The Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf is known the world over for his ability to weave dazzling tapestries of perennials and grasses. In the United States, he has created plant combinations enjoyed by millions: at Battery Park and the High Line in New York and the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
Earlier this month, Oudolf found himself immersed in what may be his most unlikely public project to date, on the outskirts of the little Delaware town of Dagsboro, supervising the transformation of an old soybean field.
A team of volunteers had just finished planting 17,000 perennials and grasses, the first phase of Oudolf’s two-acre meadow at the nascent Delaware Botanic Gardens. If cultural institutions were boxers, the DBG would be Rocky Balboa, an underdog with a seemingly uncrushable spirit.
The 37-acre attraction is due to open in 2019 with a pavilion designed by the San Antonio architecture firm Lake/Flato, a parking lot, a deciduous creekside woodland and, by then, Oudolf’s fully planted meadow of 65,000 plants. In time, the gardens’ completed form will include an enclosed and expanded visitors center, landscaped ponds, more woodland and coastal plain demonstration gardens.
But for now it has just two employees, and its unpaid president, Raymond Sander, concedes that all the funds for the first phase are not yet gathered. Sander is a former federal government executive and among a cadre of business and public sector administrators — many now retired to the beach — who have joined forces with horticultural types to create the garden.
As beachgoers to Delmarva will know, Dagsboro is seen as more a stop along the journey than a destination; it’s about the last inland community you drive through to get to places such as Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island. The garden site is approximately half a mile northeast of town on land owned by a conservation trust that is renting it, at $1 per year, to the little botanic garden that could.
Despite the challenges ahead, there’s no denying the energizing effect of Oudolf’s surprise decision to take it on, or the thrill of seeing Oudolf arriving to direct an army of volunteers on a sunny, breezy day in late summer.
Converting an Oudolf design into a faithfully planted scheme is in itself a logistical challenge. Each of the 17,000 plants — of almost 60 carefully selected varieties (no substitutions, please) — was carefully mapped out in his studio in Hummelo, a town in eastern Holland.
Each planting block was considered in relation to its neighbors. A primary consideration of such herbaceous compositions is the look of their progression through the growing season and beyond. The autumn and winter interest of their dried stalks and seed heads is a key aspect.
All the plants are stored in Oudolf’s portable database, i.e., his memory, and the combinations flow from his explorations on paper with colored pens. The result is an interlocking puzzle. “It’s fantasy based on reality,” he said.
The planting took several days, though the plants had been custom-grown by five nurseries under the direction of Barbara Katz, a landscape designer from Bethesda. Eighty-five percent of the plants are native species, typically improved varieties.
Just setting out the plants in their pots required its own method of flagging to avoid unintentional placement. A total of 50 volunteers formed a workforce drawn by the prospect of taking part in an Oudolf project. Some live locally and are among the 300 members of the DBG; the others, horticulturists and nursery growers from up and down the East Coast.
Oudolf arrived three days into the five-day planting. Earlier, the team had placed a grid of stakes and strings over the polygonal beds shaped by a network of paths. Plantsman and designer Roy Diblik had used orange spray paint to mark the boundaries of each planting block. Diblik, himself a noted prairie plant artist from the Midwest, had worked closely with Oudolf on other projects and knows how to convert Oudolf’s intricate plans into actual plant layouts.
Oudolf weighed the installation and declared it correct. “He had about seven comments about the plants, out of 17,000,” Katz said. “I think we knocked it out of the park.”
Katz had befriended the garden’s director of horticulture, Gregory Tepper, and when they discussed the plan for the meadow in early 2015, she said, “ ‘Why don’t you aim for the top, somebody like Piet Oudolf?’ and he literally burst out laughing.”
Later, Katz connected with Oudolf on Facebook, and he expressed an interest.
When Sander mentioned Oudolf’s response to the project’s landscape architect, Rodney Robinson, “Rodney said, ‘If you get Piet Oudolf to do a meadow, you’ll have people come to Delaware who don’t even know where Delaware is.’ ”
Oudolf first visited the site in October 2015 — he was in New York attending to other projects — and slowly, deliberately, decided to take it on. Why? He said he saw the possibilities of it and was drawn to the fact that it would be public. He has worked on sweeping private gardens for wealthy clients, but he prefers his work to be seen. “People call me at least once a week for a project,” he said. Most are turned away. “I’m a one-man office.”
Right after planting, butterflies and bees could be seen alighting on the flowers, including a variety of ironweed named Iron Butterfly. In two or three years, the plants will mature into a foaming sea of color and form.
When I arrived, Oudolf was fussing with a central viewing mound. It was too low and the shoulders not quite right. After it was reshaped, we stood atop it to survey the newly planted beds, fluttering with marker flags. Tepper explained the role of the little hill, rising just a few feet above the meadow soil. “It allows people to not only see all the different colors and textures, but the movement from the breeze,” he said.
Later, walking the site alone with Oudolf, the rock star from Hummelo turned to me and said: “The garden scene here is small. But so much energy. It’s unbelievable.”