Master Planner of Battery Park Celebrates Texture and Pattern

Piet Oudolf stands among the hundreds of seedlings that will be planted as part of his design for the last portion of the Battery Bosque. Photo: Allan Tannenbaum/Tribeca Trib

Oct. 31, 2014

Movement. That is what Piet Oudolf, one of the world’s premier garden designers, is striving for in his latest plan for Battery Park. It is what he sees when he works in the park, and what inspires him about the site—the people, the harbor, the bustle of New York.

“The dynamics of all that happens around here, the uses, the movement of the water, the water itself,” the Dutch designer explained last month during a week of working in the park. “It’s wonderful to see the water in front of you, to have a park on the shore.”

Oudolf, 70, is known for natural land­scapes that celebrate texture and pattern as much as, if not more than, color and blooms.

In 2002, Warrie Price, the Battery Conservancy’s president, spent part of her summer vacation visiting Oudolf at his home and gardens in Hummelo in the Netherlands, to better understand what he does and how he does it. By that September, the conservancy had engaged Oudolf to create a master plan of horticulture for the park.

Since then, Oudolf has designed gardens for the High Line and the Goldman Sachs headquarters in Battery Park City with landscape architect and Tribeca resident Ken Smith.
Oudolf's first project for the Battery Conservancy, in 2002, was the Gardens of Remembrance on the elevated portion of the promenade. The Bosque, with its meandering paths at the south end of the park, was next, in 2005. He is now working on the first phase of the gardens along the new perimeter bikeway, as well as this last section of the Bosque that surrounds the Seaglass carousel near the park entrance at State Street.

Here, with the canyons of the Financial District to the east, mounds of earth rise up resembling dunes, with a direct view of the harbor over their crests. While in town, Oudolf oversaw workers as they placed hundreds of seedlings into position on the mounds. He then paced each garden plot, checking the location of every potted plant and tweaking their position before they were placed in the dirt.

Oudolf works from large, hand-drawn plans, color-coded and labelled with his own periodic table—invented abbreviations for Amsonia tabernaemontana (a Missouri native flowering perennial) and Arucus Horatio (a shrub-like plant with creamy-white flowers) and Ceratostigma lumbaginoies (leadwort, a wiry ground cover).

The drawings, with the amoeba-shaped border of the garden beds, look like colorful organisms with their little mitochondria and lysosomes and nuclei floating about. (And they are art in themselves—Oudolf currently has a show at the gallery Hauser & Wirth in Somerset, England.) But none of it is there at random. Each dot, dash and x-mark on the drawing is placed to predict the rhythms and the patterns Oudolf wants to achieve.

“If you don’t make it precise, you can’t make the garden,” he said. “I can see it in the drawing how it will grow. You have to have the image in your head.”

The gardens at the Battery are dominated by grasses, which move with the wind, interspersed with perennials to give the overall visual effect and feel of a meadow.

“I want it to read as one big landscape,” Oudolf said, “not as a little garden. In the overall, it is one big picture.”

In private gardens, he notes, a plant can be easily replaced. But in a public garden, where he is turning his design over to others to tend as it matures, a plant that fails to thrive leaves a gap in the landscape. So he sticks to his palette of about 20 proven plants, ones he relies on to weather the elements—both natural and man-made. After all, he said, “Do you need to expand your alphabet when you write a new book?”

Instead it’s the arrangement and the patterns that he works and plays with in each commission, the placement of plants next to each other, and the textures those combinations create, both in summer when the plants are lush, and in winter, when they have another phase of beauty in dormancy.

“The plants I know, but it is how you put them together,” Oudolf said. “The results can surprise you. If it’s good, it is always better than I expected.”