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Reflections on the Garden

By: Sandra Nelson

I gave myself an after-Christmas gift last week  –  the monograph Piet Oudolf  At Work, produced by the London- based publisher, Phaidon.  Oudolf, a world renowned Dutch designer, was the featured speaker at a perennial plant conference I attended a few years back, and I’ve been a fan of his work ever since. His gardens are what I want mine to be –  seemingly wild, yet subtly restrained and coherent. Everything in his designs fits together beautifully throughout all of the seasons of the year. 

While I do have a few excuses for my mostly average gardens  –  living on the top of a rock quarry and next to a woodland full of nibbling wildlife  –  I have always felt that I was missing an important piece of the design puzzle. Today, in a quote I ran across,  I might have stumbled upon a clue to my missing piece. A garden isn’t a landscape painting that you look at, but a dynamic process that’s always changing.”  – Piet Oudolf


While the colors on a canvas may fade over time, a landscape painting is essentially static.  Every time you examine it, the composition of the canvas remains exactly the same. The trees don’t move to a different spot; new flowers don’t suddenly appear. Only purposeful intervention can change what is pictured.  Oudolf points out the obvious - that a garden, unlike a painting, is never quite the same now as it was before. Buds open, flowers fade, plants sprout, vines spread. In one day’s time, sun, wind, rain or snow can change the look and the mood of the garden, leaving something entirely new to discover.

The dynamic, constantly changing part is the piece I haven’t really thought about. A glance out my office window was evidence to me that I hadn’t comprehended the necessity of understanding and appreciating change in my gardens. Continuing with the art theme (and I truly believe that gardening is an art as well as a science) I realized that I have thought of my gardens as simple snapshots in time. I have fallen in love with the exuberance of a phlox in summer but haven’t considered how it will add to or detract from my fall and winter views, much less what it will do the following year. As a result, my gardens have moments of beauty that then fade away. I am left with a memory of what has been and a need to embrace something new..

Oudolf is right –  the garden is not just paint on a canvas.  It is an ever changing, living entity, moving through its natural stages from its conception to its maturity and on to its inevitable ending – much like life itself.