Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a man outstanding in his field—and his field is gardens.

The British garden designer, researcher and writer is among the renowned experts traveling to Water Mill this weekend for the Parrish Art Museum’s annual Landscape Pleasures symposium.

The symposium will take place Saturday morning, with Mr. Kingsbury and landscape designers Simon Johnson and Eric Groft each making presentations. 

Mr. Kingsbury is slated to share memories from his more than 30 years working professionally in horticulture, as well as examples of wild-style planting designs implemented in Europe. He’s become best-known for his promotion of naturalistic planting design, often working with Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, who is recognized in the United States as the designer of the High Line, the elevated park on the former New York Central Railroad on the West Side of Manhattan.

Speaking Monday from Europe, Mr. Kingsbury explained that naturalistic planting design does not mean copying nature—rather, it is a very stylized version of nature that evokes the best aesthetics of natural habitat. And it is reliant on native perennials.

Some people might not consider it tidy, Mr. Kingsbury acknowledged. On a gradient between suburban gardens and somewhere wild, naturalistic planting design is “somewhere in the middle,” he said.

The seed of his partnership with Mr. Oudolf was planted in 1994, when he decided to spend time traveling and looking at garden design, primarily in continental Europe. Though most of his focus was on Germany, he arranged to meet Mr. Oudolf in the Netherlands. “He was doing fantastic things with perennials,” Mr. Kingsbury recalled.

“It’s got a really, sort of, solidity about it,” he said of Mr. Oudolf’s design style. “It’s not just about short displays of pretty flowers. It’s something really long-lived, not just through the year but year to year.”

It was a distinct Dutch approach not seen in Britain, he said. He also took notice that Mr. Oudolf was not attached to his gardens conforming to plans: “He designs very, very detailed plans, yet once everything is implemented, he seems very phlegmatic about how they actually develop.”

Mr. Oudolf’s clients don’t always feel that way. “He is always so surprised when they try to take things back to the original plan,” Mr. Kingsbury said.

In fact, when it comes to his personal garden—it had been open for the public to visit up until recently—Mr. Oudolf hasn’t done a thing to it in 25 years, aside from weeding and an annual cutting back, Mr. Kingsbury said.

The style calls for dense planting: seven to nine plants per square meter. That fills the space quickly, which denies that space to weeds, Mr. Kingsbury pointed out.

Naturalistic planting involves less work than traditional methods—less watering, less fertilizing—but requires more skill, like recognizing which seedlings to get rid of and what to let grow. “We shouldn’t be afraid of plants that self-seed and spread a bit,” Mr. Kingsbury said.

Though naturalistic planting design may leave something to be desired for some, he said there is other compensation to be considered, such as the longer growing season and the seed heads on display through winter. There also is less clearing to do at the end of the year because of less growth, he added, noting that many traditional practices have led to overfeeding and taller plants that topple over.

Natives also are resilient—they survive extremes, he said, and that is key for gardening. Although some gardeners do push the boundaries of hardiness, he added.

Mr. Kingsbury said he visited Mr. Oudolf again a year later and began writing articles for British garden magazines about him, and books became the obvious next step.

“I try to explain what he does to the world,” Mr. Kingsbury said, noting that, “like a lot of artists,” Mr. Oudolf does not do a great job explaining his own work.

They have done three books together about how to design with plants, and Mr. Kingsbury wrote a biography of Mr. Oudolf, “Hummelo: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life,” but, he noted, “We mustn’t call it a biography, because the Dutch are very modest.”

There is also a 2017 documentary about Mr. Oudolf and his gardens, for which Mr. Kingsbury was interviewed. Titled “Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf,” the film will be screened at the Parrish Art Museum on Friday, June 7, at 6 p.m. in conjunction with Hamptons Doc Fest. Admission is $15, or free for Landscape Pleasures registrants. The director, Thomas Piper, will be on hand following the screening for a conversation with Parrish Director Terrie Sultan.

Also on Friday, Mr. Kingsbury will lead a workshop at Marders in Bridgehampton from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The $500 workshop is on long-term plant performance and will encourage participants to observe garden and landscape plants, focusing on their growth through the year, looking at how they compete with each other, and determining how to assess their longevity and their suitability for different garden locations.

“Observe what your plants are doing overtime,” Mr. Kingsbury advised. “Try to understand them.” Work with the plants that are doing well, and don’t be afraid of change, he added. “Don’t stick rigidly to some design you had in the first place. Go with the flow.”

He said there has been a boom in interest and expertise in naturalistic planting design in the last 10 years. And though Mr. Oudolf’s style was developed in the Netherlands, it is applicable to the United States. “In some ways … his style is more adaptable to most of the continental United States than to most of the British Isles,” Mr. Kingsbury said

Much of the reason has to do with the breadth of native plants in the United States. “Using native plants is hugely popular in the United States at the moment, which is fantastic, because you do have an amazingly rich flora,” he said.

At Saturday’s symposium, Mr. Kingsbury will present “New Ways with Perennials” at 9:15 a.m. Mr. Johnson will follow at 10:15 a.m. with “On the Making of Gardens,” and Eric Groft will conclude the program with “The American Museum and Gardens in Britain: Building a Living Collection” at 11:30 a.m.

Then, on Sunday, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., ticket-holders may take self-guided tours of private gardens: a Bridgehampton garden by landscape designer Tina Raver; a Springs garden by landscape architecture group Oehme, van Swedenl; a second Springs garden by Abby Lawless Farm Landscape Design; and Woodlands, Vincent Covello and Carol Mandel’s East Hampton woods, with 31 garden areas and more than 80 species of moss.

Tickets to Landscape Pleasures start at $250, or $200 for Parrish members, inclusive of the Friday film program, the Saturday symposium and the Sunday garden tour. Register at parrishart.org.

This article first appeared in The Southampton Press.

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