Nursery Blog

Henk Gerritsen: Natural Gardening Pioneer

To begin my little courageous blogging adventure, I am going to hand over the reigns to Henk Gerritsen. Henk was one of a group of Dutch nature lover/gardeners who helped bring forth what is known as the ‘New Perennial Movement’, or ‘Dutch Wave’. This movement, beginning simply as an on-going philosophical conversation about the interface between gardening and nature, has now largely gone mainstream, pioneered by another, now better-known member of the group, contemporary landscape designer, Piet Oudolf. At about the same time we here in America (not I) were experiencing the counter-culture movement of the 70’s, and whose members came to be known as hippies, too the Netherlands had a similar movement. Much of the philosophy being embraced, along with peace and love, was the idea of going ‘back to nature’. For Henk Gerritsen and his fellow hippie-gardeners (Piet Oudolf and Coen Jansen, to name a few), nature was an essential and obvious influence to be replicated in the garden.

Henk Gerritsen
Henk Gerritsen, photograph by CHARLIE HOPKINSON.

When you think about it, this idea and its application is brimming with common sense. What else is there when it comes to gardening? All the basic elements – sun, soil, water, seed and plant, – are born of nature, so why not the aesthetics themselves? After all, is not a plant’s beauty ultimately linked to the context in which it exits, which is most often its natural habitat, in direct association with other particular and characteristic plants? And in the process of designing such a garden, might nature be replicated not only aesthetically but also ecologically, allowing plants to freely propagate themselves, and providing food and habitat for a number of smaller, no less estimable creatures? For the greater part of gardening history nature was not something to be emulated and embraced, but to be controlled, often ruthlessly. Can you think of any other part of civilization where this mentality exists? No, nature was rarely an inspiration. Thanks to ‘The New Perennial Movement’, nowadays gardening with nature in mind is a very lively and popular practice, one that spans a continuum from plantings which can be considered ecological in their functioning and truly wild in appearance, and at the other end, gardens which simply mimic the basic aesthetics of nature, but which remain largely human controlled and maintained. Henk’s approach tended to be the former, whereas Piet has found a place somewhere in the middle.

I choose Henk from this group of pioneers because his influence is much unsung, especially here in the United States, where many of us gardeners are now the recipients of a trend which took a couple of decades to reach us fully. Henk and Piet took it into their own hands to put this philosophy not only into action through the creation of a new style of garden/landscape, but also to bring awareness of this movement, and the ‘new’ selection of plants they chose to embrace as fitting for this style, to the greater public via books. As has been the case throughout Piet’s publishing history, he has always partnered with the most articulate members of this movement (he openly and humbly admits he is less qualified as an author). For the first two of his co-authored books, Dream Plants for the Natural Garden (1999),and its updated sequel, Planting the Natural Garden (2003),he partnered with Henk. Henk’s deep love and appreciation for nature permeates his writing as does his sense of humor, and philosophical perspective. In the beginning, it was from these two books which I found so much inspiration. Here in this modern gardening movement I had found an unprecedented and stimulating blend of nature, philosophy, and art. These days Piet partners with Noel Kingsbury, who is no less fit for the authorship of his ideas (who also has his own expertise to share), which has resulted in even more pioneering publications such as Designing With Plants andPlanting Design: Gardens in Time and Space (2005). These books, along with some newer publications, have worked to solidify the groundwork of Piet’s earlier ideas into what is now the most widely embraced trend in gardening/landscape design.

It is largely my belief there is a glut of not only information, but opinions floating about in cyberspace. In somewhat reluctantly trying-on the idea of a blog, I am keenly aware that it is very easy to simply go about paraphrasing the ideas of others, and coining them as my own, further polluting the informational airwaves. That for me has little appeal, and in fact, very little of what I do myself can be called original. But who needs originality when we are the inheritors of so much, often too much. I pick and choose accordingly. So, it is with the help of Henk Gerritsen that I choose to articulate the fundamentals of this modern gardening movement which I have embraced for the duration of my ‘career’ as a nurseryman, plantsman, and gardener. I will continue to articulate ideas about gardening, nature, and art with the hope that what I share willbe original in the sense that they will be gleaned directly from my own experience, whether it be in the garden or under the influence of nature in the raw. Hopefully some of which you will find inspirational, or at least informative, or simply just more air-wave pollution. So be it.

Note: The order in which these “posts” are assembled will be backwards, that is, the very first post at the bottom of the blog page is the first in a series, at least in the case that I am writing this series. Otherwise, it will not matter where you begin.