Shaping The Future of Perennial Design

The Future of Perennial Gardening Includes Lots of Ornamental Grasses

The world does not easily adopt a new garden style. Trends in gardens are extremely slow to evolve and getting the world to embrace a new idea is akin to launching a new architecture style.

It is not often that a garden designer can become a world-renowned legend in his lifetime (nor is it easy to create a legend without an extremely focused vision), but three men are making a huge impact in the perennial design area and are well on their way to this.

The most active area of garden design today is designing with perennials. Three inspiring people are currently shaping the direction of perennial gardens around the world today.

A lot of the credit leading up to the current love affair with perennials should be given to the Washington DC landscape architecture firm of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates. Wolfgang Oehme, one of the principals, began his studies in landscape architecture in Germany. Inspiration gained from his homeland gardens would later lead to a monumental change in the way that perennials would be used in the garden. The defining moment would occur in 1977 when Oehme formed a partnership with James van Sweden.

Chicago Botanical Garden's Evening Island, designed in the New American Garden style with sweeping use of perennials and ornamental grasses.

Chicago Botanical Garden's Evening Island, designed in the New American Garden style with sweeping use of perennials and ornamental grasses.

James van Sweden, an American who had studied landscape architecture at the University of Delft in the Netherlands, would form a dynamic team with Oehme. Their planting philosophies included the creative use of herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses together. Their work would be the launch of the New American Garden style. This revolution in design focuses in a more natural landscape with a less formal, meadow-style feel. The use of masses of perennials with wide sweeping drifts of ornamental grasses identifies this theme. “The New American Garden style is a melting pot of international plants and ideas,” van Sweden said. “When approached on a grand scale, the result is gardens that are natural, free-spirited and of the wild. Their point of reference is the American meadow – a place of freedom and ease, where wildlife, plant life and human life can co-exist in harmony.” Oehme and van Sweden look at a garden as an integration of landscape and environment together. The 5-acre landscape on Evening Island at the Chicago Botanical Garden is one example of Oehme and van Sweden’s’ recent inspirational work.

The Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park designed by Piet Oudolf and Karhryn Gustafson.

The Lurie Garden, a giant green roof over the car park in Chicago's Millennium Park designed by Piet Oudolf and Kathryn Gustafson.

 The most recent shining star to set the gardening world in a tizzy is not an English designer who has perfected the cottage garden, nor is he an American designer who has captured designing with native plants to perfection. The person who is causing a big impact on the international garden design scene is Piet Oudolf, a Dutch plantsman and designer. Oudolf also takes his inspiration from nature (as does Oehme and van Sweden) and creates very informal gardens that give the impression of walking in a meadow. Dutch (and Germans) have a strong focus to bring nature into the urban environment and to bring nature into the urban environments.

A large palette of perennials is used by Oudolf to create garden interest during all four seasons. Oudolf creates gardens that are a masterful approach to design that uses the architectural qualities of a plant first (instead of the usual colour characteristics). This focus on the structure of plants has led Oudolf to become known for his creative plant combinations and year round drama in the garden.

Home gardeners can create their own garden with inspiration from nature by following the Piet Oudolf design philosophy. The result is a garden to excite the senses and stir the emotions. Oudolf believes that gardens should be an impression and expression of nature by emphasizing form, texture, light and movement before thinking of colour.

Oudolf has elevated structure to the most important factor when designing with perennials. He puts some formality (in the form of tradition and order) into the garden but only enough of the familiar to reassure the cautious, the rest is unfamiliar to entice those looking for a new feeling. Oudolf uses plants that look wild but his gardens do have a sense of being designed. With nature as the biggest inspiration, the goal is not to copy it but to recreate the emotion. Home gardeners can create their own interpretation by building an image of nature using natural looking plants.

The first task is to look at plants for their forms. Seed and flower heads have much more impact than a plants colour. Designing based in flower forms and foliage has much more durability than colour. Flower forms can take on many forms. Oudolf has put flowers into several categories.

The spire-shaped flowers add lift to the garden and take the eye from the solidity of the earth to the sky. Plants with spire-shaped flowers or seeds should be used in a clump for the best impact. Group them as accents for a dramatic visual effect in the garden. The button and globe-shaped flowers are very concentrated points of colour that require large numbers to have a result. The most dramatic use of this form is during the winter. Plume forms have a vague, fluffy quality that is unidirectional. It is a soft form that counteracts the bold architecture of the spikes. Plumes are best en masse to tone down stronger shapes. One of the key plant structure types to create a natural look is the umbels. These are the predominant flower form of wild, natural areas. The umbels are the opposite of spires and they have a rounded mounding form to their flower. Queen Anne’s lace is a typical umbel flower form. Umbels counteract the upward motion of the sky-seeking spires and create a gentle naturalism in the garden. The daisy is a flower form that brings back memories of childhood when so many of these flowers were celebrated. Daisy flower forms have the effect of reminding garden visitors of the sun because of their shape and that many flourish in sunny locations. This type of flower is usually found in the garden from midsummer onward. Daisy flowers during the summer will usually turn into buttons during the fall when their petals fall.

The last group of architectural plant forms are the screens and curtains. These plants are somewhat transparent and allow for viewing through the plant. Screens and curtains are plants with a somewhat upright form that do not create a solid visual barrier. Too many plants with this form may take away from the overall impact of the pattern created by other plants. Attention may be diverted from the real perennial design. Screens and curtains do add to the atmosphere of mystery and romance of a garden.
Oehme van Sweden Landscape Architects can be found at
Peit Oudolf’s website can be found at

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