Monday, December 26, 2011

Grasses, not grass


In yesterday's New York Times, I saw the obituary of Wolfgang Oehme, 81, who was a big promoter of using ornamental grasses in the landscape.  Along with his collaborator in landscape architecture, James van Sweden, he started a new movement in American gardening that seemed to come as a backlash to the English garden craze that swept this country in the 1980's (the latter is my opinion).

Mr. Oehme (the NYT gave the pronunciation as EHR-ma, which means I've mispronounced his name all this time) was born in Germany and had an early interest in gardening.  He graduated from the University of Berlin with a degree in horticulture and came to this country in 1957 to settle in Baltimore.

I remember when several gardening magazines proclaimed Mr. Oehme and Mr. van Sweden as the inventors of the "new American garden."  They were proponents of ripping out front lawns and foundation plantings at the base of the house and replacing them with flowing ornamental grasses or plants with longer seasons of interest than azaleas, with their two weeks of beauty and fifty weeks of boredom (according to Mr. Oehme).  This seemed all well and good if you had several acres without a tree in sight, but I don't think it caught on with regular homeowners.

Still, even though there was no mass conversion to their ideas, ornamental grasses have become more popular and more available.  I feel quite sure that much of it was due to the influence of these two men.

I have many photographs of ornamental grasses used in containers, in small gardens, in large sweeps in the landscape and as winter interest plants (one I really like shows backlit seed heads covered in frost).  The photograph above illustrates how much fun just one plant can be in a garden border.  This is ponytail grass (Stipa tenuissima) in Ozzie Johnson's east Cobb County garden.  I hate to say it, but it reminds me of my hair in high school when I tried to make myself a blonde.  Still, it shows how interesting grasses can be.

I do have great respect for Mr. Oehme's work, and I like what the obituary said about him.  "Mr. Oehme's favorite way to celebrate his birthday was to have friends join him for a 'weeding party.'"  This sounds like an excellent idea, possibly one with the potential to form another new movement among gardeners.