As a professional garden designer who enjoys a second life as a host of European garden tours, I always wonder how I can best prepare tour participants for the wonders they’re going to see. And when the tour is over, I want to make sure they remember the plants, the landscapes, and especially the designers who created them.
I encourage everyone to take lots of photographs, but photos don’t always capture the spirit of a garden, fully explain why a hedge was trimmed in a particular way, why a tree was placed in a certain location, why the color scheme fits the natural terrain, why the designer chose certain plants for the sunny border and others for the shade garden. Some questions can only be answered by the designer, and if the designer is not around, we can only guess at the answers. On tour, that’s what we often do at the end of a long day around the dinner table. We sometimes have friendly arguments about design and designers, but usually it’s just relaxed conversation about the plants, the landscapes, and sometimes the history surrounding the sites we’ve visited.
My final tour of this season will take us to the Netherlands, where we’ll be exploring the naturalistic design trends known originally as Dutch Wave and now sometimes called the New Perennial Movement. I’d like you to pull up a chair and join me at an imaginary dinner party where the guests of honor are the horticulturalists and designers behind the wild naturalistic gardens that have become a fascination for plant lovers from around the world. Allow me to fill your wine glass as I introduce you to some of the visionaries who started these new trends and whose gardens are still viewed as revolutionary today.
Meet Karl Foerster (1874-1970)
Foerster was the prime mover behind the natural gardens we see today, and without him, there likely would never have been a Dutch Wave or a New Perennial Movement. In 1903, He revived his parents’ nursery in Berlin with an emphasis on growing plants that were hardy and reliable, and that had beautiful ornamental characteristics. A few years later, he started his own garden at Bornim in Potsdam, where his interest in gardens with color themes expanded to include plants like ferns and ornamental grasses. He also wrote articles on gardening and was a radio broadcaster, and with friends formed the Bornim circle of garden and landscape designers, a group that also included architects, writers, musicians and other artists. He introduced nearly 400 new varieties and influenced an entire generation of gardeners. Piet Oudolf and British author Noel Kingsbury write that he
“may possibly go down in history as the most influential gardener ever.”
Meet Mien Ruys (1904-1999)
Ruys has long been called the “Mother of Modernism” because of her amazing creativity in landscape design. She created her own gardens (Tuin Mien Ruys) over 70 years, and while the style is distinctly architectural, the plantings are loose and naturalistic. Above all, her gardens at the site are known for their unusual materials — concrete and railway ties that reflected modern industry, but also for her experimental plantings. Her gardens were an inspiration to the founders of Dutch Wave and to designers from all over the world.
Meet Ernst Pagels (1913-2007)
Pagels was a frequent visitor to the nursery of Karl Foerster, and eventually became a great plant breeder in his own right. Most designers today are very familiar with his Salvia ‘East Friesland’, known for its deep blue flowers, compact habit, and ability to flower repeatedly. It was Pagel’s who started breeding Miscanthus and is responsible for all the Miscanthus varieties we grow today. His mission was to select plants for long seasons of bloom and a tidy character. More than half of his cultivars are still produced commercially. Pagels was among just a few German growers who became known to designers well beyond Germany and the Netherlands.
Meet Henk Gerritsen (1948-2008)
Gerritsen is one of the founding members of the Dutch Wave, and it is most evident at his home garden, Priona. Wild and cultivated plants grow side by side, weeds and pests are tolerated in the name of naturalism, and his main design principle, as he himself put it, is quite simple: “What is straight should be curved, what is curved should be straight.” The garden is certainly unconventional – yews are clipped into forms like modern sculptures; and Gerriisen believed there was a great deal of beauty in gardens past the peak of bloom: seed heads, dead stems, and even fading foliage.
Meet Ton ter Linden (1935 …)
Artist Ton ter Linden, a painter, was another founder of Dutch Wave who became recognized internationally after he opened his own garden to visitors in 1976. British garden writer Stephen Lacey called it one of “the most electrifying pieces of planting” he’d ever seen. Ter Linden’s palette of plants included towering borders of pure color, an Impressionist garden, a sunken pond, and in the far distance, farm fields. Ter Linden is known for editing his gardens with a long metal weeding fork, removing perennials that don’t quite fit with his painter’s approach.
Meet Piet Oudolf (1944 …)
Oudolf is the youngest of the Dutch Wave founders, the most successful and renowned of all. His work has evolved continually, and he is now credited with the “New Perennials Movement”. His designs focus on naturalistic plantings, sustainability, and perhaps most important, landscapes that promote biodiversity. As Noel Kingsbury notes, Piet does not like to repeat himself, so he is always striving for something new in planting combinations that result in complex visual and ecological environments. He says:
“ ‘Breaking the rules’ is a phrase that Piet uses often.”
Aside from his own garden at Hummelo, he’s best known for the plantings at Millennium Park in Chicago and the High Line in New York City.
I can’t quite imagine what all of these garden luminaries might say to each other over dinner, but it would certainly include discussions of new plants and planting styles, and perhaps the ecological effects of climate change, for better or worse in the plant world. I’ll leave it to you to do a bit more research on your own and decide what you think the conversation would encompass.