Monday, January 20, 2014

The Sabbatical

What happens when America’s most promising planting designer takes time to study the world’s leading designers?

Adam Woodruff is thinking about plants. 

Woodruff, the St. Louis garden designer best known for his traffic-stopping seasonal displays at projects like the Bank of Springfield in Illinois, has spent much of the last three years quietly studying the work of the world’s leading designers.

In that time, Woodruff has crisscrossed North America and Europe to see some of the most spectacular plantings in the world. From the vertical gardens of Patrick Blanc to the horizontal meadows of Hermannshof; from the flamboyant gardens of Chanticleer to the understated elegance of Hummelo, Woodruff has filled his passport seeking out groundbreaking planting designs.

Woodruff’s sabbatical was not initially something he set out to do. But Adam’s work changed when he and his partner moved to Massachusetts. “Circumstances in my personal life took us to the East coast and forced a change in my business model,” explained Woodruff in a recent conversation.  “I soon found myself living in Marblehead with less work and more time.  I eventually embraced a more balanced life and took the opportunity to travel.”

Bank of Springfield. Photo and design by Adam Woodruff
The move brought with it a drastic change in pace from Adam’s life in St. Louis. Woodruff, 42, has built a reputation for spectacular horticultural displays. Adam’s first big breakout project was in 2004 when the CEO of a local community bank, Tom Marantz, tapped Adam to design a 22,000 square foot frontage along a busy commercial strip. What initially started as an interesting annual border quickly turned into one of most talked about plantings in American horticulture.

While the rest of the horticultural world swooned over the skeletal silhouettes of Piet Oudolf’s perennials, Adam was busy proving that petunias and zinnias should be taken seriously. For several years, Adam experimented, mixing prairie natives like Eryngium yuccifolium next to tropical Cannas and Crotons. The border looked like a love child of Roberto Burle Marx and the New Perennial movement. While the planting had an over-the-top quality to it, part of what made this planting so satisfying was the way it responded to the context. Unlike an Oudolf planting—whose elegiac wildness is energized by its proximity to a sleek modern building or the skyline of Manhattan—the backdrop of this border was pure Americana: an engineer-designed bank building set on a commercial highway strip. Somehow, in the absurdity of American strip development, a cluster of tropical bananas seemed a fitting foreground to a Thai carryout restaurant.

design and photo by Adam Woodruff

It wasn’t just the burst of color that caught people’s attention; it was the way Adam used a palette of Victorian bedding plants, much despised by the naturalistic avant-garde, as medium for expression. Plants in the New Perennial palette are wiry, structural, and bleached of color in the off season—like some half-starved runway model; plants in Woodruff’s border have a Sophia Vergara-like quality: bombastic, voluptuous, and exotic. There’s something entirely liberating about this planting: it is a subtle reminder that despite the hegemony of naturalistic planting these days, color and flowers are still pleasurable.

 design and photo by Adam Woodruff
But Adam’s planting at the Bank of Springfield was never intended to be a statement against ecological planting style. In fact, Adam admits to being deeply influenced by Piet Oudolf. “Anyone who knows me is aware of Piet Oudolf’s influence on my work,” Adam told me recently. “I first visited him in Hummelo in 2009. I’ll admit I was a bit star-struck.” Yet soon the awe of being around Piet quickly transferred to the garden itself. “It was an emotional experience. It is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to. I don’t think the average person can appreciate what is involved in creating something that is beautiful every moment of the year.” 

Since that first visit, Adam has been back to Hummelo three other times, each time developing a richer relationship with Oudolf. Woodruff credits Oudolf with stretching him as a designer. “He is so generous and open,” says Adam, “he has helped me to think about my work in a different way.” 

Oudolf’s influence is most clearly seen in a garden Adam created for a residential client in Girard, Illinois. “The Jones Road project was my first soiree into a large scale naturalistic garden,” Woodruff said.  Like all of his projects, the process of building this garden is cumulative over several seasons. “I start with a good base layer, then add enhancements to create more visually dynamic displays with good bloom succession, diversity, and seasonal interest.” 

Perennial meadow at Jones Road. Design and photo by Adam Woodruff

Being inspired by Oudolf is one thing. But creating a garden that actually has the feel of an Oudolf planting is quite another. Particularly in the heat and humidity of central Illinois. Yet the Jones Road project clearly demonstrates Woodruff’s range. A series of perennial meadows surround the house and swimming pool. Large blocks of Calamagrostis and Eupatorium form a backdrop to an intricate carpet of lower perennials and grasses. Throughout the project, Adam uses a matrix of low grasses—Sesleria, Sporobolus, and Eragrostis in different places in the garden—as a foil to a variety of structural perennials such as Allium ‘Summer Beauty’ and Silphium terebinthinaceum. This formula, entirely Oudolfian, is made fresh with several horticultural flourishes reminiscent of the Bank of Springfield such as Cardoons. Even Adam’s use of the hybridized Echinacea ‘Coconut Lime’—a plant so overbred it looks like a Polish chicken—feels entirely natural in Woodruff’s composition. 

