A man who paints with plants


Wolfgang Oehme is wading through a cluster of plants that resemble green, silk elephant ears, searching for a weed. He has already spotted a cellophane wrapper in the otherwise pristine gardens surrounding the old courthouse in Towson. The town is virtually deserted.

It is, according to Oehme, the best time for gardening. It is 2 o'clock in the morning.

He has made a living and a reputation by designing landscapes at embassies, museums and parks in some of the nation's great cities, and he is an author who has been called, more than once, the "pope of plants."

But in Towson, 75-year-old Wolfgang Oehme is a sort of Santa-with-a-green-thumb, working, often while others sleep, to keep up gardens surrounding public buildings and quietly dressing up the medians of boulevards around town.

The mix of ornamental grasses and flowers along Charles Street between Bellona and Kenilworth avenues, the lush garden in the courtyard at Towson's library and the unusual tufts of greenery in the median of Dulaney Valley Road near the Beltway are Oeh-me's work.

Many people might be unaware of Oehme's contributions - or how those lavender-tipped plants popped up next to a "No Turns" sign - but for many years a few local residents have enjoyed seeing the native German tiptoeing through his gardens in the middle of the night.

"He's not just a little old man doing a nice thing for the community," says Carol Oppenheimer, an avid gardener from the Greenspring Valley and member of the Maryland Horticultural Society. "He's much more complex than he appears. In this little town of Towson, we have this plant genius, whose intellect is recognized all over the world."

Oehme is the co-author of several acclaimed gardening books, a frequent speaker for horticultural societies and a designer whose work has adorned Battery Park in New York, millionaires' mansions and Washington's Embassy Row.

Busloads of gardeners and horticultural students travel to see Oehme's gardens, occasionally stopping to see the gardens in front of the old courthouse in Towson, which Oehme designed in the late 1980s.

Known for using for a variety of plants, flowers and trees, Oehme often travels abroad to find new species to add vibrancy and texture to his installations.

Oehme recalls demanding that a friend screech to a halt on a German autobahn so that he could get a plant he had spotted.

"I look everywhere - the whole world - for them," he says.

On a recent night in Towson, as he inspects his gardens, Oehme has tucked a plastic bag into his pants pocket in case he spots a seed that he wants to harvest.

Oehme starts by checking on the fluffs of tall grass and swaying foliage that he has planted recently along Towsontown Boulevard, ducking the glare from occasional headlights.

Then, he looks to make sure no overly ambitious landscape crews have pulled up his new plants on the footpath to the library and stops to see whether he will need to find a new tree for the garden at the old courthouse.

To Oehme, a garden is a canvas and a symphony. He pays attention to such details as how the wind will move the leaves on a plant and what butterflies and birds the garden will attract. One type of garden might bring frogs croaking at midnight in March. A certain type of plant might host birds chirping at sunrise in May.

"You have to have a feeling for plants," says Oehme, a short, thin man with a wide smile. "I paint with plants, very broad strokes. I like it to look like a wave of color, like the ocean."

'I like it wild'

Oehme dislikes the traditional, sculpted look of English gardens, with their manicured rows of plants, trimmed topiaries and lines of annuals.

"Most people like it neat," he says. "I like it wild. It's meant to grow like this."

On this summer night, as he passes by an office building with bushes trimmed carefully round, Oehme shakes his head in mock despair. "Poor plants," he says. "They look like meatballs."

Then, he looks down at the sidewalks lined with puny, wilting annuals. "Parsley on a turkey," he says, clearly unimpressed. "It has no flavor."

Oehme was born in Germany and studied horticulture and landscape design at the University of Berlin. He came to the United States in 1957 and quickly became a friend of James van Sweden, who had been studying landscape design overseas and was told by a professor to look up Oehme if he was ever in Baltimore.

Oehme and van Sweden landed their first public commission, a garden for a Federal Reserve Bank building in Washington, in 1975. They soon formed their company.

Together, they created a movement called the "New American Garden," which favors ornamental grasses, exotic bushes and curving paths. It also features plants and trees that require relatively little water and fertilizer, and flowers that peak at different times of year and will be attractive dry.

Their books include Bold Romantic Gardens and Gardening with Nature. Their work is often featured in gardening and design publications.

Oehme designed the gardens in historic Lutherville, near the light rail tracks, and at the entrance to Cylburn Arboretum. For both projects, along with the garden at the Towson library, a local garden club asked Oehme to donate his design time. The clubs buy the plants and sometimes provide the labor.

Oehme also helped Baltimore choose plants for the space between the concrete barriers dividing the north- and southbound lanes of Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which had been filled with limestone.

'Perfectly suited'

"Wolfgang's palette of plants is drought-resistant, long-blooming and also tends to crowd out weeds," says Bill Vondrasek, the city's chief horticulturist, who sought Oehme's advice for the project. "They're perfectly suited for medians, which are pretty harsh environments."

Oehme says he is always glad to help with a public garden, but most of his spare time is spent in Towson.

Dorrie Wilfong, one of the organizers of the annual Towson Gardens Day, says she knows Oehme is starting a garden in the area when she spots in the ground the little flags that Oehme uses to stake off his new plants - and keep landscaping crews away. "I always know when I see them - Wolfgang has been at again."

It also amuses her that this famous landscape architect, between travels abroad and high-paying jobs, serves faithfully on the Towson Gardens Day committee.

"He is here for every meeting," she says, "even when we're stuffing envelopes."

When Oehme agreed to design a garden to be installed by the horticultural students at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital's Forbush School this summer, he insisted on helping the volunteers plant it.

Despite the heat, he told stories about European garden festivals, asking his 36-year-old son, Roland, to take pictures and extolled the virtues of bugs. "You need insects," Oehme says. "It's all a system."

Oehme doesn't use pesticides. The best way to keep weeds out, he says, is by plucking.

He is known to occasionally sample the weeds, eating dandelion salads as he works. Oppenheimer of the Maryland Horticultural Society said she was alarmed the first time she saw Oehme's lips turn dark from eating dandelions.

She tells of the lost motorist who spotted Oehme bent over a garden and stopped for directions. When Oehme turned around - his lips almost black - the motorist sped away, apparently scared.

On his birthdays, Oehme asks friends not to give him presents, but rather to join him for a "weeding party," cleaning up some of the Towson-area gardens he has helped create.

Most often, though, Oehme is alone in his gardens, dropping by weekly to pick up trash and check on their growth with the regularity of someone tending to a friend in need.

"They're like his children," Oppenheimer says. "He has a sense of responsibility to them."

Oehme shrugs when asked about his devotion to Towson's gardens. "I have to take care of my plants," he says.

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