From My Kitchen Window

From My Kitchen Window

Holiday clean up continues as I hear Julia Roberts from the other room imploring Robin Williams to “find his happy thought.”  We’re now “Hooked”and enjoying the lazy days between Christmas and New Year’s, when old movie favorites echo through the house at all hours.

Finding my happy thought while mindlessly cleaning the last of some impossibly narrow champagne flutes might prove difficult, if it weren’t for my view through a frosted kitchen window and the garden beyond. In warmer times, William Baffin roses would dangle from the pergola framing the scene. Today, stalactites of ice root from on high and offer a crystalline fringe to the foreground, while the tundra garden looms in the distance.

Happy thought, happy thought— I’ve got it! I’ll imagine a warm spring day when masses of Peonies, ‘Karl Rosenfield’, greet me with their sunny yellow stamens and their ruby-petal glory. While delightful, that thought doesn’t shake my post-yuletide funk– five months is simply too far off —Wonka’s Veruca Salt, whines in my head– I want it now!

Then, through the mist of blowing snow–or is that dryer exhaust? –I think I see Piet Oudolf, garden-god-from-the-Netherlands, waving to me from the back border. Hard to imagine how the 7-foot Dutch giant, and father of the uber-hip New Wave Planting movement stumbled into my daydream, or was he real? In a dash, I throw on my coat; grab two freshly polished glasses, a bottle of our finest bubbly, and slip out the back door.

“Piet” I holler up to the whirling winter sky, “where are you?” Like a scene from The Shining, I trudge across the frozen labyrinth that in summer seems more benign than on this day. I’m so glad I’ve left the massive stands of Rudbeckia and Veronicastrum up for him to admire. “Even on the dreariest of days a garden can offer winter interest.” Piet’s words echo in unison with the whistle of wind-whipped Miscanthus that I’ve planted in his honor.

work at home

It was in search of my own garden’s “voice” some years ago that I discovered the mighty Mr. Oudolf. Actually, a magazine article featuring his garden in the Netherlands captivated me on a family road trip through the Tetons. Rolling along the highway, it was hard to know where to focus my attention–the glossy photos of his undulating yew hedges, or the awe-inspiring Rockies as they spiked then spilled into the chilly waters of Wyoming’s Jenny Lake–both influences made an impression that summer and dared me to go straight home and do something, well, B I G.

But, finding Piet in my garden took time.

I obsessed over his artful and bold combination of native plants. Only someone with a great sense of humor and a WTF (We’ll skip The Flowers) attitude could create such mesmerizing landscapes as Scampston Hall in Yorkshire, Lurie Garden in Chicago, or the Highline in New York–to name just a few. His new garden approach spoke to my own idiosyncratic ideas favoring tidy lines coupled with tumultuous fluff. While seemingly simple, his style and magical touch with color, texture and form proved elusive. My rough understanding about soil, sun, water and site made for an initial back-breaking struggle in perennial purgatory: plant, perish, plant perish, plant then–“pick up the phone and get help!” cried my inner gardener voice.

To unlock the key to Piet’s ways I had to find someone local who shared my passion.  On a rainy June day in 2004, a young Ryan Kettelkamp and his wife, Claire, entered my garden and saved both my back and my wallet from further abuse. Through a mutual love of gardens, fun and the unexpected, this dynamic garden-design duo saw that I was serious about my mission, and helped set in motion my own backyard ode to Oudolf.

Their suggestion for a sweeping gravel path– a ribbon— as Ryan put it, set the stage for truck-loads of good soil, rivers of hardy herbaceous plant life and grasses galore. Now all firmly established and tightly huddled beneath a blanket of new snow, I’m stunned by the results. “Piet, did you see I’ve done as you suggested and left the seed heads up for winter interest?” I whimper pathetically like a child seeking approval.Winter1

Flanks of arborvitae stand guard all around me like Andy Frain ushers waiting patiently for the springtime show to start.  “Piet,” I whisper once more,  “you were here in your own way.”

I pop open the champagne and toast the magic that he unknowingly inspired.

Even in winter, my garden is my happy thought.