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Wolfgang Oehme, landscape architect

He was a founder of the New American Garden look of lush grasses and massed perennials

By Jacques Kelly, December 16, 2011

“He was a consummate landscape architect,” said his business partner, Carol Oppenheimer of Pikesville. “He was a plant genius whose intellect is recognized all over the world.”

In the 1970s, he became known as the “Grass Pope” because of the plants he introduced in this country. He championed plants and trees that require little water or fertilizer, and flowers that peaked at different times of year and would be attractive in the offseason.

“He was at the forefront of modern planting design,” said Paul van Meter of Reading, Pa., a friend and fellow designer. “He was a modernist at heart. He blended aesthetics with function. He designed boldly in an ecologically sustainable way.”

Mr. van Meter said that Mr. Oehme’s impact extends across generations of landscape designers. “You can see his influence along New York’s High Line,” he said, speaking of the landscape walk created on an elevated rail structure on the west side of New York City.

While he and his collaborator, James van Sweden, designed gardens for wealthy clients across the country — and created a park along the Hudson River in New York — he also worked in some of Baltimore’s public spaces.

“His biggest tribute could be that he turned so many people on to perennial gardening,” said a friend, Kurt Bluemel, a Baldwin resident who grows perennials.

In the 1980s, he created naturalistic designs to fill the grounds of the Baltimore County Courthouse. His grasses and flowers lined North Charles Street between Bellona and Kenilworth avenues. He also helped select plants for the space between the concrete barriers dividing the north- and southbound lanes of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

“I loved his appreciation for the natural world. He lived for plants and watching the bees and butterflies on them,” said Claudia West of White Hall, who collaborated professionally with Mr. Oehme. “He will live on in his gardens.”

Born in Chemnitz, Germany, he studied at the University of West Berlin before coming to the United States in 1957. In a 2009 article in Chesapeake Living magazine, he said, “As a young boy I used to work with my uncle, who had built a fish pond in the allotment garden next to his apartment. I was always planting and playing in sandboxes. I used to take the fish and turtles home with me during cold winters. I’ve always loved animals and nature. … I wanted to be Tarzan and liked to go to nature and wildlife movies.”

He joined the Baltimore County Office of Planning and Zoning and Recreation and Parks as a landscape architect. In 1966, he joined the Rouse Co. and later formed a long partnership with Mr. van Sweden.

They created Hudson River Park at Battery Park in Manhattan; the Rosenberg Garden on Long Island; and gardens along Pennsylvania Avenue and Francis Scott Key Park, both in Washington, among many commissions. His recent German projects include the Allianz Insurance Park in Magdeburg and various gardens and parks in Chemnitz. He also designed a garden in Bitterfeld at the site of a surface coal mine.

One of his early Baltimore commissions was a Murray Hill garden off Charles Street.

“He drew up a little plan, and I was shocked at first,” said Pauline Vollmer, the owner of the garden he created in 1962. “It was so different — no lawn at all.”

A 1991 Baltimore Sun article described a garden he designed in Baltimore County:

“Wolfgang Oehme’s garden is a garden unlike any other on this street. Where the neighbors have kept theirs within the safe bounds of tradition, cultivating big stretches of lawn ending in predictably tidy evergreens tucked up tight against the house — this one looks like a horticultural explosion,” the article said. “Every space has a plant: tall, feathery clumps of golden-stemmed grasses; the blue-green stems of Russian sage; the sharp spikes of yucca; lacy shoots of bamboo; the deep red berries of nandina; and the dark chocolate brown seed heads of sedum.”

The garden writer said that “in spite of the threat of chaos that so many plants would seem to bring, there is a beauty and serenity here that those other gardens lack.”

The article described him as a “short, thin man with a wide smile.”

“You have to have a feeling for plants. I paint with plants, very broad strokes. I like it to look like a wave of color, like the ocean,” Mr. Oehme told The Sun in 1991.

In a 2005 Sun article, Mr. Oehme said he disliked the “traditional, sculpted look of English gardens, with their manicured rows of plants, trimmed topiaries and lines of annuals.”

He said that while “most people like [their gardens] tame, I like it wild.”

