|The magical 'Katje's Garden' at the late Henk Gerritsen's Priona Garden|
|Visitors at Piet and Anja Oudolf's Hummelo garden|
Nowadays Dutch influence on British gardening is most obvious through sales of plants from the hightly efficient Dutch nursery industry to British commercial growers and gardeners - any of the bulbs, perennials, shrubs and trees planted in parks and gardens began their lives in The Netherlands. But there are other influences too. Amongst the ‘opinion-forming’ elite of gardeners and garden professionals, it is probably Dutch designer Piet Oudolf who has made the most impact as a garden maker; although many of the gardening public would not know his name, the fact that they will probably have a few ornamental grasses in their garden is largely down to him.
For much of the 20th century the British were largely self-sufficient in their gardening. Some American garden makers came and went, but by and large a locally-evolved blend of formality and informality known as the Arts and Crafts garden held sway. Its combination of firmly clipped hedges, geometric layouts, and lush relaxed borders of perennial and annual flowers answered the need of a nation with a rather conservative artistic temperament, for gardens which evoked a romanticised ‘Merrie England’ past of sturdy yeoman farmers and chivalrous aristocrats. The Modern movement in architecture and design made little impact, except in a watered-down and mediocre form in architecture and landscape planning. The fact that most Britons had their own gardens meant that there was little interest in public spaces.
|Hardscape/softscape at the Mien Ruys Garden, Dedemsvaart|
By the 1990s, the less formal successor to the Arts and Crafts garden, a poorly-characterised, and rather spineless form of gardening built around wavy-edged borders and curving lawns was succeeded by an obsessive interest in re-discovering traditional and historic garden styles – the Arts and Crafts garden was brought out of the cupboard and dusted off for re-use. Interest in foreign models of gardening was minimal. Then rumours began to spread of a “Dutch nurseryman, with wonderful perennials, who also designs gardens”. A few brave ones amongst us took the ferry to Calais to drive up and see him, and in my case to go much further and visit parks and gardens in Germany too.
It was of course typical that the plant-obsessed amongst British gardeners discovered Piet first, and rather ironical that many of his plants had originated in British nurseries. Articles about Piet and his gardens began to appear in the more upmarket garden magazines, and then articles about some other Dutch practitioners and places. Marijke Heuff’s wonderfully romantic and atmospheric photographs of the late Henk Gerritsen’s Priona Garden in Overijssel and Ton ter Linden’s garden in South Limburg also began to appear in books and magazines. There were even a few articles about the parks of Amstelveen with their wonderful wildflowers.
What the British gardener saw in these photographs was something they responded to. The mass perennial plantings in German garden shows and parks did not make the same impact – they were too formless, and no-one quite saw how they could recreate similar effects on a smaller scale at home. Contemporary Dutch planting styles however were homely and contained, the use of plant colour and form exuberant, the clipped hedges gave a sense of ‘backbone’ and the occasional wild excesses of seedheads and rank herbaceous growth appealed to a desire amongst many for a more ‘ecological’ style. Above all, the balance between formal structure and burgeoning plant life had the same appeal as the Arts and Crafts garden. Ton ter Linden’s stature as a painter gave him an added credibility too ; the final phase of the British Arts and Crafts garden in the 1990s was a period when there was a great deal of experimentation with colour, and the thoughts and plantings of artists carried great weight.
The wildness appealed too. During the 1980s and 1990s there had been a burst of interest in growing native wildflowers in gardens and parks, but the hard fact that the British flora is extremely limited and not very ornamental, led to many people sowing hay meadow seed mixes and getting messy pasture grass instead. A more ornamental alternative was needed; seeing Dutch gardens with wild-looking perennials gave gardeners permission to go a bit wilder too. Particularly with grasses, such as varieties of Miscanthus, Molinia and Pennisetum; grasses had been around a long time but they never looked their best in the conventional British border where a ‘tallest at the back, shortest at the front’ style had meant that they were often not shown off to best advantage. Dutch (and German) planting styles allowed more flexibility and openness and few could resist the site of grasses like Stipa gigantea when they were back-lit by the sun, sparkling and shimmering with gold.
Henk Gerritsen’s acceptance of dead foliage into the garden and Piet Oudolf’s showing the value of late autumn sun on dead grass and perennial seedheads made a huge impact. November has traditionally been seen as the dreariest month in the British garden, with driving rain and storms competing with the shears of the gardener to reduce perennials to ground level as soon as possible. Grasses, and many of the more robust Oudolf-style perennials were seen to stand the autumn weather better than traditional border perennials – the idea then spread that cutting back should be delayed and the warm sunlight of late autumn and winter be seen to work its magic. Piet’s own photographs of plants covered in hoar frost were also hugely influential, sending many garden photographers scurrying out hours before dawn when frosty weather was forecast. The Amsterdam-based photographer Marijke Heuff also made an impact in British books and magazines with her dreamily romantic pictures of wild gardens.
