Without realizing it, many of us create gardens in styles that we bring from other countries. This is obvious when you are inspired by Japan or Asia to emulate their beautiful gardens, but styles like Cottage Gardens and perennial borders, and even planting flowering annuals are all versions of gardens first created in Europe. Even the ‘Classic American Garden’ we talked about a while back was an attempt to create a European look.
I would be the last to criticize taking influences from the international arena, but America does have it’s very own garden style, created – appropriately – by a team of American and immigrant designers. It’s usually called the New American Garden. This is a garden style that draws from both the European heritage and our very own prairies, with their unique plants and look. As part of our look at different garden styles that can be a launching pad for your own garden, let’s take a closer look at it.
Oehme, van Sweden & Associates
It is not often than a couple of people can have so much influence, but the work of Wolfgang Oehme and Jim van Sweden did just that. Their story is an American story of small beginnings, and an immigrant teaming up with a local to create a new synergy. Jim was a ‘Michigan boy’ who trained as an architect and spent 13 years as an urban designer in Washington, D.C. He was blown away when he first saw a garden designed by Wolfgang Oehme (pronounced EHR-ma).
Wolfgang was born in East Germany, and began his career working with plants in a nursery. He became interested in garden design, and was influenced by Karl Foester, an early plantsman working with perennials – few people did at that time. After moving to West Germany in 1953, before the Wall went up, he worked for a City Parks Department, moving to America in 1957. He worked in Baltimore for City Planning for a time, before joining a firm of landscapers and beginning to do something new – plant perennials instead of lawns.
Now at this point I will let you in on a secret. Things have changed a bit, but when someone takes a course in landscape architecture, plants are something that is hardly taught at all. Often is was a single course in the final semester. The emphasis is on hard elements – paths, patios, drains, lighting, planning permission, and so on. All very important, but the result was a lot of gardens that were lawn, paths, a few large trees and a few common shrubs around the edges.
A Meeting of Minds
In 1970 Van Sweden bought a row house in Washington, and he called on Oehme to landscape the backyard. The result was revolutionary to someone used to gardens of the time – a mix of grasses, perennials and interesting shrubs – and Van Sweden proposed that the two joined up. They started working together in 1975 and officially founded their firm, Oehme, van Sweden in 1977. By the time they partnered Oehme had already been making gardens like this since 1966, when he worked with the Rouse Company. In those days nurseries hardly ever grew perennials or grasses – a blue spruce was the height of garden fashion – so Oehme and the plantsman Kurt Bluemel had set up a nursery to provide the plants he needed for his designs.
What made Oehme, van Sweden so special and so influential was the combination – the whole was greater than the parts. Van Sweden was a brilliant landscape architect who could manipulate spaces and use materials with grace and elegance. Oehme brought a new sensitivity for plants to American landscaping – a knowledge of their shadows, and how they moved in the wind; of their times of greatest beauty and of their needs. The waving grasslands of the prairies, blooming with black-eyed susans, milkweed and coneflowers, was never far from their consciousness, and it was that combination that created the New American Garden. Sadly, Oehme passed away in 2011 and van Sweden in 2013. Their firm continues to thrive in the hands of their associates.
What Makes the New American Garden?
So what are the influences to pick up if you want your garden to be in the style of Oehme, van Sweden? Although they worked for wealthy and important clients, like Oprah, the New York Botanical Garden and the National Reserve, and won major awards, their ‘look’ can be captured in any garden. In the words of the OvS website – This approach can be applied at any scale – whether it’s a ten-foot-square city garden or a ten thousand-acre expanse. Let’s check some key practical points:
- Less Lawn, More Grasses – over a year, an area of perennials and grasses is hardly any more work than maintaining a lawn, so avoid big, blank areas of mowed grass. Replace it with flowing groupings of ornamental grasses of all sizes, from 8 foot giants to knee-high groundcover. Make sure, though, that you insert plants with larger leaves and more ‘mass’ in your planting – I am seen imitations of this style that are too finely-textured, without any contrast.
- Trim Less, Or Not At All – evergreens have a valuable place in the garden, but how about putting away the trimmers and letting your yews, boxwoods and conifers grow naturally? You will be amazed at the character and structure they develop. Choose your varieties carefully, and look for ones that will naturally give you the taller or the more mounding shapes you might need for the places you are planting
- Front Your Shrubs With Drifts of Perennials – choose plants like fall-blooming Sedum (an OvS signature), coneflowers, Rudbeckia, sages and milkweeds to flow in drifts and clusters through the grasses and shrubs. Go for rich natural colors, and plants that look good out of flower and don’t need staking or trimming.
- Include Some Water – water elements are found in almost all OvS gardens, and water is always expensive to install and maintain. So try for something simple – perhaps just a trickling channel a few inches wide running through a patio or crossing a path, or a simple cascade over a rock.
- Choose shrubs and flowering trees that are improvements on the natural form – avoid bizarre variants that look like something else entirely, and pay at least as much attention to the look of a shrub when it isn’t in bloom as when it is.
- Use Natural materials – try if you can afford it to make your hard structures out of stone and wood, rather than concrete and plastic. With all respect to landscape contractors, they make more money out of driveways than shrubs, so naturally they want you to have a big one. Keep paved areas to a minimum for your needs and rely on the structure that shrubs can bring, and the color that flows from using perennials in ways that reflect nature and our ecology.
Finally, look longer and harder at plants. Visit gardens where you can see them fully-grown, not in pots at a nursery, and get a better understanding of their form and beauty. Choose plants and colors that appeal to you, and repeat favorite plants as much as you want – it can be your personal signature on your New American Garden.