a lot, but his philosphy is the guiding light of my gardening endeavors. Before all those efforts were very random, not there is a focus, and that is nice. You will savor this book, like I did, I hope!

  19. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Great advice here Frances. Love the title too.

    Thanks Lisa. His name lends itself to puns, thank goodness.

  20. I’ve always love the work of Piet. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Highline on a couple of occasions now, loved the experience each time and plan on returning whenever the opportunity to share this wonderful place presence itself. It is so true, that in order to create a wonderful garden, that is beautiful, and in balance with nature, we must first observe how nature works. Only then we can create, and recreate this sense of balance, that is always present in nature. That of course is only true if it had not been disturbed by man or beast.
    Happy gardening to you…

    Hi Renata, thanks for joining in to the conversation here. I am hoping to see the Highline someday, and as many other of his installations as possible. It seems that nature takes disturbed spaces back under its wing very quickly, too. Happy gardening!

  21. patientgardener says:

    I believe in right plant right place and looking at how plants relate together. I like Piet’s approach too and found this post very interesting

    Hi Helen, thanks for adding in. Right plant, right place is of the utmost importance. Then combining those right plants to the most pleasing and wildlife friendly order can proceed.

  22. Wow I have never heard of this book so I am really glad to have read your post! Love the pictures and I am so ready for some sunny days here in Middle Tennessee! Some of my herbs are still hanging in there but most everything else the frost has gotten. Makes me want Spring to be here.

    Hi Alicia, thanks for visiting. The sun has been playing hide and seek with us as well, which makes it oh, so welcome when it shows its face. I dream of spring.

  23. Les says:

    I love the wisdom of the kind of gardening you have shared here, and I wish more would follow it. Instead many are busy creating green frames for their house or are busy decorating patios. But that is OK too, as there is a whole other group of people who do nothing with their outdoor space, beyond tending a lawn.

    Thanks Les. It takes all kinds, I suppose. My point of view of the outdoors is that of a gardener’s. Not everyone is a gardener, hard as that is to believe! HA

  24. We studied his work in university and I have had the pleasure to sit though a lecture by him. I can easily see and relate to your epiphany. A wonderful post on the lessons learned.

    Thanks Donna. How lucky you are to have been able to listen to him in his own words!

  25. Jeannine says:

    Just wanted to say: Great photos!

    Thanks Jeannine.

  26. Rose says:

    A beautiful post, Frances; I’m glad I didn’t miss this one. The Lurie garden certainly inspired me, too–on a small scale–but I need to read this book! I’m sure Piet would enjoy your garden, Frances, especially that glowing Muhly in the first photo that just invites everyone to come and explore.

    Thanks Rose, for those kind words. I highly recommend this book. The writing is superb and inspirational, the photos are breathtaking. The muhly is still pink, believe it or not, but it is fading. It’s been a good year for it and several other things.

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