The Dutch influence on the British planting palette extended well beyond grasses. The herbaceous plants of traditional British borders had been very labour-intensive: manuring, staking and regular dividing were all essential. The ‘new perennials’ were often much less work: plants like Aster divaricatus, Veronicastrum virginicum and Persicaria amplexicaulis will flourish for years with virtually no attention. Even the more short-lived ones such as the varieties of Echinacea and Monarda which Piet and others bred and introduced do not need staking or feeding to perform well. Now that the gardener need not be a slave to their herbaceous border, there has been a huge revival of interest in this garden feature and herbaceous plants dominate many of the new generation of small nurseries which have sprung up over the last twenty years.
|more Mien Ruys|
Piet Oudolf’s style is rooted firmly in the work of Mien Ruys, a name unfortunately almost unknown in Britain (there is very little information on her in English) – so British gardeners are getting, through the back door so as to speak, a gentle dose of Bauhaus-derived modernism. They are also getting, through Piet, a dose of the German nurseryman and writer on gardening, Karl Foerster, who was immensely influential in developing the use of perennials in Germany; one of Foerster’s insights was to look at plants which had not been a traditional component of ornamental planting schemes, such as grasses and ferns, and see their potential. Piet has been particularly assiduous in using umbellifers, members of the cow-parsley family, which he rates for their long season of structure. Many of these are appearing in British gardens now too, and it was an umbellifer - Cenelophium denudatum which was the star of the 2010 Chelsea Flower Show in designer Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden. Now probably Britain’s leading garden designer, Stuart-Smith’s debt to Oudolf is strikingly clear.
For younger up-and-coming designers, Oudolf’s work is often one of the most important models, for both concrete ideas about putting plants together and sheer inspiration. Sarah Price, one of the team involved with the design of the Olympic Park (to be completed in 2012), and a rising star in the design world, described seeing Oudolf’s new double herbaceous border at the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Wisley soon its completion in 2001, and feeling “that this was a revelation, so different to anything I had seen before” and admiring its “scale and its repetition, it made everything else at Wisley look so twee”. It turned out to be a pivotal moment in her decision to become a garden designer.
In terms of square metres, the biggest influence on British gardening life has actually been in public space. Not that we are seeing perennials spread into parks (there is unfortunately no money for this, and no political well to increase budgets) but instead there are some highly successful mixtures of annuals which local councils can use – cheap to apply over large areas and immensely popular with the public. These have been developed by Dr. Nigel Dunnett of the Landscape Department at the University of Sheffield, but the original idea came from Rob Leopold and Dick van den Burg who established the seed company Cruydt-hoek in 1978, originally to see native plants, but branching out into annual seed mixes in 1990. Leopold’s idea – to use mixtures of hardy annuals which could be sown to create a series of flushes of bloom through the summer, has been scaled up by Dunnett so that roundabouts and parks in deprived residential areas become a sea of colour for up to five months.
Having run out of ideas in the mid-1990s, the British gradually began to look abroad for them. In the work of contemporary Dutch designers we found plenty to like, and in a nation we had good feelings about. The Dutch approach to gardening, combining a love of plants and a clear sense of architectural structure, is so similar to our own, so it should not be surprising that the ‘Dutch wave’ should be so readily accepted.
Christopher Woodward is the Director of the Garden Museum in London. His decision to hold an exhibition on the Dutch Wave (a term originally coined by Swedish horticulturist Rune Bengtsson) came about because “we may be a museum, but we are a centre for the exploration of contemporary garden culture too… we have had exhibitions on great British gardeners, like Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd, but when doing these it struck me that when you talk to garden people about influences they talk about the Dutch more than anyone else”. “It was in the mid 1990s when everyone was really excited about these gardens” he says, “and the American writer Derek Fell wrote that “the future is Dutch”. For many he thinks, the Dutch influence is “an escape from the British tradition whereby the apex of achievement is the garden of the grand country house”. Woodward recognises that a lot else has happened in The Netherlands, “to which the Dutch seem oblivious” but which others recognise as very important, such as the ruin garden of Louis Le Roi”.
What a great essay, so interesting to read about this from the Dutch point of view. I've always loved Mien Ruys' garden designs, even if I've unfortunately only seen them in photos and books - it really is time for me to travel more in Europe again. I wrote about one of Mien Ruys' books a while ago, the pictures in her book from the 1950s could just as well be from any book from our time:
Thank you for sharing this excellent article, I wasn't aware of Groei & Bloei either, but will check it out now.
I came across this post very belatedly, but very much appreciated this concise summary of design evolution. I had worked at Oehme, van Sweden for almost a decade and since Jim spent so much time in the Netherlands and Wolfgang was so close with Karl Foerster, it's interesting to see their European influences being translated into what they called the "New American Garden" in the 1970s and 80s. When it comes to the garden, there's very little that is uniquely American. This rich design history deserves a proper chronicler. You may be just that person.
As a garden design student, and currently planning a trip to the Netherlands this Summer to visit Dutch gardens, your essays and photography have been an inspiration. I am now informed, and rather excited, having read about the beautiful places that lie across the water from where I live in Essex. Thank you.
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