Wolfgang Oehme Launches a Gardening Revolution

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Posted by @LarryR on
The world of horticulture recently lost a renowned avant-gardener with the passing of Wolfgang Oehme on December 15, 2011. Mr. Oehme--“Wolfi” to his friends--almost single-handedly launched a revolution in planting design with his sweeping landscapes of grasses, sedums, rudbeckias, and perovskias.


Wolfgang Oehme

Oehme is the reason for the tremendous popularity of ornamental grasses, especially the miscanthus species and Feather Reed Grass.  What gardener has not admired the blue-purple haze and herbal scent of Perovskia atriplicifolia or enjoyed a vase-shaped miscanthus swaying in the breeze?

The Early Days

Karl Foerster's garden
Wolfgang Oehme's garden

Born in Chemnitz, Germany, in the spring of 1930, Oehme was already planting at the age of five.  His parents had a community garden plot where he was allowed to help with planting, weeding, and harvesting.  At age 17, he became an apprentice at a nursery in Bitterfeld, Germany, where he learned the names of plants, growing requirements, propagation, and planting techniques. A few years later he moved to the parks department in Bitterfeld, where his mentor acquainted him with the ideas of Carl Foerster, a well-known German plantsman who espoused a “natural” garden style.

Oehme eventually earned a degree in landscape architecture at the University of Berlin.  He arrived in the United States in 1957 and joined the staff at Baltimore County's Department of Recreation and Parks in Maryland.

Oehme's First Job

Avery Harden was fairly new at his job when he convinced the administration of Baltimore County to convert the courthouse lawn into a garden.  Harden, Oehme’s boss at the time, recalled his initial reaction to Oehme’s revolutionary plan.  “. . . After studying it obsessively, I realized I was looking at something revolutionary . . . I began to feel the relationships between the nuanced, wildly varying and contrasting plants. This was no static evergreen design I understood, but a daily changing kaleidoscope. I was transformed as a landscape architect. Today, one can travel all over the U.S., and the world for that matter, and find Wolfgang's influence."

Fame and Fortune

Oehme's Primary Pallete
Feather Reed Grass 'Carl Foerster'
 Perovskia atriplicifolia
 Miscanthus sinensis
Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm' (Gold storm)
Sedum 'Herbstfreude' (Autumn Joy)

In the 1970s, Oehme formed a partnership with the landscape architect, James van Sweden.  They based their company, Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, in Washington, D.C.  Their big break came when the Federal Reserve Board asked them to redesign the Fed’s gardens along Virginia Avenue.  All two acres of the garden were transformed into a breath-taking combination of Perennial Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and Feather Reed Grass 'Carl Foerster' (Calamagrostis acutiflora). The old city park models such as foundation evergreens bordered by ivy ground cover were swept aside.

So taken was the world of horticulture and landscape gardening with this “New American Garden” style, that an avalanche of public and private commissions ensued.  Soon other landscape architects began imitating the new style.  The signature plants that Oehme and van Sweden used became so popular that nurseries and garden centers could barely keep up with the demand.  Coneflowers, joe-pye weed, and perennial salvias soon became part of the palate as well.  The new planting style was dubbed “a metaphor for the American prairie.”

Part of Oehme’s genius was the fact that the plants he used required so little attention-–little fertilization and little water--and had structure, form, and color in every season of the year.  What’s more, the plants attracted birds, bees, butterflies, dragonflies and frogs, the latter because he incorporated water features into many of his designs.

Colleagues Comment

Carol Oppenheimer, Oehme's best friend and recent colleague, described his work as “. . . innovative, daring and unique.  He viewed himself as an artist.  Painting with plants was his medium. His style was very powerful and dramatic. His aesthetic was contemporary, very modernist. His ebullient planting plans of ornamental grasses and perennials contrasted with his . . . hardscaping designs and helped to soften them."

Tony Avent--whom many gardeners know as a purveyor of interesting plants showcased in his Plant Delights catalog and who has a wicked sense of humor--grew serious for a moment when he recalled his relationship with Oehme:

In addition to designing gardens around the world, Wolfgang was a true trendsetter in the world of landscape architecture. His concept of the New American Garden took the world by storm in the 1970s, with the use of large drifts of plants in a naturalistic style . . .

Even with his amazing body of work, it was his quirky behavior that made people love Wolfi. I’ve never known anyone else to tout their work as much as Wolfi, but he did so with such a child-like excitement that it didn’t come off as bragging. I had the pleasure (make that unique experience) of staying in Wolfi’s home a few times over the years . . . yielding experiences I’ll never forget. Many people might think that Wolfi’s fetish for nude swimming in his back yard pool, hidden from the neighbors only by a few large clumps of miscanthus, would be unusual but for Wolfi, that fell into the range of normal behavior. After late dinners, Wolfi would drive me around Baltimore County looking at his designs, often stopping his car in the middle of four lanes of traffic to get out to inspect or even weed a particularly nice planting of perennials. Shining a flashlight in Baltimore County clients’ yards after midnight to see 20-year-old clumps of fargesias didn’t seem strange at all to Wolfi, while all I could do was think of where to buy a bulletproof vest. Then there were the nights at the Towson County courthouse . . .

As we strolled around the courthouse, well after midnight, Wolfi would suddenly decide that a planting of coreopsis needed to be moved to a new location, so we would pull the plants from their amended beds barehanded and move them to another bed where Wolfi thought they fit better. Wolfi was oblivious to the police cars speeding back and forth along the streets just feet away from our exploits. I, on the other hand, was keenly aware of everyone around us and how we seemed to be invisible . . . like being with the Keyser Soze [a legendary mastermind criminal] of horticulture. It soon became obvious that this was part of Wolfi’s nightly routine.

As the story goes, the landscape design contract for the courthouse was outsourced to an azalea-loving landscape architect in Texas, which caused Wolfi great consternation. Instead of complaining, Wolfi called the architect and had them rework their plan based on his choice of plants. Wolfi then adopted the completed garden, sans any authority, and made it his own playground. Eventually the county government realized his interest and put him in charge of their landscape advisory committee.

Wolfgang will be long remembered through his books, Bold Romantic Gardens (1990), and the German-language Zwischen Gartengräsern (2008). Wolfgang worked for a variety of clients in downtown Washington DC and even designed Oprah Winfrey’s garden in Chicago. Wolfi’s work has been featured in an array of books, most recently, Ornamental Grasses: Wolfgang Oehme and the New American Garden by Stefan Leppert (2009). I could go on with more Wolfi stories, but I’ll [just] say that Wolfgang Oehme was a true genius who ate, slept, and breathed plants, and whose influence on our landscapes will live on for generations to come . . . so long, my friend.


Photo Credits

Oehme photo is courtesy of Jamie Gibson. Foerster garden photo is courtesy of  Marija Calden.  Oehme garden photo is courtesy of Stefan Leppert.  Individual plant photos are courtesy of wikipedia.org and used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

A Mini Lesson in Linguistics

Wondering how to pronounce "Oehme?" In my readings about Wolfgang Oehme, I've come across several different phonetic spellings of his last name.  None of them hit the mark.  The problem is that the first two vowels (Oe) represent a sound that is not present in the English language.  The closest English approximation would be AY-meh (AY as in "day").  If you want to impress your gardening friends with the correct German pronunciation, all you have to do is round your lips when you say "AY."

Comments and Discussion
Thread Title Last Reply Replies
A very passionate gardener! by CarolineScott Jun 1, 2013 10:21 AM 3
This resonates by SongofJoy Jan 24, 2012 11:31 AM 3

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