On a trip around Towson with a reporter, he passed an office building with rounded bushes trimmed carefully. He shook his head and said, “Poor plants. They look like meatballs,” The Sun reported.

No funeral is planned.

Survivors include a son, Roland Oehme of Towson; and a grandson. A marriage ended in divorce.

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Wolfgang Oehme, innovative landscape architect, dies at 81

By , Published: December 18

Wolfgang Oehme, a German-born landscape architect whose radical ideas changed the face of the American garden, died Dec. 15 in Towson, Md. He was 81.

The cause of death was metastatic colon cancer, said Carol Oppenheimer, his colleague and, later, his caretaker.

With the landscape architect James van Sweden, Mr. Oehme (pronounced UR-ma) forged an unlikely partnership that became the Washington-based firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates. The alliance began in earnest obscurity in the 1970s: They planted their own designs from the back of a pair of Volkswagen Squarebacks.

When a Federal Reserve Board member asked them to redesign the Fed’s Virginia Avenue NW gardens in the 1970s, the resulting two-acre confection of fountain grass, Autumn Joy sedum and feather reed grass showed the world an alternative to the old city park model of foundation evergreens bordered by ivy ground cover.

A slew of public and private commissions followed, other designers aped the style and nurseries had to grow and sell the Oehme-van Sweden plant palette to keep up with demand.

In addition to various grasses, the team popularized such perennials as black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, joe-pye weed, salvias and Russian sage.

With artful promotion, they called their style “the New American Garden” and said their gardens served as a metaphor for the American prairie.

In addition to designing gardens for adventurous and well-heeled clients, the firm also shaped prominent public spaces in the Washington area, including Reagan National Airport, the National World War II Memorial and Freedom Plaza.

Their champion at the Federal Reserve, David Lilly, wrote that the garden there evoked imagery that moved “away from the aristocratic European model” toward a more egalitarian “Great Plains heritage.”

The gardens were also rooted in Mr. Oehme’s Germanic passion for improved varieties of grasses and perennials planted as they might look in nature — carefully grouped and en masse. Mr. Oehme loved that his gardens attracted birds, bees, butterflies, dragonflies and frogs, but his plants were not native to one land or region. Mr. Oehme was looking for effect, not ecology.

A major influence was Karl Foerster, a plant breeder and writer active before World War II who emphasized the natural and dynamic seasonal aspects of herbaceous gardening.

Throughout his life, Mr. Oehme returned to a saying of Foerster’s: that grasses “were the hair of the Earth.”

Wolfgang Walter Oehme was born in Chemnitz, Germany, on May 18, 1930. He began growing plants when he was 5, in a corner of his parents’ community garden plot.

He moved north with his family to Bitterfeld in 1943 when his father was transferred to the city as a policeman during World War II. The city later became part of East Germany under Soviet control.

Mr. Oehme apprenticed at 17 at a Bitterfeld nursery, where he learned plants, propagation and planting techniques. He later moved to the city parks department, where a mentor introduced him to the ideas of Foerster and encouraged him to become a landscape designer.

Mr. Oehme graduated from the University of Berlin in 1954 with a degree in landscape architecture. Three years later, with his homeland increasingly divided by the Cold War, he packed a bag and came to Baltimore to work for landscape architect Bruce Baetjer.

Mr. Oehme took a job with the Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Department but was soon doing private gardens on the side for brave clients who would replace their suburban gardens of lawns and azaleas with strange grasses and long flowering perennials.

The sight of the standard passive yard, enlivened by pansies in spring and impatiens in summer, made Mr. Oehme cringe. “When I came to Baltimore, it was like a desert,” he wrote. “I went on a crusade.”

Clients discovered that they had to clothe and feed the eccentric young emigre, said Kurt Bluemel, another German plantsman who made a name for himself in Maryland in the 1960s. Mr. Oehme was a Romantic who fed his imagination with the poetry of Goethe.

One of Mr. Oehme’s important early gardens was done for Leo and Pauline Vollmer in the Baltimore suburb of Murray Hill. In 1964, van Sweden, then an urban planner in Washington, heard about it and took a look. “I had never seen such a beautiful garden in my life,” he wrote. “I knew right then that Wolfgang Oehme was somebody to grapple with, to be involved with.”

