Thomas Piper’s Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf is a beautifully composed documentary that unfolds much as flowers and plants grow, evolving over fall, winter, spring, summer, and then fall again. In 2014-15, Piper followed innovative Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf as he visited gardens around the world and developed a brand-new one, Durslade Farm, for the Hauser & Wirth Somerset gallery in Bruton, England, which will ultimately be home to fifty-seven thousand plants. For more than thirty years, Oudolf has taken a unique, radical approach to gardens, as demonstrated in the 1999 book Dreamplants: A New Generation of Garden Plants, which he cowrote with garden designer and writer Henk Gerritsen. “I wanted to go away from traditional planting, [using] plants that were not seen in gardens but were very good garden plants. The more difficult thing was to learn what plants do,” Oudolf tells Hermannshof Garden director Cassian Schmidt in the film. “Your work teaches people to see things they were unable to see,” designer and photographer Rick Darke says to Oudolf as they walk through White Clay Creek Preserve in Landenberg, Pennsylvania. In designing his gardens, Oudolf first creates a multicolored blueprint that is a work of art in itself, like abstract drawings and paintings. He combines plants that would never be together in the wild. “It may look wild, but it shouldn’t be wild. This is what you’d like to see in nature,” he explains in his home base, the lovely Oudolf Garden in Hummelo, where he’s lived with his wife, Anja and their children since 1982. For him, it’s not just about color or size but about character. “I put plants onstage and I let them perform,” he says.
Piper, who has previously directed, edited, and/or photographed films about artists Eric Fischl, Sol LeWitt, and Milton Glaser, author James Salter, and architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, includes lengthy, poetic shots of many of Oudolf’s creations as they change over the seasons, accompanied by piano and guitar interludes composed and performed by Charles Gansa and Davíð Þór Jónsson. Among the people the soft-spoken Oudolf meets with to talk shop are High Line horticulture director Tom Smarr, Northwind Perennial Farm designer and nurseryman Roy Diblik, Lurie Garden horticulture director Jennifer Davit, High Line lead designer James Corner, and Hauser & Wirth presidents Iwan and Manuela Wirth. Oudolf gets ideas for “landscapes that you would dream of but will never find in the wild” everywhere he goes; while driving along the Willow City Loop in Texas, he continually stops by the side of the road to take pictures of the spectacularly colored meridian.
Oudolf envisions his gardens as communities, consisting of native and nonnative species, just like communities of people welcoming immigrants. Although he doesn’t consider his work political, he does understand that the natural environment is under siege by climate change and other factors. Serpentine Gallery artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist explains, “If you look at the incredible multiplicity of plants Piet Oudolf has been using in his gardens, it’s not only a celebration of the beauty of plants but it is also the sheer diversity of plant species, and I think that is a wonderful statement to protest against this notion of extinctions.” Oudolf also sees the annual evolution of gardens as representative of the birth, life, and death process of humans, with one major difference. “It’s like what we do in our whole life span happens here in one year, and I think that works on your soul,” he philosophizes. “I won’t come back, but they will.” Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf opens at IFC Center on June 13, with Piper and Oudolf participating in Q&As at the 5:30, 7:00, and 7:30 shows that day; the 5:30 screening will be introduced by High Line horticulture director Andi Pettis.