Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf

I’ve just experienced the pure delight of watching Piet Oudolf meander about his winter garden in the Netherlands, tenderly stroking each plant and whispering words as if to a lover or old friend. “Life is about birth, life and death and so is the garden as well,” muses Piet, his sharp eyes thoughtful as he gazes across the layers of decaying perennials and blackened seed heads in the week before they are cut back. “What we do in our whole life span happens here in one year and I think that works on your soul. I consider my own life; I’m 71 and I’d say I’m a little bit into the Fall. Maybe in the garden it’s the most beautiful time, but for your own life, of course the beauty is still there, you have the experience and you look different, but you know for yourself, I won’t come back, and they will. It’s not September anymore.”

Piet Oudolf is a living legend and a true master of garden and planting design. His skills lie in creating incredibly intricate wild-style perennial plantings that are experiential, dynamic, structured, vibrant and beautiful – not only during their period of bloom, but throughout every season of the year.

Five Seasons: the Gardens of Piet Oudolf is an intimate view into the life and workings of Piet. Directed and produced by award-winning film maker, Thomas Piper, it’s a spell-binding documentary that tugs at your heart strings, leaving you wishing for many more hours of footage long after the last credits trail across your screen.

Piet Oudolf in Hummelo garden in Summer. Image by Malcolm Wyer

Initially intended only as a short documentary about Piet’s garden near the small Dutch town of Humelo, the creative synchronicity between the pair was so dynamic that a more ambitious, longer format piece evolved, following Piet and his process throughout a year in the garden. “The added layer with Piet,” says Thomas, “is the bewildering complication of working with living materials.”

That the medium Piet works with (plants) is constantly changing, growing, evolving, struck me as such higher order math. I was convinced it would be an interesting subject, beyond just the beauty of it all.”

The result is an exquisitely beautiful film showing Piet at work in his studio, wandering his gardens and admiring the wonder and beauty of natural landscapes around the world with his wife Anja and their friends. It’s raw, close up and often stylistically rough which suits the ephemeral nature of the topic perfectly. The film is divided into seasons, a gorgeous poetic device that allows the narrative of the story to unfold as the viewer transitions through the life cycle of the garden, beginning in Autumn, Piet’s favourite season, and finishing with the fifth season, the transition from Summer to Autumn.

Tall, silver haired and stylishly swathed in shades of khaki, Piet is an elusive figure in the film, radiating confidence and drawing people towards his quiet yet commanding nature. “I often find myself as describing him as Dutch. Very Dutch,” says Thomas. “I think the Dutch way of being both direct but also quite succinct in communication adds an air of mystery and that certainly helps to make Piet a compelling character on screen.

For Thomas, who’s previous films have focused on subjects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Ellsworth Kelly and Vincent Scully, the experience of shooting someone like Piet was exciting. “I was certainly awestruck when I first spent time with him, like with anyone who you admire for their talents,” says the film maker, who spent over four years shooting footage for the documentary.

My experience of working with Piet was really special. He was unique as a subject in how he really collaborated with me, thinking of moments that might be interesting for the film.”

“He’s very sincere and genuine and he showed an incredible amount of trust in letting me take my own approach to the film. It’s not very common in my experience for very creative people to relinquish control like that.”

Five Seasons director and producer, Thomas Piper. Image by Malcolm Wyer
Piet and Thomas on set in the Lurie garden. Image by Adam Woodruff

Revealing the creative soul of Piet was one of my favourite elements of the film. The opening scene shows him at his desk creating the planting design for Durslade Farm in Somerset, England. He has a scaled down birds-eye print-out of the site and hundreds of coloured pens at his fingertips which he proceeds to move through at a rhythmic pace, grabbing at different colours and scribbling out a multitude of shapes and lines across the page, each cross hatch, dot and stroke referencing a different plant. It’s like watching a master painter at work – there is such confidence that each mark applied is in the correct place – and the final result is a masterpiece on its own. Later, this will be blown up to 1:1 size, transferred exactly from Piet’s hand to the site and then planted with over 57,000 perennials and grasses.

I always had the strong feeling that I could do something different, different from what I knew – that was solved when I met plants,” says Piet. “Plants were characters I could compose with and put on stage. That is what I do. I put plants on stage and I let them perform.”

I’ve often heard people discussing whether Piet Oudolf should be described as a plantsman or an artist. After watching this film, I’m more confident that he is indeed both, with one not being possible without the other. His knowledge of plants and the way each will behave, both alone but also with companions, is unsurpassed. When talking to the lead landscape architect of the High Line in New York, James Corner, Piet describes reading the script for the site and immediately imagining a palette of plants that could evoke the right emotion, an intuition that only an expert with years of experience and a creative soul could understand.

I have such admiration for Piet as he wanders about his garden at home, photographing and observing changes from yesterday – the blondes, browns and blacks of Autumn and Winter even more powerful to him than the easily discernible magnificence of Spring. As an artist, he is showing new ways to see the world, questioning ideas of truth and beauty, opening our eyes to wonder that is always there but not always seen. “This struggle about beauty and no beauty, that’s what I like. Seeing beauty in ugliness. Beauty in death, beauty in decay, beauty in the unexpected,” he says.

I think it’s the journey in your life to find out what real beauty is of course, but also to discover beauty in things that are, on the first sight, not beautiful.”

Although initially arriving at Piet’s work from a place of pure aesthetic fascination, the experience of seeing the world through the eyes of Piet and learning about the awesomeness of plants has had a powerful impact on Thomas, something he is grateful for. “I learnt an incredible amount from doing this film, and my appreciation for the deep, deep knowledge in horticulture and garden design is profound. Just listening to all the Latin names being thrown around during my early shoots with Piet and his friends was like music to me – I just loved the sound of it, having no idea what anyone was actually referring to!” he says. “I am especially grateful for how enthusiastic and supportive the garden and plant audience is…It’s a wonderful community and the draw of working with nature is powerfully clear. I’m humbled to have found my way into it.”

Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf is screening in Australian cinemas this month! Visit their website to find a cinema near you or request a screening in your area.

For anyone looking for more information on Australian screenings visit the Five Seasons website, facebook or Instagram.

You can view the trailer for Five Seasons here.

Header image of Piet in Hummelo garden in Autumn by Walter Herfst

Piet, at home in his garden. Image by Walter Herfst