Wolfgang Oehme: A Profile
Here is an interview with Wolfgang Oehme from the September/October 2006 issue of Washington Gardener Magazine.
Wolfgang Oehme: Landscape Legend
By Kathy Jentz
You know you’ve “made it” in the horticulture world when you have a plant named after you. Carex muskingumensis ‘Oehme,’ a variegated palm sedge, which was bred from a sport was found in Wolfgang’s garden.
I had the privilege of visiting Wolfgang Oehme this summer while on a tour with the American Bamboo Society of area gardens.
His home in Towson, MD, is on a large suburban lot off a winding road and suitably the approach gives little hint of what lies beyond.
Branches loosely woven together form informal barriers between the planting beds, driveway, and property borders. Rocks are stacked to form impressionistic totem poles and mark the corners of walking paths.
His front garden contains many of the bamboos he is a collector of and is so passionate about. A true collector, pots of rare specimens and trial plants fill up his back deck and patio.
This co-creator of the “New American Garden” has 43 kinds of grasses and sedges on his property, in addition to 111 ornamental trees and shrubs, 170 kinds of perennials, over 50 fruit and nut trees, and the list goes on. One thing he does not have room for? A turf lawn. His neighbors supply that .
Two bodies of water are separated by a tall wall of perennials and grasses. Closer to the house is a naturalized pond complete with croaking frogs. Hidden from view is the pristine lap pool where Oehme gets his regular morning exercise in.
Most surprising of all, he has a large edible garden at the back of his property that includes a riot of strawberries, garlic, fennel, figs, and more.
Wolfgang himself is generous with his time and knowledge — patiently taking visitors around and naming each plant from memory.
His son, Roland Oehme is also a practicing landscape architect. He specializes in “regenerative designs that enhance the environment and provide active enjoyment for people.” Roland and Wolfgang also host tours to Germany that feature innovative ecological designs.
Wolfgang’s landscape firm has given a great gift to downtown Washington, DC, with its bold installations as anyone who travels on downtown Pennsylvania Avenue can readily attest.
One pet project of Oehme’s is the Towson Courthouse Garden. Once a flat lawn with a few trees, the land has now been sculpted into an undulating parkland that is the pride of their county.
“Our job,” said Wolfgang in a 1985 interview, “is to provide the framework, an exciting combination so that the garden is like a painting or a symphony. Then we let the plants . . . express themselves.”
Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Inc., can be reached at 202.546.7575 or www.ovsla.com.
Wolfgang Oehme, co-founder of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, is a distinguished landscape architect and horticulturist with more than 40 years of professional experience, nationwide and abroad. His career began in Germany, where he completed an apprenticeship at Bitterfeld Horticultural School in 1950 and a degree in landscape architecture at the University of Berlin in 1954. His early work in Europe during the 1950s featured the breadth of experience that marks his work today: from direct involvement with plants (Hamburg’s Planten un Blumen and nurseries in Sweden and England) to large-scale landscape design and land management projects (the Parks Department in Frankfurt and Delius Landscape Architects in Nurnberg).
Oehme moved to the United States in 1957. He designed golf courses, parks, and playgrounds for the Baltimore County Department of Parks until 1965, and continued practice independently from 1966 to 1974. His work included park systems for the new town of Columbia, MD, and many private residences in the Baltimore area.
In 1977 he founded the firm of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates with James van Sweden. Since then they have collaborated on a full range of landscape design projects, many of which are honored by distinguished awards and published reviews. His credits include redesign of all planting along Pennsylvania Avenue from the U.S. Treasury to the National Gallery in Washington, DC, for the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation; the Virginia Avenue Gardens of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, DC; Morrill Hall Gardens at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; the National Education and Training Center campus for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Shepherdstown, WV; and the MacArthur Center retail complex in downtown Norfolk, VA. His practice also extends to his native Germany with projects in Chemnitz and Magdeburg.
Wolfgang Oehme’s creative use of herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses demonstrates how dramatic, multi-seasonal, and low-maintenance they can be. His recent honors for this work include the 2002 George Robert White Medal of Honor, awarded to him and Mr. van Sweden, in recognition of efforts to advance interest in horticulture. He is also a co-recipient with Mr. van Sweden of the 1992 Landscape Design Award by the American Horticultural Society, and he holds the Perennial Plant Association’s 1987 Distinguished Service Award for 30 years of active participation. His teaching experience includes the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Georgia.
Oehme and van Sweden co-authored Bold Romantic Gardens: The New World Landscapes of Oehme and van Sweden (Acropolis Books, Ltd., 1990; reprinted by Spacemaker Press, 1998). It received two Awards of Excellence by the Garden Writers Association of America. A series of books by Random House also feature the firm’s work. The series includes Architecture in the Garden (2003), Gardening with Water (1995), and Gardening with Nature (1997).
Mr. Oehme is a licensed landscape architect and a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
Peers describe Oehme, van Sweden and Associates’ approach to garden design as the “New American Garden” style. The New American Garden is a metaphor for the American meadow. It reflects the year-round beauty of the natural landscape. It frees plants from forced and artificial forms and allows them to seek a natural course as they weave a tapestry across the entire garden plane. It results in layered masses of foliage that boldly celebrate the ephemeral through mystery, intrigue, and discovery. In sum, it is a basic alternative to the typical American garden scene — more relaxed, less like a formula, and more sympathetic to the environment.
Plants chosen for the New American Garden, especially perennials and ornamental grasses, require less maintenance, no deadheading or pesticides, and only limited water and fertilizer. These plants welcome change seasonally and, as they mature, botanically.
The built elements of the New American Garden share importance equally with the plants. Carefully designed walls, terraces, steps, and other “hardscape” features complement the surrounding “softscape.” Upon entering a garden, the visitor’s attention is drawn first to dramatic spectacles of planting and then to the practical beauty of built elements that firmly anchor the garden to the ground plane.
For further reading, here are two obituaries:
~ The Baltimore Sun
~ The Washington Post
The photo above is Wolfgang with large drifts of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ at the 2005 Federal Garden Show in Muenchen. © Roland Oehme.