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, supervising the transformation of an old soybean field on the outskirts of the little Delaware town of Dagsboro, about 10 miles north of the Maryland border and west of the Atlantic Ocean.
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.
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 of 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.