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Wolfgang Oehme pictured with grasses

Wild beauty Landscape designer Wolfgang Oehme created striking outdoor spaces that evoked the natural world

Wolfgang Oehme's landscape designs grace embassies, museums and parks in the world's great cities. And his use of perennials and ornamental grasses in broad, colorful swaths changed the way Americans garden.

But he could most often be found -- in the middle of the night -- tending his favorite gardens in Towson, picking up litter, weeding and changing out plants.

Oehme, who died at his Towson home last week at the age of 81, would tell others, "I have to take care of my plants."

Oehme arrived in the United States from Germany in 1957 with a degree from the University of Berlin in landscape design, and he began work for the Baltimore County department of parks and recreation.

Friend and fellow designer James van Sweden asked Oehme to re-create the backyard of his Georgetown home to make it an inviting spot for entertaining, and it was an immediate sensation among his tony Washington neighbors. The friends formed Oehme, van Sweden Associates and were partners for more than 40 years.

Nature intervened in 1977 when a harsh winter killed off all the plants in the gardens at the Federal Reserve in Washington and the firm was asked to redo the beds. Oehme, van Sweden Associates continues to work on the Federal Reserve gardens to this day.

Over the years, Oehme and his partner perfected a lawn-less, naturalized garden design that forsook the straight lines of annuals and the tight pruning of shrubs that had been the style. He said he liked his gardens "wild."

Oehme was among the first to use plants that required little fertilization and little water, and that had structure, form or color in all four seasons. He was also among the first to acknowledge the role of insects and wildlife in a garden's ecosystem. And color. Lots of color.

"I paint with plants, very broad strokes," he told The Baltimore Sun in 1991. "I like it to look like a wave of color, like the ocean." --Susan Reimer

Stefan Leppert
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