In 1971, they together designed and installed the garden of van Sweden’s rowhouse on N Street NW in Georgetown, which they used as a horticultural showroom to attract clients. They founded their firm in 1975.

Van Sweden, now retired, wrote or co-wrote four books about their partnership and design philosophies. He was a polished speaker. Mr. Oehme, by contrast, spoke laconically and with a thick German accent and was more at home with a shovel than a microphone.

Mr. Oehme’s marriage to the former Shirley Zinkhan ended in divorce. Survivors include a son, Roland Oehme, a landscape architect in Towson; and a grandson.

Mr. Oehme left the company he started, officially retiring in 2008, and the same year established a small firm with Oppenheimer called Woco Organic Gardens.

Mr. Oehme once had a large house and a dazzling, multi-terraced garden in Towson, but he ended his days in reduced circumstances, in a small apartment not far away.

In October, he paid his final visit to Germany, where he reviewed a project he took on late in life that served to close the circle of his career. Alongside a lake at the Goitzsche Park in Bitterfeld, he helped to regenerate a brownfield site with broad sweeps of rudbeckias, euphorbias, switch grasses and the like.

From his bed two days before his death, Mr. Oehme surveyed framed photographs of the park as well as his German forebears. He pointed to the various plants in their autumn flower and color. “Thousands and thousands,” he said, weakly, mustering a smile.

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The Cultural Landscape Foundation

1930 – 2011

Biography of Wolfgang Oehme

Published December 16, 2011
 Wolfgang Oehme and james van Sweden

Editor’s Note: This Pioneers biographical profile is being posted in honor of Wolfgang Oehme’s passing.

Born and raised in Chemnitz (then known as Bitterfeld), Germany, Oehme’s first training as a gardener was at the Illge Nursery. In his late teens and early twenties he worked at the Bitterfeld Parks and Cemeteries Department and apprenticed at the Bitterfeld Horticultural School. While there, he met his mentor Hans-Joachim Bauer, who connected him with the well-known gardener and plantsman Karl Foerster. Foerster also became a mentor and had a significant and lifelong influence on Oehme’s planting design. In 1952 Oehme left Bitterfeld to study landscape architecture at the Advanced School of Garden Design, University of Berlin, where he graduated in 1954.

Wolfgang Oehme
He began his career in Europe, working near London at the nursery of Waterer Sons & Crisp before becoming a planner in Frankfurt with the Parks Department and briefly with the landscape architecture firm Delius in Nürnberg. In 1957 Oehme moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he lived for the rest of his life. Once in Baltimore, Oehme spent a year and a half working for landscape designer Bruce Baetjer before securing a position with the Baltimore County Department of Parks. In this capacity he designed golf courses, parks and playgrounds for the county until 1965. He practiced independently in the Baltimore area from 1966 to 1974, where he designed many private landscapes, including the garden of Leo & Pauline Vollmer. Additional commissions include his work developing a new park system for Columbia, Maryland.

In 1977 Oehme formed a partnership with James van Sweden, whom he had known since 1964. Their Washington, D.C. firm, which continues today as Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Inc. (OvS), grew to encompass architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design. Their first major commission in 1977 was the Virginia Avenue gardens for the Federal Reserve in Washington, D.C. The design of these gardens broke with the traditional federal garden palette and launched a new garden style known as the ‘New American Garden.’ Their signature style makes use of large prairie-style drifts of grasses and herbaceous plant material used in a painterly fashion to create a diversity of form and color in the garden and highlight the seasonal aspects of the plants. The firm is credited with changing the face of landscape architecture in the U.S. by introducing the idea of naturalistic, low-maintenance, multi-seasonal plantings into the American Garden in lieu of the traditional lawn.

Federal Reserve
Federal Reserve, Washington, D.C.

