Film Review: Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf

The simple but elemental joy of plants and planting suffuses this doc about one of the masters of his métier.
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Dutch master Piet Oudolf, garden designer extraordinaire, is front and center in Thomas Piper’s doc Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf. A very natural naturalist, Oudolf’s vision for gardens extends far beyond the merely decorative, incorporating architectural elements as well as considerations of the actual seasonal life of a plant. Structural aspects like the shape of a seed or leaf are far more important than, say, color or blossoming. This can be seen in his triumphant layout of New York’s beneficent High Line, one of his many public commissions—that is, on the days when one can actually see it among the hordes of visitors.

The film tracks Oudolf’s quiet beginnings as a nursery owner in the 1980s, when he formulated the idea of sympathetic plantings in blocked groupings from his own handdrawn maps. The intention was always to retain visual interest throughout the year, not only in the effulgent spring and summer. Piper’s camera follows the soft-spoken Oudolf around the world, visiting various gardens he has designed or been inspired by and finding beauty everywhere, even in a freeway roadside planting. Often along for the ride is his redoubtable wife and longtime collaborator, Anja, who claims that he is “always lucky when he is with me!”

It’s a quiet and contemplative film, much like its subject, who sometimes sports a sassy Veronica Lake bang of silver hair. The film can also sometimes be a bit snoozy, accompanied by one of those wistfully tinkling piano scores. But horticulturalists and all plant lovers will be mesmerized by it, and for those like this writer, who has always had a strictly black thumb, it is highly educational—especially about how to see things—in the most accessible and agreeable way. “For me, garden design isn’t just about plants,” Oudolf says, “it is about emotion, atmosphere, a sense of contemplation. You try to move people with what you do. You look at this, and it goes deeper than what you see. It reminds you of something in the genes—nature, or the longing for nature.”

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