The New American Garden – van Sweden and Oehme

Best known as the co founder of the New American Garden style, along with Wolfgang Oehme, James van Sweden died at the age of 78, on September 20, 2013. I was saddened to see his obituary in the New York Times last week. I might have been tempted to think of it as an end to an era; his business partner, Oehme, passed on to the Great Garden in December, 2011. For both of these notable garden designers, obituaries appeared in nearly every major newspaper in the U.S., so great was their garden legacy.

James van Sweden

Interested in plants at an early age, van Sweden began his career at the age of 12 by establishing a neighborhood lawn mowing business in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A neighbor's perennial borders, having swallowed up her lawn, was one of his first and formative influences, a revolutionary idea in 1940's American gardening. Upon dividing and thinning out her plants in the springtime, she shared them throughout the neighborhood. Gradually, van Sweden reduced his parents lawn while increasing the size of their backyard beds and borders. Early on, he expressed a serious dislike of mowing.

Combining his love of art, he drew and painted scenes from the Michigan countryside. Attending Wheaton College, he obtained a degree in architecture, and then added his true love, a landscape architecture degree. He further studied landscape architecture with Professor Jan Bijhouwer at the University of Delft in the Netherlands, who was passionate about the natural evolution of a garden and about native American plants. Van Sweden acquired his “keen appreciation for natural, relaxed planting designs that relied on indigenous plants as well as North American wildflowers” from this Dutch master while in Europe.

Shortly after returning to the United States, van Sweden met Wolfgang Oehme, forming a friendship and partnership that would last the rest of their lives.

Wolfgang Oehme

Like van Sweden, his parents encouraged Oehme's gardening, renting a plot (similar to a plot in a community garden) and allowing him to garden a section of it. At the age of 17, Oehme apprenticed at a nursery, learning the basic skills of the trade. Working shortly afterwards at the Bitterfeld (Germany) Cemetery and Parks Department, Oehme decided to become a landscape architect and enrolled at the University of Berlin, the center for horticulture in Germany. After graduation, Oehme joined the design team for the Hamburg National Garden Show, discovering the “importance of public gardens in everyday life . . .and what plants can do for people.”

Although born and educated in Germany, Oehme immigrated to the U.S. and took a job with the parks department in Baltimore in 1957. In the United States, he lamented about the limited number of interesting perennials and grasses available in the trade.

The New American Garden Style

In 1977, Oehme partnered with James van Sweden, forming Oehme, van Sweden & Associates. Together they revolutionized landscape design using prairie-style sweeps of perennials and grasses and incorporating a naturalistic flow throughout their gardens that came to be known as the New American Garden style, a departure from the rigid evergreen and lawn structure.

Many of the plants used in their designs were American natives. All of the plants chosen in their designs were noted for their good structure, form and color and low maintenance, requiring little fertilization and irrigation. Oehme's and van Swedens books and New American Garden designs gave courage to countless gardeners to break the bounds of traditional gardening and to garden with regional appropriateness and flair, myself included. Early on in my informal training, I read about their new style and designs and purchased van Sweden's Gardening with Nature, van Sweden's and Oehme's how to book in creating the New American Garden. Reading through it again reminded me of its influence in my own garden and gardening outreach.

Oehme and van Sweden had many influences that affected their style: art, nature, Japanese gardening, Roberto Burle Marx, a Brazilian landscape architect and artist, Capability Brown, Gertrude Jekyll, Frank Lloyd Wright, and two early great American landscape designers, Jens Jensen and Frederick Law Olmsted. Darrell Morrison, from the University of Georgia, one of their contemporaries, reinforced their earlier tendencies towards using native grasses in landscape design. A. E. Bye, an American naturalist, inspired their technique towards simplicity in design.

Each of these influences emphasized considering the location, using the “borrowed scenery technique”, emphasized the countryside, especially meadows and prairies, creating a more relaxed, yet dynamically flowing design that celebrates the plants and the garden in all seasons. Oehme and van Sweden's gardens depended on the architectural and sculptural qualities of the plants to create rhythm, balance and tension. Oehme and van Sweden's designs are particularly appreciated for their strong winter interest.

Van Sweden wrote in Gardening With Nature “We have neither foundation plants nor perennial borders because we treat the entire ground plane as an integrated whole. No more piling of plants against the foundation of the house, no more useless lawns that carpet the empty space out to the curb.” Many of gardens they designed covered large expanses where plants were massed in drifts and swaths. They didn't plant in dozens, but in hundreds or even thousands to create the desired, stunning effects. Their gardens were never static, but flowed with the seasons.

Often the larger the garden, the fewer the plant species used, preferring bold, simple designs. Bold in the massing of plants, using plants with a bold pluming or flowering habit. Grasses didn't just ornament their designs, grasses defined them. They designed their gardens to be viewed at close range with more complexity up close. “From the house, a terrace, or a bench, our gardens radiate out with increasing simplicity. . . .”

A case might be made that due to influences from the outside, their work was really another European import. Few make this case. The style they have become known for is the style that has inspired countless European and American designers to emulate, both large and small. On a recent trip to Colorado, I was surprised when upon entering nearly every town or city, parks, boulevards and street corners imitated the New American Garden style with waves of ornamental grasses accented with long blooming perennials, many of them American natives. These low maintenance, low water-use gardens, ecologically friendly to the point where they thrive without reliance on environmentally unfriendly chemicals, are both nurturing and pleasing to people and wildlife. A welcome break from the uniform, chemically controlled landscapes Americans have favored.

Though these two pivotal designers to our American gardening legacy have passed, their spirit, inspiration and gardens live on. Their legacy will remain, if for nothing else, because it is exactly suited to America and Americans. James van Sweden is the author of Gardening With Nature (1997), Gardening With Water (1995); Bold Romantic Gardens (1990), written with Wolfgang Oehme and Susan Rademacher; and Architecture in the Garden (2003), written with Thomas Christopher. His latest book, The Artful Garden: Creative Inspiration For Landscape Design (2011) informs, based on his life's worth of experience, how one can glean design ideas and borrow effective techniques from art.

Oehme’s life and work was documented in Stefan Leppert’s Ornamental Grasses: Wolfgang Oehme and the New American Garden and his projects have been featured in numerous books and publications. He co-authored Bold Romantic Gardens: The New World Landscapes of Oehme and van Sweden with James van Sweden, and The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses: How to Grow and Use Over 250 Beautiful and Versatile Plants with John Greenlee and Derek Fell.

Angie Hanna, October 2, 2013