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Entries in Noel Kingsbury (2)


Transparent Perennials in the Flower Garden designers use plant forms the way a painter used brushstrokes. In their book, Designing with Plants, by Piet Oudolf with Noel Kingsbury, six forms that are basic to flower compositions are identified. One of them is called screens and curtains. This double concept refers to the transparency of some plants whose form is mostly air. Unlike others that have a solid shape, transparent plants have an open network of either stems or very narrow flower spikes. These open spaces, also known in the study of design as negative spaces, allow one to look through the plant to admire flowers growing behind. According to Mr. Oudolf, such plants create ….effective combinations of color and form as well as an atmosphere of mystery and romance. In their book, the authors suggests eight such plants but I have found two more that work well in small gardens.

The two perennial that belong in this category are Dianthus carthusianorum and Allium schoenoprasum, two underused, and hard to find plant. These flowers are among my favorites because of the intensity of their pink color. Before discovering the concept of transparency I had difficulty combining these plants with other perennials. Now, I understand that they must be used as atmosphere, as open clouds, to subtly punctuate the garden design.

While engaged in online research for a previous blog on the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, I came across the above photo that imperfectly demonstrates how these two perennials may be used as screens to enchant the plants growing behind. It’s not the most effective example, but it is the best that I have found to date.

In  pre World War Two movies, leading ladies would sometimes wear a hat, with a net veil that screened their face. The net created a feeling of mystery and transformed female screen actors into more fascinating characters. Transparent perennials serve the same purpose in the garden. The beauty of other plants is enhanced when they are veiled with curtain plants. According to Mr. Oudolf, the trick for successfully using a transparent plant is to give the illusion that it is planted everywhere, when in fact it is not. Over planting it adversely affects the overall composition.


Piet Oudolf with Noel KIngsbury Write about Designing With Plants: Book Review for

Designing With Plants  Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury, Timber Press

We live in historic times, horticultural, that is. The most forward-looking and inspiring garden designer of the 21st century is Piet Oudolf. Based in the Netherlands but working world wide, he is responsible for a historic shift in the appearance of contemporary landscapes. His work is both riveting and controversial and pushes the boundaries of modernity in the garden. Noel Kingsbury, an eminent garden designer and garden writer, co-wrote this book with Oudolf in 1999 to explain Oudolf’s work to a wider audience. Eleven years later, it is as timely and relevant as it was when it was first published.

The signature of an Oudolf landscape is the deconstruction of the formal garden, reconstituted with influences from the meadow garden. Oudolf had found the formal garden too stifling and the meadow garden too messy. The resulting gardens that he created include design features from both styles that are revolutionary in concept and breathtaking to behold.

Five elements contribute to an Oudolf-style garden: First, is the ruthless and thorough selection of wild or lush looking plants, arranged in formal patterns. Second, is the painterly and architectural role played by flower heads, both blooming and spent, and thirdly, is the deliberate twisting of the axis of symmetry that leads the eye to the ends of the flowerbeds, thereby drawing the viewer deeper into the mood of the garden. Fourth, is the use of ornamental grasses to supply structure to the over all design and lastly, a directive to leave spent perennials uncut during winter, thereby allowing the plants to contribute visual interest all season long. It is Oudolf’s belief that cutting down perennials in winter is absurd. It is no more than rigid folklore with little foundation. Furthermore, he holds that most of what is written about gardening, in the English language, is mere dogma based on principles of safe harmonies. Oudolf encourages gardeners to be adventurous and create their own rules, much in the same way that many American gardeners have been doing for quite some time. According to Kingsbury, perpetuating British gardening traditions reflects a backward looking mentality.

An Oudolf garden begins with a planting palette made up of form, leaves and color. Design schemes are created by combing forms, colors, structure, adding filler plants, grasses and umbellifers. The design is further enhanced with repetition and rhythm. Mood is created with light, movement and harmony. Finally, the year round visual interest of plants from their infancy to their death is another dominant element.

This is not a garden design book for the beginner. It is predicated on an accumulated knowledge of the behavior of perennials and grasses. Some familiarity with traditional styles of garden design will help the reader to appreciate the botanical brilliance that is Piet Ouldolf.

Gardeners that have already attempted medium or large scale garden designs will find these revolutionary ideas easy to understand and moderately challenging to adopt. At the least, they are exciting. Although this reviewer discovered Designing with Plants eleven years after it was published, it has been a worthwhile and mind-expanding experience. No garden designer should remain uninformed about Piet Oudolf.

In addition to reading this book, gardeners who would like to gain an even deeper understanding of Oudolf are recommended to scroll through the blog grounded design written by landscape architect Thomas Reiner. In his posting of April 6, 2010, titled Secrets of the Highline Revealed, Mr. Reiner describes how Oudolf uses a layered matrix planting to achieve his original designs. Mr. Reiner’s explanation enriches Mr. Kingsbury’s book.