Piet Oudolf: Hauser & Wirth Somerset

by Abigail Willis

Oudolf Field

London, New York, Paris and, er, Bruton – it may not quite trip off the tongue yet but the art world’s latest destination, Hauser & Wirth Somerset, has been creating quite a stir since it opened in July. Thousands of visitors have already flocked to this otherwise sleepy corner of the West Country to check out the top notch contemporary art on display (the gallery opened with an exhibition by Phyllida Barlow) and admire the transformation of Durslade Farm’s picturesque agricultural buildings into an elegant public arts centre. And while there’s plenty to keep art lovers happy here, the gallery’s latest acquisition, a pair of specially commissioned gardens by prairie-planting maestro Piet Oudolf, will be a major draw for those who also have an interest in cutting-edge garden design.


The main garden, “Oudolf Field” is laid out behind the gallery/farm complex – a perennial meadow formed of 17 curvilinear beds which flow around the 1.5 acre site in a Matisse-like dance. A wide central path of creamy gravel bisects the garden, its curvaceous course accommodating a series of turf-covered islands at its upper reaches. At the lower, gallery, end of the garden, a pond and “wet area” provide a change of texture, the deep water creating an inscrutable mirrored surface in which to reflect the changeable Somerset sky and a nearby surrealist timepiece sculpture, “Clocked Perspective” by Anri Sala. Generous swathes of late-blooming perennials such as Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, Aster ‘Little Carlow’ and Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ and Oudolf’s signature grasses like Briza media ‘Limouzi’ and Pannicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ make perfect sense of the garden’s September 14th opening -late summer is a great time to see this style of planting.

Clock aster helenium

Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ and Aster ‘Little Carlow’ with ‘Clocked Perspective’

Even at this early stage of its existence, the meadow is impressive, with 26,000 individual specimens and 115 different plant varieties involved in its creation. True, the plants have yet to fill out and there’s no shortage of bare soil in evidence, but this is a real garden in progress, not a show garden, and part of its appeal to visitors will be seeing how it develops over the coming seasons.

By way of contrast to the expansive meadow, Oudolf’s cloister garden is an intimate ‘hortus conclusus’, situated between the old farm buildings and the new-build galleries designed by architects Laplace & Co. The planting palette here is restricted and low-key, a soothing blend of plants such as Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ (false indigo),  deep red Astrantia ‘Venice’ and Sesleria autumnalis, a ‘cool season’ grass that puts on its new growth in spring and autumn, when its glaucous foliage takes on a more lime green hue. ‘Spider’, one of Louise Bourgeois’s unmistakable arachnid sculptures, squats amid the swaying grasses of the cloister, while in the meadow a pair of her black granite ‘Eye Benches’ offer visitors unexpectedly comfortable resting places.

cloister garden

Cloister garden

An exhibition of Oudolf’s drawings accompanies the garden’s inaugural weeks. Surprisingly, for a designer of Oudolf’s stature, it’s the first time that these have been shown together and they include designs for his High Line garden in New York and his reinterpretation of the classic Edwardian double border at Wisley, as well as his sketches and final planting plan for the Hauser & Wirth garden. Oudolf’s gardens are as attractive on the page as they are off; they are expressed through an exuberant personal language of colourful symbols, notation and patchwork shadings that correspond to the plants listed in the key and which build to create a textile-like effect. It’s fascinating and instructive to be able to pore over the plan of the garden before walking straight out into it to see how it translates into three dimensions.

The actual experience of the garden also offers pleasures unrevealed in the plan – like the mutually rewarding dialogue it enjoys with the surrounding countryside, which can be seen beyond the deciduous hedges that enclose it. The garden’s current autumnal tones echo the russet furrows of the recently ploughed soil of the nearby fields and the turning leaves of the oak trees in the woods. Paper plans also fail to convey the aural landscape of a garden, be it the rumble of city traffic, the hum of conversation or as on my recent visit to Bruton, the exuberant sounds of a rugby game being played on the school sports field which lies to one side of the meadow. These add to the sense of a garden which feels totally at home in its locale, rather than one simply dropped there as a grand design statement.

borders in meadow

Oudolf’s expertise and understanding of how his chosen plants work in the English climate and landscape mean there are plants here that will readily translate into our own gardens, and which are also easily obtainable from UK suppliers. It’s hard to resist starting a mental shopping list, perhaps to include such stalwart performers as butter yellow Achillea ‘Hella Glashoff’ AGM (www.bressinghamgardens.com), Sporobolus heterolepis (aka Prairie dropseed), a slow-growing grass, whose dark pink flowers fade to silver over the summer (www.knollgardens.co.uk), or Scutellaria incana, another native North American that relocates well to this country, with good drought resistance and whose violet blue and white salvia-like flowers attract bees and butterflies (www.hayloftplants.co.uk). Showcased to good advantage in the Oudolf Field, Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firedance’ is a generous provider of late colour and structure, whose bright red flower spikes last well into autumn (www.plantify.co.uk). There are some great ideas for architectural plants too, in the shape of Thalictrum ‘Elin’ a towering 8 footer that offers winter structure as well as sprays of mauve and cream flowers in the summer (www.dovecottagenursery.co.uk), and Gillenia trifoliata, an AGM winner whose delicate white summer flowers produce attractive seed pods for winter interest (www.hayloftplants.co.uk). A booklet containing Oudolf’s designs and plant list for Hauser & Wirth Somerset is available from the gallery shop and at £5 makes a good initial investment for those planning a shopping spree in earnest.


Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firedance’ and Pennisetum


The exhibition ‘Piet Oudolf Open Field’ runs until 5 October.
Gallery and Garden open Tues-Sun, 10am-5pm (March-October); 10am-4pm (November-February)
Admission free

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