October 15, 2008
I’m not sure how much more grass I can take. I was as interested as anyone when it (or rather they) first featured in fashionable borders. I think it was in Munich, perhaps 20 years ago, I first noticed that street-planting had gone tasteful, with pale grasses, white flowers (and not many of those) and variegated foliage. The Englischer Garten looked anything but English with its waving prairie beds, as tousled as their predecessors had been primped. I couldn’t see it catching on at home, but it was well worth the detour.
By the time Piet Oudolf was doing the two enormous Glasshouse beds at Wisley, I suppose we all realized that times had changed. Ecological awareness obliged us to pretend out habitat was the prairies. Wind-rippled mounds of stiff perennials and soft grasses were becoming routine, and late summer, when all this came together, the peak of the season.
Piet Oudolf’s school of all-season sensitivity, with plant skeletons rimed by frost as important as flowers, is Holland’s principal contribution. He has applied it to places as different as a Yorkshire walled garden (Scampston Hall) and Battery Park in Lower Manhattan – always with a half-horticulture effect, as though gardeners were only helping nature along.
At the same time (though with an earlier start-date) Jacques Wirtz and his two sons, from the other Low Country, have made ingenious hedges and quiet planting their trademarks. The two-volume album of photographs they published in 2003, with text by Patrick Taylor, is hypnotic: off-centre formality in misty air is a memorable, and eventually depressing, formula.
They have crept into our consciousness, these blurred borders and abstract hedges. To a degree they have chased out the intricacy, the intimacy and the sexual chemistry of flowers. Christopher Lloyd threw out his roses for a different reason. I hope neither tendency finally prevails.