Oehme’s work can be seen in residential and commercial, public and private projects across the United States and internationally in Chemnitz, Magdeburg and Bitterfeld, Germany. His commissions include the Morrill Hall Gardens, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; planting design along Pennsylvania Avenue from the U.S. Treasury to the National Gallery; the redesign of planting for M. Paul Friedberg’s Pershing Park; and the German American Friendship Garden, all in Washington, D.C. Other projects include the National Education and Training Center campus for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Shepherdstown, West Virginia; the MacArthur Center retail complex, Norfolk, Virginia; Nelson A. Rockefeller Park, New York City; and the residence of Alex and Carole Rosenberg, Long Island. Oehme’s own garden, Joppa, at his Towson, Maryland home, has been transformed over more than twenty years from an expanse of lawn to a wild landscape teeming with grasses and herbaceous perennials. A passionate gardener as well as designer and plantsman, Oehme diligently maintained his own garden as well as many of the other landscapes he designed throughout his career.

Oehme’s life and work was documented in Stefan Leppert’s Ornamental Grasses: Wolfgang Oehme and the New American Garden and his projects have been featured in numerous books and publications. He co-authored Bold Romantic Gardens: The New World Landscapes of Oehme and van Sweden with James van Sweden, and The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses: How to Grow and Use Over 250 Beautiful and Versatile Plants with John Greenlee and Derek Fell. A Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, he received numerous awards and honors for his and van Sweden’s work. These include the 1992 Landscape Design Award from the American Horticultural Society, 2002 George Robert White Medal of Honor, and most recently the 2011 Longhouse Award.

Rosenberg Garden
Alex and Carole Rosenberg Garden, Long Island, NY, photo courtesy
Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Inc.

While he never returned to Germany to live, Oehme maintained ties with his native land and worked on projects there throughout his career. He corresponded with Karl Foerster’s widow, Eva, and imported and exported plants and seeds between the two countries, traveling there himself on a regular basis.

In 2008 Oehme retired from the firm and started WOCO Organic Gardens, LLC with Carol Oppenheimer. He continued to practice designing public parks and commercial, institutional and residential gardens until his death at his home on December 15th, 2011.

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Another dear friend who lost a very sudden battle with cancer this month was Wolfgang Oehme, 82, of Oehme and van
Sweden Landscape Architects. Wolfgang came to the US as a young man and wound up leaving a huge mark on the American landscape. In addition to designing gardens around the world, Wolfgang was a true trendsetter in the world of landscape architecture. His concept of the New American Garden took the world by storm in the 1970s, with the use of large drifts of plants in a naturalistic style. Wolfgang, or “Wolfi” as he was known to his friends, was renowned for a few signature plants whose use he championed in virtually all of his designs. This short list included Miscanthus sinensis, Fargesia clumping bamboo, Pennisetum alopecuroides, Perovskia atriplicifolia, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, Panicum virgatum, and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’.
Even with his amazing body of work, it was his quirky behavior that made people love Wolfi. I’ve never know anyone else to tout their work as much as Wolfi, but he did so with such a child-like excitement that it didn’t come off as bragging. I had the pleasure (make that unique experience) of staying in Wolfi’s home a few times over the years…yielding experiences I’ll never forget. Many people might think that Wolfi’s fetish for nude swimming in his back yard pool, hidden from the neighbors only by a few large clumps of miscanthus, would be unusual but for Wolfi, that fell into the range of normal behavior. After late dinners, Wolfi would drive me around Baltimore County looking at his designs, often stopping his car in the middle of four lanes of traffic to get out to inspect or even weed a particularly nice planting of perennials. Shining a flashlight in Baltimore County clients yards after midnight to see 20-year-old clumps of fargesias didn’t seem strange at all to Wolfi, while all I could do was think of where to buy a bulletproof vest. Then there were the nights at the Towson County courthouse…
As we strolled around the courthouse, well after midnight, Wolfi would suddenly decide that a planting of coreopsis needed to be moved to a new location, so we would pull the plants from their amended beds barehanded and move them to another bed where Wolfi thought they fit better. Wolfi was oblivious to the police cars speeding back and forth along the streets just feet away from our exploits. I, on the other hand, was keenly aware of everyone around us and how we seemed to be invisible…like being with the Keyser Soze of horticulture. It soon became obvious that this was part of Wolfi’s nightly routine.
As the story goes, the landscape design contract for the courthouse was outsourced to an azalea-loving landscape architect in Texas, which caused Wolfi great consternation. Instead of complaining, Wolfi called the architect and had them rework their plan based on his choice of plants. Wolfi then adopted the completed garden, sans any authority, and made it his own playground. Eventually the county government realized his interest and put him in charge of their landscape advisory committee.
Wolfgang will be long remembered through his books, Bold Romantic Gardens (1990), and the German language Zwischen Gartengrasern (2008). Wolfgang worked for a variety of clients in downtown Washington DC and even designed Oprah Winfrey’s garden in Chicago. Wolfi’s work has been featured in an array of books, most recently, Ornamental Grasses: Wolfgang Oehme and the New American Garden by Stefan Leppert (2009). I could go on with more Wolfi stories, but I’ll suffice to say that Wolfgang Oehme was a true genius who ate, slept, and breathed plants, and whose influence on our landscapes will live on for generations to come…so long, my friend.
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Noel’s Garden Blog

