By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun
6:13 PM EST, December 16, 2011
Wolfgang Oehme, a renowned landscape architect and a founder of the New American Garden movement, which incorporated windblown ornamental grasses and massed perennial plantings, died of cancer Thursday at his Towson home. He was 81.
"He was a consummate landscape architect," said his business partner, Carol Oppenheimer of Pikesville. "He was a plant genius whose intellect is recognized all over the world."
In the 1970s, he became known as the "Grass Pope" because of the plants he introduced in this country. He championed plants and trees that require little water or fertilizer, and flowers that peaked at different times of year and would be attractive in the offseason.
"He was at the forefront of modern planting design," said Paul van Meter of Reading, Pa., a friend and fellow designer. "He was a modernist at heart. He blended aesthetics with function. He designed boldly in an ecologically sustainable way."
Mr. van Meter said that Mr. Oehme's impact extends across generations of landscape designers. "You can see his influence along New York's High Line," he said, speaking of the landscape walk created on an elevated rail structure on the west side of New York City.
While he and his collaborator, James van Sweden, designed gardens for wealthy clients across the country — and created a park along the Hudson River in New York — he also worked in some of Baltimore's public spaces.
"His biggest tribute could be that he turned so many people on to perennial gardening," said a friend, Kurt Bluemel, a Baldwin resident who grows perennials.
In the 1980s, he created naturalistic designs to fill the grounds of the Baltimore County Courthouse. His grasses and flowers lined North Charles Street between Bellona and Kenilworth avenues. He also helped select plants for the space between the concrete barriers dividing the north- and southbound lanes of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
"I loved his appreciation for the natural world. He lived for plants and watching the bees and butterflies on them," said Claudia West of White Hall, who collaborated professionally with Mr. Oehme. "He will live on in his gardens."
Born in Chemnitz, Germany, he studied at the University of West Berlin before coming to the United States in 1957. In a 2009 article in Chesapeake Living magazine, he said, "As a young boy I used to work with my uncle, who had built a fish pond in the allotment garden next to his apartment. I was always planting and playing in sandboxes. I used to take the fish and turtles home with me during cold winters. I've always loved animals and nature. … I wanted to be Tarzan and liked to go to nature and wildlife movies."
He joined the Baltimore County Office of Planning and Zoning and Recreation and Parks as a landscape architect. In 1966, he joined the Rouse Co. and later formed a long partnership with Mr. van Sweden.
They created Hudson River Park at Battery Park in Manhattan; the Rosenberg Garden on Long Island; and gardens along Pennsylvania Avenue and Francis Scott Key Park, both in Washington, among many commissions. His recent German projects include the Allianz Insurance Park in Magdeburg and various gardens and parks in Chemnitz. He also designed a garden in Bitterfeld at the site of a surface coal mine.
One of his early Baltimore commissions was a Murray Hill garden off Charles Street.
"He drew up a little plan, and I was shocked at first," said Pauline Vollmer, the owner of the garden he created in 1962. "It was so different — no lawn at all."
A 1991 Baltimore Sun article described a garden he designed in Baltimore County:
"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," the article said. "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."
The garden writer said that "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."
The article described him as a "short, thin man with a wide smile."
"You have to have a feeling for plants. I paint with plants, very broad strokes. I like it to look like a wave of color, like the ocean," Mr. Oehme told The Sun in 1991.
In a 2005 Sun article, Mr. Oehme said he disliked the "traditional, sculpted look of English gardens, with their manicured rows of plants, trimmed topiaries and lines of annuals."
He said that while "most people like [their gardens] tame, I like it wild."
On a trip around Towson with a reporter, he passed an office building with rounded bushes trimmed carefully. He shook his head and said, "Poor plants. They look like meatballs," The Sun reported.
No funeral is planned.
Survivors include a son, Roland Oehme of Towson; and a grandson. A marriage ended in divorce.
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