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Why this Garden Works - Hauser & Wirth Garden

Hauser & Wirth Garden, Somerset

This month we're off to a fairly new garden at Hauser & Wirth, a Somerset art gallery that opened in 2014. The main wow factor of this garden is the large perennial meadow out the back called Oudolf Field after its famous Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf. However, the gallery complex also contains some other very interesting spaces.

Container Planting

We start with a very tiny space indeed: this simple planter. I tend to avoid including containers in my designs unless the garden really needs them, as they can be too high maintenance for clients. So I'm always full of admiration when I see a good one like this.

Design Tips:

1. Design for the space not the client. Hauser & Wirth is a high-class, international art gallery. What's it doing with a common old water tank and random collection of rusty objects? Well, the gallery is housed in converted farm buildings. Everything is designed to suit this agricultural space, from the basic concrete floors to the bronzy metal seats. The planters could have been expensive and cutting edge but they don't need to be. The design is timeless in that it is based on the rural setting not on the function of the space as an art gallery. If the buildings turned into a school or back into a farm, the design would still be valid. If your garden design clients moved, could your design still work for the new homeowners?

2. Go high-impact. The container is choc full of plants. This would never work long-term in a regular planting bed – some of the plants would quickly out-compete others and ruin the look. Outdoor container planting like this is a short-term solution but, as we can see here, the effect is stunning. So, unlike me, if you have the skills and inclination to plant up containers like this a few times a year, what a great seasonal service to offer clients. As with show gardens, you might not even have to take the plants out of their plastic pots.


Before you get to Oudolf Field you pass through a tranquil courtyard surrounded by the gallery buildings. I didn't know about this space before I arrived and was surprised by how lovely it felt – despite the scary giant spider sculpture.

Design Tips:

1. Think outside of the box. Want to plant a meadow inside a courtyard? Go right ahead! Many of us think that you can only attempt an Oudolf-style prairie in a vast space. But here Oudolf has not only planted up a relatively small area but has heavily relied on just three different grasses, with a handful of other plants popping up here and there. Very brave but to me it works. The muted style fits with the farm buildings and almost zen-like atmosphere. There is enough colour and texture variation in three, carefully chosen types of grasses to still create interest.

2. Plant trees near buildings. Even single-story buildings dominate their surroundings. It's no good putting tiny plants next to a tall wall – they'll be dwarfed. Even though the grass planting in the courtyard is quite low, the tall trees balance things out and hold their own next to the buildings. How would this courtyard look without the trees? We can be scared to plant trees near buildings: what about subsidence, roots destroying pipework, lawsuits? But a well-behaved tree planted the correct distance away from a wall can be the one thing that makes an OK garden look amazing.

3. You can never have too much lime green. Probably the most important colour in any garden is your basic mid-green, especially when on the lighter, yellower side such as with the grass Seslaria autumnalis. In fact, I think you can never have too much Seslaria autumnalis! Oudolf uses tons of this European semi-evergreen grass and it really zings up his planting schemes.

Oudolf Field

The 1.5 acre field is a colour explosion featuring Oudolf's well-known prairie planting style. You can find books and books on this type of planting design so here are just a few of my observations.

Design Tips:

1. Does colour really matter? Visiting with a group of fellow designers we couldn't quite decide whether Oudolf ignores colour altogether and just randomly places blocks of plants with interesting forms and textures. Certainly the colour combinations in this photo look pretty random and clashy. But are they? Do you think it works? Comments below please!

2. Leave those seedbeds. Almost all of the plants Oudolf selects have interesting seedheads or look good in winter. The aim is to avoid cutting anything down until the start of spring, when bulbs take over the seasonal interest while everything else starts to grow up again. Super easy to maintain and great for wildlife but a new idea for some of us who instinctively want to cut back all those 'gone over' flowers. I tell my clients that, as a general rule, they only need to cut things back when plants start to visually annoy them – plants took care of themselves just fine before we invented secateurs.

3. Plant in blocks. A debatable one this. Plants do not naturally self-organise into approximately three square metre blocks as shown here. One of the benefits of this approach is that planting beds are easy to maintain – a weed looks out of place even to the untrained volunteer, so blocks are especially good for community planting schemes. There's also an argument that at least a square metre of a single plant is more restful to the eye. Your brain isn't jumping about all over the place trying to interpret a juxtaposition of different plants. However, there may be a more recent trend in the UK towards 'matrix' planting, where carefully calculated numbers of plants are placed randomly in a naturalistic fashion. Definitely a topic for a future article!

About the author:

Tracy Rich is a landscape designer based in Stirling, Scotland.

Tracy provides a full range of garden design services for private residences and community spaces.


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