Various ramblings and musings on gardening, agriculture, food and related subjects.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Wolfgang Oehme RIP

Wolfgang Oehme, one of the most important figures in recent North American landscape, has just died. He was one of those people who achieve great things despite being, well shall we say, very eccentric. Autistic basically. Let’s face it, they are not always great company but so often it is the extraordinarily focused and utterly obsessive and anti-social geniuses who have moved human history on, despite being exasperating and maddening to deal with as people.  The worst lecture I have ever been to was given by Wolfgang – it was so bad it was almost performance art.

Wolfgang got his deep understanding of plants  in his native (east) Germany where he trained in the tradition of pioneer plantsman Karl Foerster before emigrating to the US in the late fifties. There after a number of years working as a landscape and garden designer he met James van Sweden. The rest is history. It was an extraordinary partnership – between the extrovert James, trained as an architect and not only a superb designer but also a very good businessman and Wolfgang who knew about plants, and not a lot else. Plants which were reliable and deerproof and everythingelse the Washington DC suburbs could throw at them proof, was just what US landscaping needed back in the 1970s. Without Wolfgang there would have few alternatives to grass, more grass, more grass, and the limited number of boring shrubs which the US landscape industry was using at the time. The fact that the US landscape design profession has broken through to its very dynamic and much more plant-orientated present was given an enormous boost through Wolfgang’s knowledge.

The Elysian fields will no doubt be planted up with lots of Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ and Calamagrostis x acutiflora. One of my favourite stories about him was him going round to a client’s garden and noticing that some impatiens had been planted in the middle of one of ‘his’ borders. Pulling them out with his bare hands the told the client “this is not your garden , this is my garden”. I think most of us in the design profession have felt like doing  that occasionally.

Here’s a proper obituary

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December 24, 2011

Wolfgang Oehme, a Free-Form Landscape Architect, Dies at 81

By 

Wolfgang Oehme, a landscape architect who drew from a palette of feathery grasses and black-eyed Susans to create what he called “horticultural explosions,” free-form landscapes that some called exemplars of “the new American garden,” died on Dec. 15 at his home in Towson, Md. He was 81.

The cause was colon cancer, said his son, Roland.

“I like it wild,” said Mr. Oehme (pronounced EHR-ma), describing how he marshaled masses of meadowlike grasses and perennials to evoke the feeling of ocean waves. He called the effect a metaphor for the great prairies of the West.

For 30 years, Mr. Oehme teamed up with James van Sweden to develop self-sustaining gardens, free of pesticides, that could remain beautiful even as the seasons changed. They planted flowers and bushes not by threes and fives, but by the thousands. Details, like how the wind would move the leaves of different plant species, were studied meticulously. Water, whether trickling or in reflecting pools, became a hallmark.

Their work graced embassies, universities and private homes, including Oprah Winfrey’s. In Washington, it can be seen at the Treasury Department, the National Gallery of Art, the National Arboretum and the Federal Reserve building. In New York, they created pieces of Battery Park City and Hudson River Park. Their work extended to Minneapolis and West Virginia.

