by Rory Dusoir
Piet Oudolf can be credited with helping to achieve a major shift in emphasis in planting design towards achieving a climactic display in late summer and autumn, rather than peaking earlier in the season. At a time of year when many gardeners may be thinking about tidying up the garden and preparing for next year’s display, an Oudolf garden is reaching perhaps its best moment. The gardens at Hauser and Wirth Somerset are a fine example of this.
The plants that combine to achieve this display may be divided into two categories. There are those numerous perennials, many of which derive from plants native to the American prairies, which flower and remain fresh late and long in the season; and conversely those plants which have completed their growth cycle and begun dying back, but retain a structure and beauty of their own even as they drift toward their annual death.
‘...the garden under the right conditions holds huge pools of golden light in and around its centre, the pleasant ripening of the tawny grass stems coinciding with the mellowing quality of the oblique autumnal sun.’
Foremost among the latter is the grass Sporobolus heterolepis, which is planted en masse in the beds near the centre of the garden, and achieves a much greater prominence as it decays, demonstrating an incredible ability to gather and multiply sunlight. As a result, the garden under the right conditions holds huge pools of golden light in and around its centre, the pleasant ripening of the tawny grass stems coinciding with the mellowing quality of the oblique autumnal sun. The moor grasses (Molinia cvv), of which there are three varieties at Hauser and Wirth, come into their own as autumn deepens. A frost improves them, reducing the basal clump of leaves to leave the fine lines of the flowering stems unencumbered, and rendering them a fine harvest gold colour. The three varieties used, in ascending order of stature, are M. ‘Moorhexe’, ‘Edith Dudszus’ and ‘Transparent’, ranging from 50 to 180 cm in height.
‘In autumn the foliage is ablaze with oranges and yellows, one of the most striking examples of how herbaceous perennials can contribute to a display of autumn leaf colour.’
Echinacea pallida ‘Hula Dancer’ flowers comparatively early in the year and takes its place in the wonderful early summer display of the ‘Sporobolus Meadow’. However, by late July its floral display is over as the ray florets drop, leaving only a solitary ‘cone’ at the end of each stalk. Far from being at the end of their useful life in the garden, however, these cones assume a prominent structural role all autumn and winter, their density a striking counterpoint to the hazy sea of grass that surrounds them. The floral display of Aruncus ‘Horatio’ is early and achingly beautiful, but extremely fleeting. But flowers ripen to seed-heads and the plant retains an important structural integrity throughout the summer. In autumn the foliage is ablaze with oranges and yellows, one of the most striking examples of how herbaceous perennials can contribute to a display of autumn leaf colour.
‘Pale blue Scutellaria incana doesn’t get going until August and its flower colour is enhanced by contrast with the harvest colours of ripening grasses.’
But let us not forget that the sap of summer has not yet left all plants and there is still time for a prolonged floral display even as the nights lengthen. Selinum wallichianum is unique amongst umbellifers for the lateness of its display. Not only does it flower through August and September, but its healthy emerald-green leaves clothe the plant right to its base and are amongst the freshest things in the late garden. Pale blue Scutellaria incana doesn’t get going until August and its flower colour is enhanced by contrast with the harvest colours of ripening grasses. But one plant defies the prevailing tide of the season more than any other. The late-flowering (very late) Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’, with its huge, coarse leaves, remains in rude good health when practically every other plant in the garden is in decline. Autumn is kaleidoscopic in the ‘Oudolf Field’; central to this is the interplay of fresh flower and growth with senescent form, as the plants pit their varying rhythms of growth against one another. – Read more about the plants that feature in Oudolf Field in a new book ‘Planting the Oudolf Gardens at Hauser & Wirth Somerset’ with text by Rory Dusoir, a foreword by Piet Oudolf and photographs by Jason Ingram. Published by Hauser & Wirth and Filbert Press. Learn more about Oudolf Field at Hauser & Wirth Somerset