ARCHITECT OF A LANDSCAPING REVOLUTION Wolfgang Oehme likes gardens with an untamed look


It's been snowing all day, falling hard out of the sky in huge, wet flakes, and now every twig and branch, every blade of glass is coated in white, turning Towson however temporarily into a landscape of magic.

But Wolfgang Oehme, wander- ing around the edges of his garden, has his mind on spring.

"Do you know witch hazel?" he says, as if he's talking about a person he's about to introduce you to.

He continues, without waiting for an answer, "Hamamelis . . . 'Arnold Promise.' Look at these buds. Sheesch. . . ." He peers at them closely first over and then through his glasses. "They're just about to pop."

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.

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 "Autumn Joy," now looking like bunches of cookies frosted with the snow.

And somehow, 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. It is as if some wild spirit, some essence has been captured from the natural world and brought back to this place. The plants -- not wholly tamed -- seem almost to have arranged themselves effortlessly into these drifts of color and texture.

But they did not. Wolfgang Oehme is a master landscape architect and this garden, as well as others he has designed in conjunction with partner James van Sweden, represents a revolution in garden design, a slow coup d'etat that has, in the last two decades, swept through the world of landscape architecture in America.

Now there is a book that shows off their work: "Bold Romantic Gardens" (Acropolis Books, hardcover, $59.95), written by Wolfgang Oehme and Jim van Sweden in conjunction with garden writer Susan Rademacher Frey.

John Brookes, a noted English garden designer and writer, has called it "a major contribution to late 20th century landscape concepts." American fabric designer Jack Lenor Larsen wrote, "It's a wonderful book, long awaited."

The book is something unusual in gardening books, a rare opportunity to go within the design process. After the authors describe their philosophy and its inspirations, they go on to fill the bulk of the book with an anthology of private and public gardens they have designed, detailing with each the reasons for their choices in the garden's overall design and the selection of its plants.

Their major designs have included the New American Garden at the National Arboretum on Pennsylvania Avenue, the International Center and the Federal Reserve Bank -- all in Washington -- and North Park in New York's Battery Park City, as well as the private gardens of Pauline Vollmer, Jacqueline Gratz and Nelson and Karen Offutt in Baltimore and Baltimore County. Many of these have appeared in national shelter and garden design magazines over the last two decades.

To visit these gardens through the book is like looking over the authors' shoulders at the drafting table and listening to them debate back and forth.

They have been partners in Oehme, van Sweden and Associates, their firm headquartered in Washington, since 1977, and there is a clear-cut division of labor in the partnership.

Mr. van Sweden, whose background includes training in his native Michigan and the Netherlands in architecture and urban design as well as landscaping, concentrates on the overall "bones" of the design plus the siting, placement and design of what are called the built elements -- the patios, decks, walkways, pools and ponds. He is also chief spokesman for the firm, the one most frequently asked to give lectures on their style of garden design.

Mr. Oehme -- who was born in Chemnitz, Germany, and came here in 1957, three years after graduating with a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Berlin -- is the quieter of the two and more the plantsman, knowing the right plants to use and how to arrange them in bold drifts. "We use a lot of different plants," he says, "but we use them in larger masses so you still get the feeling of simplicity."

Their gardens are designed to be beautiful in all the seasons. In spring there are flowering bulbs, colorful sweeps of daffodils and tulips. As the gardens move into summer, flowering perennials continue the color, and big drifts of ornamental grasses provide a sense of softness and movement, like the brush strokes on impressionist paintings.

Then in late summer, the grasses begin to bloom. "These gardens come into their own from August into December, when all around you nature is destroying itself," wrote H. Marc Cathey, director of the U.S. National Arboretum in a foreword to the book.

The grasses, as well as the sedums, hold their seed heads throughout the winter and give the gardens a sense of movement and charm even when covered in snow.

Their favorite plants, described in a glossary at the end of the book, include brunnera and bergenia as well as a variety of common and unusual flowering bulbs for spring, followed by lythrum "Morden's Pink," liatris, yucca, deep blue salvia, acanthus and achillea for early summer.

Lavender-blue Michaelmas daisies, day lilies, astilbe and coreopsis "Moonbeam" start flowering in midsummer, and then come Joe-Pye weed and hibiscus. From late summer into fall the coppery reds of the sedums "Autumn Joy" and "Ruby Glow" blend well with the grasses as they turn golden brown.

Mr. Oehme has been a pioneer in introducing ornamental grasses to the United States. As a student in Germany he fell in love with the grass-filled gardens of Karl Foerster, a legendary gardener and horticulturist whose garden writing and nursery work greatly increased the use of perennials and ornamental grasses in that country.

Finding such plants lacking or in very short supply when he arrived in the late '50s, Mr. Oehme began bringing specimens from Germany, which he gave to local nurserymen Richard Simon of Bluemount Nurseries and Kurt Bluemel of Bluemel Nurseries. Panicum, molinia, spodiopogon and calamagrostis are among the grasses he introduced.

The new book, as a chronicle of the evolution of their landscape design practice, chronicles as well the evolution of what many people call "the new American garden." The authors have had a strong influence on the current vogue for natural gardening with perennials and ornamental grasses. "Almost single-handedly," garden writer Allen Lacy wrote, these two men are "bringing a new look to American gardens."

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