In effect, they revolted against the American lawn, which traditionally opened to the street with bushes around the house. Mr. Oehme and Mr. van Sweden put big plants in front of a property to create secluded space, which they filled with carefully plotted but unclipped plantings. Mr. Oehme abhorred the ever-popular azalea, arguing that it flowered for just two weeks before becoming a boring green bush. Grasses, he noted with approval, change with the seasons and can look striking in winter.

This approach put the two designers at the forefront of a naturalistic horticultural movement that attracted rubrics like the “new American garden” and the “new romantic garden.” Allen Lacy, a garden author, wrote in The New York Times Home Design Magazine in 1988: “Dramatically unlike anything ever seen in America, theirs is truly a garden for all seasons.”

Wolfgang Walter Oehme was born on May 18, 1930, in Chemnitz, Germany, and began planting things at 5. At 17, he apprenticed in a nursery, then moved on to the parks department of Bitterfeld, Germany, where he became interested in landscape design. He graduated from the University of Berlin in 1954 with a degree in landscape architecture. He 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, settling in Baltimore, which he soon deemed a horticultural desert. He later wrote, “I went on a crusade.”

He designed parks, playgrounds and golf courses for the Baltimore parks department and, on his own, did work at private residences. In 1964, Mr. van Sweden, then an urban planner, saw a garden Mr. Oehme had designed in Washington.

“I had never seen such a beautiful garden in my life,” he wrote. “I knew right then that Wolfgang Oehme was somebody to grapple with, to be involved with.”

They started their firm, Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, in 1977. Mr. Oehme retired in 2008.

Mr. Oehme’s marriage to Shirley Zinkhan, who is now Omi Oehme May, ended in divorce in 2004. In addition to his son, he is survived by a grandson.

Mr. Oehme’s favorite way to celebrate a birthday was to have friends join him for a “weeding party.” He liked to eat weeds, especially dandelions, while he worked.

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Learn more about the life and work of Wolfgang Oehme in these clips from the James van Sweden’s oral history via the Cultural Landscape Foundation
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A TRIBUTE TO A GARDEN MAVERICK

One of my mentors, Wolfgang Oehme, died on December 15, 2011.  The beautiful gardens of Wolfgang Oehme, and Oehme van Sweden and Associates defined the New American Garden Style and are the result of a unique, creative process that no formula can reproduce.  The lush, robust layers of plants are what set these gardens apart; make them recognizable, timeless and responsive to the place.  Wolfgang was a maverick in his approach to landscape architectureand those of us who had the privilege to work with him would never forget the lessons learned.

Without an open mind, you would be left in his dust.  The process of garden design started on a drafting table, but evolved through a fluid process that took you to local nurseries, botanic gardens, woodlands and finally the project site.  The plans were a loose roadmap that marked the beginning of the journey, and were relied on less and less as the garden unfolded.  The plant list evolved based on what we observed, what the site demanded and an assortment of “additional” plants that always magically emerged from the trunk of Wolfgang’s car.  On planting day, the plans were left in the car and we faced a sprawling assortment of plants in containers, waiting for direction.  Wolfgang would layout the plants intuitively, like a painter arranging colors and patterns on a canvas.  He responded to the realities of the site and acted on creative whims.  Preconceived ideas were left on the drafting table.

I never knew what we would end up with, but it was always better than what I imagined.  The tapestry of plants that emerged changed the way I thought about planting design, looked at nature and art.  Patterns of plant textures and colors that grew from an abandoned field became as informative as paintings hanging in a gallery.  His gardens continue to be ephemeral works of art and sources of inspiration.   All those who he touched and included in the process of garden making will miss him.

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GREAT GARDENING

BUFFALO NEWS

Updated: January 6, 2012, 6:26 AM

Before we are too deep into 2012, I’d like to recognize some giants in the gardening world whom we lost in 2011. They gave us beauty and pleasure; we owe them a nod.

In Alexander Payne’s movie “The Descendants,” a character was described as having led a “big life.” These also are people who led big lives—and left large footprints.

Wolfgang Oehme: For those who knew his extravagant personality and for nearly everyone who has shopped for plants in the last 30 years, Oehme loomed large.

