Friday, December 16, 2011

Sources of Inspiration - Wolfgang Oehme

It might seem odd that a newbie garden blogger in Texas would be moved to write about the great landscape designer Wolfgang Oehme who passed away on December 15th.  I never met him yet his influence motivated me to type out my thoughts here.

I don't remember when I first heard the name Wolfgang Oehme, but I clearly remember the first time I connected with one of his landscapes -- I never forgot the experience.  In the mid-1990's we were living in a suburb of Washington, DC and riding the Metro train almost daily.   When the train pulled into the National Airport station that day I glanced over at the new parking garage and saw....trees, shrubs, and grasses; not just in front of the garage--but rather all over the garage.  Trees, full size shrubs, grasses, and vines were being installed in horizontal boxes on each level of the structure.

Wow!  That's so different.  What a contrast to the boring office buildings of Crystal City just behind it.  It's a parking garage!  Who did this?

(For an idea of what I saw that day check out professional photographer Roger Foley's site and the five photos in his portfolio)

Eventually I learned the designer of this landscape Wolfgang Oehme and his now famous firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates were at the forefront of a style called The New American Garden.  I was intrigued and by intentionally choosing a seat on the north side of the train car as often as possible, I could see how the plants grew and changed over time.  I began to note other installations around the Washington-Baltimore area.  His work was always special and so different from the standard.

Definitely thinking outside the box(wood).

Arriving back in San Antonio in 2008, I noted an increased use of ornamental grasses in landscapes here and thought the trend could be Oehme's influence.

Examples abound:  For instance...

Would this combination of perennials and ornamental grasses along the River Walk Museum Reach have been approved without his groundbreaking work?

And this scene along Josephine Street might just as easily have been a row of dwarf yaupon and mulch

 Would I have thought to do this to my little driveway island?

And understood that I should enjoy it even when dormant

An article I read this week mentioned he often used Russian sage and ornamental grasses in combination.  I'm not sure I knew that when I planted this spot, but it works beautifully.

While my little front island garden here in suburban San Antonio is no match to the estate-sized swaths of grasses, wildflowers, and perennials for which he became famous, it does make me smile everyday.  The past few days I've been remembering how much his work brightened my day from the window of a train for a few years.


  1. Wonderful post. This new naturalized look with grasses mixed with perennials is so much better than a row of box woods and mulch.

  2. Very nice, Shirley. That airport planting is amazing, and I've never read much about Oehme, so I found your post quite interesting. Clearly I need to read up on him!


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