NEW YORK — "Down to earth" aptly describes landscape designer and nurseryman Piet Oudolf. A big man with ruddy face and a floppy hank of white hair, Mr. Oudolf looks like a Dutch Carl Sandburg.
Known for designing gardens and public parks throughout Europe as well as for his work as a plant breeder at his nursery in Hummelo, the Netherlands, Oudolf is now transplanting his distinctive vision to the United States. He is the author of three gardening books that have been quite popular in the US. And now he is designing a "tribute garden" to those who died in the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Oudolf has been commissioned to produce a master horticultural plan for the 23-acre park known as The Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan.
The first step will be his design for the Gardens of Remembrance, 10,000 square feet along the waterfront, scheduled for unveiling in June.
"These gardens are not a 'memorial,' " emphasizes Warrie Price, president of The Battery Conservancy. Instead, they are "a tribute" to those who lost their lives, to the survivors, and "to all who will visit in the years to come seeking renewed optimism and hope for the future."
Oudolf was in Chicago planning a "millennium garden" for that city when the terrorist attacks occurred. "I felt all the emotions Americans had," he says. "I felt what it is to be struck by terrorists."
His biggest challenge with the Gardens of Remembrance is "to make it attractive so people want to sit down and contemplate. It should be dramatic, dynamic, with seasonal interest, and an atmosphere where you stay longer and see more."
How will he do that?
Oudolf conceives the urban park as pseudo-wilderness. His strategy involves planting wildflowers, perennials, and ornamental grasses in a layered collage for what he calls year-round drama.
"He has this very distinctive look, a nearly wild look with grasses and informal, large drifts of plants," says Lynden B. Miller, who has designed public gardens in New York for 20 years.
This "perennial perspective" has been flowering for some time in European public parks and gardens designed by Oudolf in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Britain.
But this combination of perennial flowers mixed with swaths of ornamental grasses isn't just confined to public spaces in Europe. It's very similar to the natural look practiced in this country by Washington, D.C., landscape architects Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden.
It's considered a bold, romantic look that is interesting not only in warm weather but every month of the year.
A man for all seasons, Oudolf appreciates the shapes and textures of plants - what he calls their "character" - even when they're dormant. "You want the garden to be attractive 12 months a year," he says. "We emphasize not the flowering periods only, but the 'long experience' of a garden."
Emphasizing the shape and texture of a plant reveals that some are attractive even when they're not flowering or after they've finished flowering.
"Some have a nice skeleton, a nice leaf, or seedhead," he points out. "You have to develop your eye to appreciate unconventional forms of beauty like desiccated seedpods."
"[Oudolf] has a true appreciation of plants as they change through the seasons," says Ms. Price of The Battery Conservancy, who adds, "It's a four-dimensional way of dealing with the landscape," where the fourth dimension is time.
"I don't have a philosophy of landscape design," Oudolf insists. "It's just that I have my eyes open."
He derives inspiration from natural landscapes. While walking in the fens of Norfolk, England, or through a mountain meadow in Slovenia, he says, "Without being conscious of it, I was working out my ideas. I see something in the wild, and I use it in a garden. I don't copy it, but I use the idea."
The result is what he calls "spontaneous." "It looks wild, but it's not wild at all," he says.
For public gardens, he disdains such formal plants as roses. Instead, he recommends integrating ornamental grasses such as purple moor grass, tussock grass, or miscanthus into a border with flowering perennials such as asters, rudbeckia, phlox, and sedum.
The grasses provide height and motion; the flowers produce blooms throughout the summer into autumn - and seedheads for the birds in winter.
Oudolf also emphasizes coordinating color combinations. He likes to use joe-pye weed (a tall wildflower with purplish blooms) with 'Purple Rain' salvia, red-flowered astilbe, and bronze fennel. The addition of purple coneflowers attracts bees, which bring a buzz to the garden.
Adrian Benepe, New York parks and recreation commissioner, describes Oudolf's trademark blend of wildflowers and grasses as "a form of natural, silent fireworks, with grasses exploding in delicate tracery over dots of seedheads."
Oudolf certainly has his work cut out for him in The Battery, a wind-swept, sunny site with views of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty.
Fourteen million commuters and 4 million tourists embarking for Staten Island, Liberty Island, or Ellis Island now clog the area annually.
Price admits it's "a downtrodden, heavily asphalted park" that serves mainly as a "pass-through." Her goal is to make it a destination where people linger, as well as spurring redevelopment in downtown Manhattan.
Mr. Benepe is firmly behind the effort. One of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's priorities for the city, Benepe says, is "to promote great horticulture" and innovative design.
On a recent frigid morning, the ambience at The Battery was far from inspiring. Frost-bitten dusty miller and hunkered-down juniper did little to enliven the scene. "Asphalt jungle" seemed more fitting than "future garden city."
As for the concept that Oudolf has for transforming this space into a memorable Gardens of Remembrance, "I can't tell you one plant," he says, "but I have an idea that's fantastic." It will undoubtedly involve plants with sculptural interest throughout the year.
"Light can play a big role," in the look of the garden, Oudolf believes, including reflected light, morning and evening light, as well as light filtering through curtains of leaves or fountains of grass. The action of wind, fog, and mist will add drama.
"Motion is important," he says, and "we'll use the play of water."
Color is another tool that "can lend a dynamic element," he explains. "It can be dramatic or soft. It can create feelings of happiness or sadness."
Oudolf schemesabout plants and how to combine them as though he were a party planner making up a guest list. "He has a real sense of community when he talks about plants," according to Price. "They have to get along and be aesthetically in harmony."
"You need a mix of different qualities," Oudolf explains. "Sometimes you need plants with less beauty, but more strength and power."
Making New Yorkers - for whom a "New York minute" is about 10 seconds - stop to smell the posies will be the ultimate challenge.
He's aware of the potential danger of hordes of commuters trampling his coneflowers. But he doesn't think it will happen. "I think positive all the time," Oudolf says. "By making beauty, you create respect."