Cover Story: Outstanding in his field

It might strike people as odd the trend known as “the new American garden style” was brought to its pinnacle largely due to the efforts of a German immigrant. Moving to the United States in 1957 and settling in Baltimore, Maryland, landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme (pronounced Uh-muh) has done more for low-maintenance gardening with perennials, trees and shrubs than any landscape designer alive.

Still possessing a thick German accent, the 79-year-old, soft-spoken design icon can be difficult to understand, but with occasional translation help provided by his energetic business partner, horticulturist Carol Oppenheimer, he eagerly shares his storehouse of knowledge. The two partners worked together at Oehme, van Sweden & Associates for seven years before dissolving their ties with the group and forming their own business in 2008. Given a lively interest in plants intertwined with his life, he vows he will never retire.

Maintaining their clients
When it comes to maintaining their landscape designs, Oehme and Oppenheimer keep in close contact with their clients. The two-person team always oversees the installation and continues to answer questions for clients months and even years down the road.

“You have to maintain a two-way relationship between client and designer,” Oppenheimer says. “Often we have clients who are frightened by our work. We use strange plants and their yard may look like a potato field for a few years.” She says some clients need reassuring during that awkward stage as the plants fill out.

Oehme and Oppenheimer possess a command of botanical Latin. They point out using common names, which often differ between regions, might lead to disaster when ordering plants in large volumes. “We never order from nurseries that don’t use the Latin name,” Oppenheimer says.

Not a fan of the turf lawn, Oehme specs groundcovers in mass plantings to satisfy clients who want a lawn-like space. His prolific use of ornamental grasses and perennials during his career spanning 60 years created a surge in their use that began in the 1970s and continues today.

“In 1965 I gave a talk about ornamental grasses to the nursery industry and nobody thought grasses would fly,” Oehme says. “Now they are everywhere.” His love for grasses is well known and, if pressed, he can declare a few favorites such as Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Pennisetum compressum ‘Moudry’, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ and ‘Purpurascens’, (feather reed grass, fountain grass and maiden grass to English-speaking landscapers). Of course he also favors his namesake sedge: Carex muskingumensis ‘Oehme’.

Outside help
Oehme and Oppenheimer are particular when it comes to maintaining their clients’ landscapes, so they developed a short list of companies they rely on. “We have a few contractors we trust,” Oppenheimer says. “We don’t insist on it, but we recommend them to our clients. We like to work with people who listen to us and are willing to learn.”

Two of those contractors are William J. Valois Jr., president, and Pam Phillips, vice president, of Professional Landscape Management Services (PLMS). “We believe in eco-friendly landscape practices for maintenance and installations, such as the use of native plants, rain gardens for storm water runoff, and naturally sustainable landscapes,” Phillips says.
They also prefer manual eradication of weeds followed by a layer of Leafgro, the composted leaves and grass clippings diverted from landfills by Maryland Environmental Service. Extensive use of drip irrigation conserves water and ensures moisture is at the root level without wetting foliage, which spreads disease, and without watering bare areas, which encourages weeds.

Pest control is first done visually, removing pests by hand or spraying soaps and horticultural oils for infestations. PLMS follows Oehme’s example in its own designs and selects plants that are least susceptible to pests. Whereas Oehme loves to stretch the boundaries and use tough plants no matter where they originate, Valois and Phillips typically spec natives in their own planting plans.

Green beginnings
“Wolfgang has a true love for plants,” Oppenheimer says. “His mind has always been green, long before the current trend started. We always use organic fertilizers and pesticides.” She says they typically rely on an annual top-dressing of compost and leaf mold for their planting beds. If plants begin to yellow or show other signs of weakness, they add an organic fertilizer such as cottonseed meal or a dose of Superthrive root stimulator for an extra boost.

If you want to talk numbers, Oehme speaks volumes. One garden design, for instance, called for 5,000 Lysimachia clethroides, 5,000 Rudbekia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’ and 1,000 Pennisetum alopecuroides. Plans for the Baltimore County Courthouse list 72 types of trees and shrubs, and 72 varieties of perennials, with more hand written in the margins.

“He’ll use 100 of some perennial and 1,000 of something else, but he knows when to stop,” Oppenheimer says. “He just knows how many of each plant a design needs.”

Oehme points out one of the maintenance benefits of using hundreds or even thousands of the same variety in wide swathes of plantings. “It’s very easy to distinguish a weed,” he says. “They immediately jump out at you.” Phillips adds that Oehme’s mass plantings leave precious little space for weeds to crop up. Weeds in paved walkways, steep slopes or other difficult areas might call for an application of a concentrated vinegar solution.

Because it’s difficult to perfectly plan for every nook and cranny when dealing with grand-scale gardens, Oppenheimer says they always provide the client with an “as planted” plan. This plan, drawn after the project is completed, indicates any spur-of-the-moment changes Oehme might have made on site. They also leave clients with a maintenance manual providing info such as plant names, pruning schedules and fertilizer schedules.

“Most of our plants are so easy to take care of anyway,” Oppenheimer says. “As big fans of ornamental grasses, Oppenheimer and Oehme hate to see grasses cut back in the fall. “That’s crazy,” Oppenheimer says. “You lose the entire winter effect when you do that. We recommend they cut them in late February.”

Oehme tries to impress upon his clients that a garden does not need to be meticulously maintained.

“A garden is not a bathroom,” he insists. “You don’t have to scrub them clean. I’m going to have that printed up on some T-shirts,” he says with a smile. His naturalistic design style lends itself to a relaxed acceptance of a few weeds. “I never do matchy-matchy gardens,” he says, referring to the tidy, rigidly symmetrical gardens he shakes his head at. “Every garden has a different story to tell. I want no boring stories – no boring gardens. Maybe there’s another T-shirt for us.”

“Asymmetry is a hallmark of his style,” Oppenheimer adds. She describes Oehme’s gardens – and his personality – as exuberant and joyful. Oehme demonstrates how he helps maintain his joy by forcing a smile on his face by biting down on a pen.
“I am 79, but I feel like I’m 15,” he declares.

“Sometimes he acts like he’s three,” Oppenheimer cracks. “His work is also his joy and his whole life,” she adds earnestly. “He loves what he does so much. We have a blast. And clients understand when you’re committed to what you do.”

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