Woodruff’s early work shows a commitment to craft and experimentation rarely seen among garden designers whose livelihood is more often dependent upon keeping clients happy than creating art.  For this, he credits his clients: “I am fortunate to have patient clients who support my experimentation and appreciate that building a garden is a process for me.”

If his early work demonstrated Woodruff’s range, how will his recent travels influence him? After all, his travels have left him with a mental cornucopia of inspirations. Beyond Oudolf, Adam talked about the influence of Roy Diblik, Cassian Schmidt, Michael King, Claudia West, and Tom Stuart Smith. But Adam insists that the anxiety of influence won’t deter his focus on art: “I continue to refine my style, understanding the importance of developing a signature independent of those who inspire me.” 

Celebrity designers are not Adam’s focus; it is innovative planting. When I asked him what was one of most inspiring plantings he seen, it was a student exhibition garden at Longwood Gardens designed by Matt Burgesser and Sandra Lopez. The student garden entitled “Forgotten Garden” was a fantasy piece: a ruin garden of a formerly glorious greenhouse. Wild vegetation crept over dilapidated frames and remnant specimens, echoes of the greenhouse’s former glory. Woodruff saw something profound in the planting: a glimpse of the past, or perhaps a vision of the future?

Woodruff’s sabbatical officially ended when he moved back to St. Louis earlier this year. Adam is now turning his attention to a new house. The one acre property has an 1880’s cottage and a modern pool house designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. When I asked him about plans for the garden, Adam initially demurred, “we have to decide on the renovation first.” But it wasn’t long before Adam started talking about the gardens. “The location will inform it. There will be trees for structure; different types of hedging.” The idea that got Adam most excited was one suggested to him by Piet: a trial garden. 

“Travel has opened my eyes to the range of planting design,” Adam said. A trial garden is a way to try out these ideas. “I’m not an academic,” Adam confessed, “but I intend to create a database of information based on my personal experience with the plants I’ll trial in St. Louis. I want to play around with different ideas.”

Adam is quick to credit his mentors for their generosity of spirit, “We are so fortunate in our industry; some of the best of the best are willing to share. That blows me away. Everyone is so open. It's one of the things I love about horticulture.”

But now his tutelage is over. With two “you-gotta-see-this” gardens under his belt—one an over the top horticultural carnival ride and the other an elegantly stylized meadow—plus three years of quiet study of the world’s greatest planting, the question for this undeniable talent is simple: 

What’s next? 

As Adam ponders the blank slate that is his new property, the outlines of a new garden are starting to take shape in his mind.  And perhaps—we can hope—a uniquely American answer to the New Perennial movement.

*All photos in this article are copyrighted by Adam Woodruff.


  1. Love his Jones Road Garden..I'll admit I spend quite a bit of time looking at pictures of is an inspiring piece of work...and I love that he posts updates on's fascinating to see it change throughout the seasons. What will he do next, indeed!

  2. So proud to have Adam as a friend. So gifted,talented, passionate and at times driven. This is just the beginning folks, just the beginning. Stay tuned!

  3. These (especially the meadow types) are simply gorgeous!

  4. Excellent piece, as always. Although I have been in the industry for quite some time, I always feel on the outside of it due to my location. We don't seem to have any "renowned" designers to really follow and be inspired by. Don't get me wrong, I have mentors to learn from who have forgotten more about horticulture than I will likely ever know. But we don't have the "cutting edge" examples such as the individuals you so often write about. It definitely provides me a source to go to when I need inspiration and/or new ideas. Thanks!

  5. Great essay with beautiful photographs. I love your use of language, especially sentences such as:

    The border looked like a love child of Roberto Burle Marx and the New Perennial movement.

    Plants in the New Perennial palette are wiry, structural, and bleached of color in the off season—like some half-starved runway model; plants in Woodruff’s border have a Sophia Vergara-like quality: bombastic, voluptuous, and exotic.

  6. Wonderful displays, I like studying the works to get inspiration for small projects for my clients.

  7. Beautiful photographs, so captivative, one can just stare at those. I hope if I can create any these kind at north shore

  8. Laura H ThompsonJuly 18, 2014 5:49 PM

    Fantastic work Adam, Keep on my friend, It was a privilege to share the trip to Hummelo and Netherlands last year, you certainly learnt a lot out of it, I am proud of my good friend and colleague


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