Perennial delight: A Dutch master’s touch on a South African canvas

The Netherlands is a garden and flower lover’s delight. It might be a small country of just more than 17 million people, but it’s the world leader in cut-flower production. It’s also home to the prettiest bulb garden and the great gardener Piet Oudolf.

For more than 200 years Holland has been the centre of the global trade in cut flowers, through auction company Royal FloraHolland in Aalsmeer. Flowers from all around the world are flown into Amsterdam daily to be auctioned off at about 5am and then shipped around Europe in planes and trucks. It is a testament to the love of things beautiful and a “perfect market”, and a huge nod to Dutch efficiency.  

Tulips originated in the Ottoman Empire and were introduced to Dutch markets at the beginning of the 17th century. If you have a chance, do read Anna Pavord’s book The Tulip (1999), a story of trade and intrigue and the flower that “made men mad”.  

Of course, the Netherlands is famous for great Dutch masters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer and Bosch. In the gardening world, however, Holland’s great master is Piet Oudolf.  

Born in 1944, and now living in Hummelo, Oudolf travelled to the UK as a young man, became enthralled by gardens there and returned to Holland where he started to develop and lead the “New Perennial” movement of gardening in the world.  

Using bold drifts of herbaceous perennials and grasses, his designs and plant combinations reflect structure as much as colour. He is quoted as saying: “A garden is exciting for me when it looks good through the year.” He introduced the concept of leaving dead seedheads, old flowers and uncut grasses through the winter to introduce texture to gardens. He uses subdued tapestry colours with various grasses and the effect is mesmerising. 

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