He is responsible for the style that became known internationally as the New American Garden. It is likely part of your landscaper’s, or your own, garden style. If you use large sweeps of grasses, casual drifts of perennials such as coneflowers, sedum such as ‘Autumn Joy,’ coreopsis, Russian sage and Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’—that’s Oehme’s mark.

Other New American Garden plants are Miscanthus sinensis, Pennisetum alopecuroides, Panicum virgatum (the grasses you see in Western New York) and Fargesia (clumping bamboo).

Oehme (pronounced ER-ma, with a soft “r”) came to the United States in 1957 from East Germany, where one of his mentors was the famous plantsman and hybridizer Karl Foerster—known to us first for theCalamagrostis (reed grass) ‘Karl Foerster.’

Eventually arriving in Baltimore, Oehme declared it a horticultural desert and went on a crusade. He railed against the American archetype: a clipped front lawn, with azaleas— a boring bush that flowers for two weeks—against the house.

He designed front yards with masses of meadow grasses, in waves like an ocean, evoking Western prairies. Flowers and shrubs weren’t planted in rows or groups of three or five, but rather by the hundreds or thousands, depending upon the scope of the project.

The landscape designer James van Sweden discovered Oehme’s work in Washington, D. C., leading to a 30-year partnership: Oehme and van Sweden Landscape Architects. They designed hundreds of great American gardens, including Oprah Winfrey’s garden, Battery Park in New York City, the National Arboretum, and the Federal

Reserve and Treasury building landscapes.

Water—in reflecting pools or waterfalls — became another characteristic feature, along with a preference for sustainability and pesticide-free landscapes.

“I like it wild,” Oehme said. In his December newsletter, Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery wrote lovingly of Oehme for his eccentric, quirky behavior — his “big life” — and his powerful influence.

Bob Stewart: Friends as well as Avent spoke about Stewart as an extraordinary plantsman, responsible for many of the rare conifers and alpine plants we use.

With his wife, Brigitta, Stewart opened Arrowhead Alpines in Michigan in 1991, described by one friend as a wonderland for plant folk. She also referred to an annual “Winter Sucks” party that was legendary.

Stewart’s catalog is renowned not just for plants; it revealed a personality brimming with humor and cantankerous, spirited opinions on everything from politics to science.

Any contact with Stewart was an education in horticulture and the natural world. He was plantsman, botanist and naturalist — with vast depths of knowledge about butterflies, snakes, falconry, carnivorous plants, orchids—and he never stopped discovering.

Those who knew him personally describe a larger-than-life character, best captured in an article by Allen Bush that begins with “I’ve been to Hell”—Hell, Mich., that is.

Avent’s tribute included the memory of Stewart, his chemo pump on his hip, tramping the plant fields to do “sport fishing” — looking for mutations. As a study in plants, and to appreciate the impact of a plantsman, see arrowhead-alpines.com. All who knew him hope the business will survive his death.

We also lost:

• Dr. John Thomson: Did you ever hear of SUPERthrive? Thomson introduced it in 1939, and it was touted as the plant booster of all time, with faithful gardeners using it for many decades — despite outlandish claims and 1940s-style advertising. Thomson died five days after his 100th birthday.

• Kim Jong Il, plant collector: North Korea’s Kim Jong Il is not someone we are inclined to applaud. But, apparently Kim Jong Il’s father had contact with a Japanese plant breeder who presented him with a begonia (later named ‘Kimjongilia’); begonias then were named North Korea’s national flower.

Kim Jong Il began the world’s largest begonia-breeding project — so large, the dictator flew over his fields by helicopter to make plant selections. His plants traveled to international begonia shows with one person holding each begonia personally, in the back of a plane.

• Fred Howarth, a Western New York giant: Howarth, longtime president and owner of Menne Nursery, also died last year. He received the Western New York Nursery and Landscape Association’s Man of the Year Award in 1975 and founded the WNY Nurserymen’s Foundation in 1968, which today funds the association’s educational programs as well as Plantasia, the flower and landscape show.

When we enter Plantasia this year — to be held March 22 to 25 — and take in the scent of hyacinths and the springlike air, let’s remember to thank Howarth.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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