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A new film takes us inside the mind — and the gardens — of Piet Oudolf

Piet Oudolf (left) and Thomas Piper speaking at the National Gallery of Art after the March 17 screening of Piper’s film about Oudolf.
Piet Oudolf (left) and Thomas Piper speaking at the National Gallery of Art after the March 17 screening of Piper’s film about Oudolf. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Piet Oudolf is not so much a garden designer as a plant artist. He layers perennial plants with grasses by the thousands, and the result is a progression of life that flows between the spaces in a plant bed, between the edges of time and, most powerfully, between the contours of our imagination.

Oudolf came out of a movement in the early 1980s called the Dutch Wave, and today, at 73, he stands as the patriarch of contemporary garden making. You might liken his plant compositions to the frenetic glory of his countryman Willem de Kooning, except the fury is replaced with a dense, living canvas that never seems to lose its serenity, even as it builds dynamically through the growing season. “Gardening is a promise,” he says. “You’re looking forward to what will be there.”

Oudolf is best known for his plantings along the High Line in New York, but filmmaker Thomas Piper first encountered his work at another high-profile project, the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Why New York’s High Line is the perfect source of gardening inspiration

Piper had made films about artists and architects for others but after stumbling on Oudolf’s plant artistry, he decided to make an independent documentary that would be more personal and searching than others in his 15-year career. The result is a film akin to the gardens themselves, more elegiac than didactic.

The work, “Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf,” premiered at the DOC NYC film festival in New York in November and came to Washington over the weekend as part of the Environmental Film Festival. It is regarded as one of the hits of the festival, which will feature 129 films between March 15 and 25, and received the Polly Krakora Award for Artistry in Film. It played to a sellout crowd in the auditorium of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building on Saturday. A second screening will be held there at noon on Wednesday. Piper is negotiating a theatrical release for June and hopes to make the 75-minute documentary available through streaming services.

Both Oudolf and Piper were at the Saturday screening, and spoke of the project afterward. It is clear they like each other’s work. Piper is not a gardener but could see and capture the power of Oudolf’s plant compositions. “I miss shooting the project,” Piper told the audience.

Oudolf said it’s easy for a photographer to capture details of his gardens, but harder to convey its broader character. He likes the film and has also appeared with Piper at screenings in England, the Netherlands and Italy. “I think Tom captures the overall feel of what is in my work, the dynamics, the processes and the essence,” he said.

Piper followed Oudolf through two growing seasons, much of it in Oudolf’s own ethereal garden and one-man design studio in Hummelo in eastern Holland.

Piper also filmed Oudolf’s excursions to the types of natural landscapes that inspire his work, to a wooded stream valley in Pennsylvania, a wildflower prairie in the Midwest and Texas Hill Country awash in bluebonnets.

Much of the film focuses on a single project where an old farm in western England has been transformed into a destination art gallery, artist’s colony, restaurant and garden named Hauser & Wirth Somerset. The centerpiece is the Oudolf Field, a meadow consisting of sinewy beds of perennials and grasses, planted by the thousands in intermingled groupings. The combinations first come to life in Oudolf’s studio, where colored pens scratch their way on to drafting paper in enigmatic hieroglyphics that read as art themselves and which Hauser and Wirth presented in the gallery as art exhibition.

Garden design, like architecture, does not fit comfortably within everyone’s definition of an art form. Piper finds this a little puzzling. In a way, designing with plants is the ultimate artistic expression, he says, because the medium has a life of its own, literally.

The Somerset project “becomes a perfect surrogate for that question” of garden design as pure art. “Doing a garden for an art dealer seems to be shorthand for that.”

Oudolf then disrupts the narrative in the film by questioning his artistic chops, seeing himself as someone simply whose life has been shaped by a deep emotional connection to plants.

“I love that ambiguity,” Piper told me.

What is perhaps less tenuous is the film’s poignant symmetry between Oudolf as designer in his 70s and the fall garden. Oudolf’s compositions are all about that period of decay and decline between late September and early November. It is a time when, in Oudolf’s highly sophisticated palette, the seed heads of grasses and wildflowers become conspicuous while the foliage all about is in gyrating descent and retreat. Leaves turn yellow, purple and red but the palette is shifting too to the subtler shades of brown, black, tan and blond.

Three stunning gardens that will change the way you think about fall

This is not death (the plants will regrow from the ground in the spring), but it is a decay that in Oudolf’s hands presents the garden at its most interesting. Piper called his film “Five Seasons” because he wanted to show a life cycle that began with one autumn and ended with the next. But this October garden has become known as the fifth season, giving the title an added meaning.

Oudolf “is in the later stages of his life but then he’s busier than he’s ever been,” said Piper. Like the garden in its fifth season, “he’s in his full bloom, in a way.”

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