Gardening as Editing

There’s a Dutch landscape designer whose work I really admire. Piet Oudolf has been creating lush garden landscapes for over 35 years. His goal is to create gardens that look wild even though they aren’t, as they use perennial grasses and flowers that may or may not be native to a particular area. His trick is to grow drifts of plants in mass plantings, instead of just a single plant here and there. This contributes to the sense of wild-ness. For some examples of his garden style, see these photos from his home garden.

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Piet Oudolf’s home garden (Photo: E. Westerveld, CC-BY-2.0)

The focus on wild-ness means that it’s not just flower colours and blooming times that he focuses on, but flower shapes: buttons like sea holly, for example, versus umbels like Artemisia; foliage textures: glossy like hostas versus pleated like sumac; plant shape: large with bold leaves, like Fatsia japonica; or something more delicate, like the lacework of an elderberry; and the use of screens and curtains, often in the form of perennial grasses like Stipa gigantea or Miscanthus sinensis.

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Oudolf’s Lurie Garden, in Chicago (Photo: D. Hiris, CC-BY-2.5)

Oudolf’s focus is on creating a sublime, almost mystical garden feel (yes, he actually uses these terms in his book, Designing with Plants), by playing with light, colour, harmony, and movement. He’s particularly interested in designing for four-season interest – he retains foliage and seed heads over the winter to show the skeleton of the garden.

If I ever go to New York city, the one place I’d visit is The Highline park, which was developed on an old rail line that was originally built in 1934. Oudolf created the landscape design for this park, and it’s fabulous. As the website notes, “Many of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are incorporated into the park’s landscape.”

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New York’s Highline gardens (Photo: Another Believer, CC-BY-3.0)

There’s a new documentary about Oudolf, that we sadly missed when it was showing in Victoria (just last week, booo). But we’ve been watching YouTube videos of his work because we’re thinking of turning our lower meadow into an Oudolf-ian paradise.

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Overview of an Oudolf-designed garden (Photo: E. Westerveld, CC-BY-2.0)

A statement he made in one of his videos really stuck with me. He said that gardening is like editing. You plan the design, you plant everything, and then you watch it grow and decide if – and how – it needs to be changed. You edit it here and there – maybe removing one type of plant or adding another, or maybe re-imagining larger garden areas.

I can see exactly how gardening and editing fit together.

When you first put your garden plans together, it’s kind of like a developmental edit. You’re figuring out what plants you want and where, and how the various parts of the landscape will connect with each other. You’re working with an overview image of the landscape and testing what will and won’t work in different locations.

Then you get down to selecting and planting plants, which is more like a structural edit. You’ve got the overall shape figured out from your developmental edit, but now you have to zoom in a bit and determine how individual plants will fit in each garden section.

Once you’ve planted everything and are watching it grow for the first year, you’re like a copy editor – keeping an eye out for potential problem plants that should be replaced or moved.

Finally, once you’ve got it worked out to your liking, you just do some minor proofreading over the years, tidying up the views and making sure nothing gets out-competed.

We’ve been working on some pretty serious structural edits to our existing garden this spring/summer. We’ve moved most of our tall perennial grasses (Miscanthus and Stipa) into their own bed, to give us some extra privacy from the neighbours. We put the rest of our tall grasses (Calamagrostis acutiflora Karl Foerster) into a new garden bed in the front yard, to hide the view of the driveway. That new bed also includes a magnolia tree (one of my favourite plants), as well as lavender, yarrow, and coreopsis that should bush out nicely.

I’ve also been plugging away in our large perennial garden, moving plants and adding new ones here and there to fill gaps and make sure the plants are more aesthetically distributed. It’s tiring sometimes – and annoying, since we installed soaker hoses everywhere then laid bark mulch on top, so we have to be careful we don’t nick the hoses with a shovel (which I did last week, whoops). But every time I finish moving a plant I think – aha. It’s finally in the right spot.

One of the benefits of deciding to stay in this house is that we can fully invest ourselves in garden editing. We know we’ll be here to see and enjoy the changes, and that makes a lot of difference in how we manage and make decisions about both our indoor and outdoor landscapes. We’re not just doing things temporarily until we move again. We’re doing things to make this place exactly what and where we want to live. Gardening is a huge part of that, as we’re reclaiming a lot of land that was denuded by the previous owners.

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Our perennial garden this spring (before I started editing). All of the grasses along the back of the garden have been moved and replaced with shorter plants.

I think we’re doing a good job of increasing wildlife habitat, as evidenced by all the visitors we’ve had this year. Last week a painted turtle laid some eggs in the backyard, while yesterday evening a blue grouse and her two chicks were poking around back there. Earlier this spring we had a Canada goose couple and their two chicks in the back 40, and the heron that lives in the marsh has been grawking his way around the neighbourhood lately. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve heard the barred owls at night, but the daytime garden is full of the flutter of hummingbird wings, the buzzing of bees, the aerial acrobatics of swallows and dragonflies, and the occasional slithering snake (Silah is quite fascinated by them – luckily she doesn’t try to pick them up!).

Perhaps this fall we’ll start shaping our back 40 into something that could eventually become an Oudolf-ian garden. The key will be to build our greenhouse first, so we can propagate all the plants we’ll need instead of buying them.

I’m looking forward to seeing how our editing turns out. And to keeping on editing as the years go by.

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9 thoughts on “Gardening as Editing

  1. I’m fascinated and delighted to see your green thumb. Living in an arid place, plant life here isn’t near as likely to flourish without real knowledge of what they need. I don’t have that. I’ve long been a believer that there are plant people and animal people, and I’m firmly in the animal camp. But I love to spy on the plant people in awe of their strange powers. Thanks for letting me peak in on your work as well as the famous gardner’s (I loved his slide show). It makes me a bit wistful. Maybe some day I could be an animal person who grows plants more successfully and with more enjoyment.

    • I’m not sure if there are plant vs animal people. Maybe it’s just a matter of the degree to which you’re interested in each. I love gardening, and enjoy seeing the transformation of a good garden. No special powers here – just lots of hard work! Glad you enjoy the peek into the gardening world.

  2. Wow this post was so helpful, as I’m selecting plants and layouts for my family’s garden! There’s definitely been a lot of trial and error but that’s the beauty of it is that you learn and experience the changes your garden is making. I’ve been selecting native plants and plants that can keep the garden looking great and interesting year round, we’ll see how it works out. Your post gave me a lot of inspiration, Thank you!

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