Renowned landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme, pictured in his backyard at...

Renowned landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme, pictured in his backyard at his Towson home. Credit: Handout

Wolfgang Oehme, a German-born landscape architect whose radical ideas changed the face of the American garden, died Dec. 15 in Towson, Md.

He was 81 and died of metastatic colon cancer, said Carol Oppenheimer, his colleague and, later, his caretaker.

With the landscape architect James van Sweden, Oehme forged an unlikely partnership that became the Washington-based firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates. The alliance began in earnest obscurity in the 1970s: They planted their own designs from the back of a pair of Volkswagen Squarebacks.

A Federal Reserve Board member asked them to redesign the Fed's Virginia Avenue NW gardens in D.C. in the 1970s. The resulting two-acre confection of fountain grass, Autumn Joy sedum and feather reed grass showed the world an alternative to the old city park model of foundation evergreens bordered by ivy ground cover.

A slew of public and private commissions followed, other designers aped the style, and nurseries had to grow and sell the Oehme-van Sweden plant palette to keep up with demand.

Along with various grasses, the team popularized such perennials as black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, salvias and Russian sage.

With artful promotion, they called their style "the New American Garden," which they said served as a metaphor for the American prairie.

Besides serving adventurous and well-heeled clients, the firm also shaped prominent public spaces in the Washington area, including Reagan National Airport, the National World War II Memorial and Freedom Plaza.

Their champion at the Federal Reserve, David Lilly, wrote that the garden there evoked imagery that moved "away from the aristocratic European model" toward a more egalitarian "Great Plains heritage."

Oehme loved that his gardens attracted birds, bees, butterflies, dragonflies and frogs, but his plants were not native to one land or region. Oehme was looking for effect, not ecology.

Wolfgang Walter Oehme was born in Chemnitz, Germany, on May 18, 1930. He began growing plants when he was 5, in a corner of his parents' community garden plot.

Oehme's marriage to the former Shirley Zinkhan ended in divorce.

Survivors include a son, Roland Oehme, a landscape architect in Towson; and a grandson.

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