Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Unusually Clever People

Wolfgang Oehme’s Crusade to Change the American Garden

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Many in the gardening world are mourning the recent loss of Wolfgang Oehme, one of the world's most famous and influential landscape architects.  He and his design partner James van Sweden populared sweeps of ornamental grasses and easy, mostly native perennials in a naturalistic style named The New American Garden.  Oeheme has said he wanted the masses of meadow-like grasses and perennials to be both a metaphor for the great prairies of the Midwest and also to remind viewers of ocean waves and indeed they do – with any breeze at all.  They planted not in the usual groups of three or five but by the hundreds or thousands, depending on the size of the landscape.

"I like it wild", Oehme said in describing this style.  He also liked gardens that are natural – no chemicals – and gardens that are interesting in all four seasons.  He loved that his gardens, filled with low-care, sustainable plants from around the world, attracted birds, bees, butterflies, dragonflies and frogs.

The New American Garden style was a huge departure from and rebellion against the sweeps of nothing but lawn that up until then had typified American landscapes.  Rather than keeping front yards open to the street, he planted shrubs and trees in front of homes, to create privacy – also an unAmerican practice.  Even more heretical, Oehme hated the most commonly used shrub in the Mid-Atlantic region – the azalea – on the grounds that it flowers for just two weeks before becoming a boring green bush.  He championed grasses instead – they look good all year, and of course they move.

Some of his design team's more famous works include embassies, universities and private homes, including Oprah Winfrey’s.  In Washington, they designed the grounds of sevearl major federal buildings, including the Federal Reserve Building, where he covered its two acres over a parking garage with sweeps of fountain grass, 'Autumn Joy' sedum and feather reed grass.

The New American style quickly became popular with other designers and nurseries had to start growing these plants to keep up with demand.  In addition to grasses, they popularized such perennials as black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, salvias, joe-pye weed, and Russian sage.

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Oehme was born in Germany and began planting things at the age of five.  As a teenager he worked in a nursery, then for a local parks department, where he became interested in landscape design. He studied landscape architecture at the University of Berlin and worked on large projects for the Frankfurt parks department and for nurseries in Germany, Sweden and England.

In 1957, he left what had become Communist East Germany to come to the United States and settle in Baltimore, which he considered a horticultural desert.  So he embarked on a crusade to do something about that desert – by designing for the Baltimore parks department and on the side, for private residences.  Those early private clients were pretty gutsy to break the mold of lawn and azalea-filled gardens in their neighborhoods, but many of their gardens still stand and continue to inspire the gardening world even decades later.

In 1964 Oehme teamed up with James van Sweden, then an urban planner, to form Oehme, van Sweden & Associates in Washington, D.C., and they worked together for 30 years.  Here's my blog post about van Sweden's garden on the Eastern Shore.

Wolfgang Oehme died at his home in Towson at the age of 81.

Here's a quick interview I did with Oehme in 2009.  He's telling me about his Federal Reserve Bank garden and the journey that the American native plant rudbeckia made – to Germany, where it first became popular, then back to the U.S. where he he made it popular.

You and the New American Garden
This "new" style of gardening was already in vogue before I got serious about gardening, so I was influenced by it without realizing it.  Those grasses!  Those masses of perennials!  Soooo unlike the prim rows of annuals and clipped evergreens that comprised the garden of my childhood.  My mother may have taught me to love gardening but her style?  Not so much.

How about your garden?  Is it New and American?

Click here to read or add to tributes to Oehme.  Photo credit:  Oehme van Sweden and Associates.

Posted by on December 27, 2011 at 6:36 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Unusually Clever People.
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9 Responses to “Wolfgang Oehme’s Crusade to Change the American Garden”

  1. Marte says:

    So that’s what my garden is!! Thanks for this post Susan. And what’s more, I suspect my garden will weather the terrible drought we are having better than many of my neighbors’ plantings. Very interesting post!

  2. Botanicbay says:

    thanks for the review on Wolgang Oehme. Grasses are of course part of my garden. But do I count in your survey ? I live in Europe. My garden gets inspiration mostly from English gardens, that mix colours and shapes, and borrow a lot from overseas specimens. Grasses are interpreted like the basic frame structure of a more elaborate planting scheme.

  3. commonweeder says:

    I was stunned to see his obituary in the NYT on Sunday. We certainly owe Oehme (and how good to finally know how to pronounce EHR-ma) a debt of gratitude for his philosophy and aesthetic.

  4. I’ll always be grateful to Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden for their revolutionary “New American Garden” that obliterated the ubiquitous lawn and, wonder of wonders, used plants that were native to the horticultural stepchild, the American Midwest. It took a Dutchman and a German to see the beauty of our flowers and grasses–the snooty eastern garden writers never deigned to look at us. And, as a result, we Midwesterners dreamed of east coast gardens with azaleas and rhododendrons, hollies, and other broad-leaved evergreens, and trees such as Flowering Dogwood and Kousa Dogwood. I know—I tried to grow most of them myself; but not only do we have colder winters, we have less rainfall, and more importantly, we have alkaline soil as opposed the acidic soil of the northeast.

    Oehme and van Sweden use some the above plants I only dream of, but they have added Midwestern prairie natives to their repertoire, as well: Black-eyed Susan, Purple Cone Flower, Spikenard, Joe Pye Weed, Blazing Star, Tufted Hair Grass, and Red Switch Grass appeared in Bold Romantic Gardens, their first book; Goatsbeard, Butterfly Weed, New England Aster, Boltonia, Black Snakeroot, False Sunflower, False Dragonhead, Northern Sea Oats, and Indian Grass made the list in Gardening with Nature, their second book.

    They left out more Midwestern native plants than they included, but, at least, it was a start. I was excited about their books with the stunning photographs.

    Then Midwestern Landscape Architects began to follow suit, using only Midwestern native plants in their designs, the first one being Sears new corporate headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Il. In 1997, I switched my business to designing only with Midwestern native plants and have never looked back.

    So thank you, Wolfgang and James.

    Pat Hill
    http://www.naturalmidwestgarden.com

  5. Mary Gray says:

    I really wish the front lawn really had been “obliterated” but alas, I think it’s still pretty ubiquitous. But Oehme certainly was an innovator who inspired a generation of gardeners and designers. Here’s hoping he’s enjoying the next life, basking in the sunshine in a sea of waving grasses.

  6. Denise says:

    Very nice piece, thanks! I like it wild too…

  7. Lois, Zone 5 says:

    Susan, thank you for this sensitive recognition of his huge talent. I didn’t know about his death until I saw the obit in the Sunday Times. Thank you, so much, for this piece. He was enormously important, influencing every serious gardener as well as what corporate people make us look at every day. Thank you for reminding us that some of the design principles we try to use -– well, they came from him. He made our world more beautiful.

  8. ron tucker says:

    Finally someone tells it like it is in regards to azaleas. Two weeks of color and 50 weeks of boring shrubs. And how nice to see the use of grasses and the beauty of using grasses in the landscape.

  9. Sarah says:

    What an inspiring story! He really does have a beautiful garden. I was never a big fan of azaleas before but he really does a great job using them because it looks great with the grasses. Is he growing any fruits or vegetables though?

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