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.
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.
By Sally Cunningham
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.