Book Reviews, Gardens

Book Review: HUMMELO: A Journey Through a Plantsman's Life by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury

June 14, 2015

Hummelo cover-1

“In 1982 Piet and Anja and their two boys – Pieter, then aged nine, and Hugo, aged seven – moved into an old farmhouse on an acre of land outside the village of Hummelo, in the province of Gelderland, in the eastern Netherlands.” From this opening sentence, which feels rather like the beginning of a fairytale, the unlikely story of how, through the singular focus and extraordinary talent of celebrated plantsman Piet Oudolf, the manner in which gardens are designed changed forever.

Piet in 1992

Written to mark Oudolf’s 70th birthday, HUMMELO: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life is a lavishly photographed celebration of all that happened following the family’s move to Hummelo. While showcasing the evolution of Oudolf’s work and design philosophy, it is also the story of a place, the nursery he and his wife founded to grow plants that, at the time, were unavailable for purchase elsewhere. While the nursery flourished, drawing visitors from throughout the world, so too did Oudolf’s practice.


Floral labyrinth at the Trentham Estate, Stoke-on-Trent, 2005, Photo: Piet Oudolf

A gifted plantsman, Oudolf is at the center of the movement in planting design that focuses on ecological considerations and the use of native perennials and grasses. Combining plants naturalistically, Oudolf deftly balances complexity and coherence, anchoring his designs with enough of a given plant to provide visual impact while also using a diverse palette of plant varieties. Form, texture and seasonality matter as much to Oudolf as color and his planting plans create landscapes that are often ethereal in their beauty, appearing deceptively natural despite being carefully designed.


Pensthorpe Nature Reserve in winter, Photo: Piet Oudolf

Homage is paid to both the people and places that shaped Oudolf’s career introducing the reader to influential German and Dutch designers and horticulturalists. It is fitting that Oudolf would share his story so generously as throughout the book his independence as a designer is complemented by close collaborations and partnerships with others, including architects and landscape architects, patrons for whom he has created gardens and most critically those who maintain them.

Described as an artist first and a designer second, Oudolf eschews the trappings of a professional office and staff maintaining sole responsibility for his work. Planting design is by its nature a highly individualized and specific skill and according to close friend Rosie Atkins, former editor of Gardens Illustrated Magazine, Oudolf, “cannot delegate the design process any more than a composer could delegate a composition.” As a result he now completes approximately eight projects a year.


The High Line, Manhattan, 2009, Photo: Piet Oudolf

The book’s final section Crossing the Atlantic, explores Oudolf’s North American work including Chicago’s Lurie Garden and New York’s Battery and High Line. Fittingly, these highly lauded public projects have brought Oudolf additional acclaim. In 2013 he was awarded the premier Dutch cultural award, the Prince Bernhard Fund, for “achievements in the field of gardening and landscape design,” particularly his “significant impact on developments on The Netherlands and abroad.” In keeping with Oudolf’s dedication to integrating natural landscapes into urban settings the award’s prize will be used to establish “Green in the Neighborhood” for community- based volunteer projects in urban neighborhoods.

Planting at Hummelo- Photo- Piet Oudolf

Planting at Hummelo- Photo- Piet Oudolf

Told in partnership with frequent collaborator Noel Kingsbury, HUMMELO: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life is part biography, part social history and part design manual. While the narrative is structured around three broadly defined sections with a brief introduction the book also includes plans, notes on topics relating to planting design and a listing of places to visit.

HUMMELO: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life
Written by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury
The Monacelli Press: 2015

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, June, 2015.

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Doing summer things | the flourists' notebook June 16, 2015 at 5:37 am

    […] – already ordered Hummelo, the new book by Piet Oudolf, reviewed here […]

  • Reply Of Gardens January 14, 2016 at 2:20 am

    Yes, it’s a good book. I think all the Oudolf / Kingsbury collaborations have been successful. I often refer to them

    • Reply Patrice Todisco January 14, 2016 at 10:40 pm

      Agreed. The book provides both a fascinating history of the period as well as a blueprint for design.

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