Thursday, January 19, 2012

The 'New American Garden', part 1

Wolfgang Oehme died last fall. Those of you who read about gardens or the art of landscaping will have run across his books, or at least mentions of them. In an article about him which I have just read, he and his partner James van Sweden, are referred to as having 'redefined the American Garden'. In obituaries and book reviews, this phrase keeps popping up.

In most cases, this 'new American Garden' is illustrated with pictures of large expanses of waving grasses. Every thing I've read about this lately concentrates on this use of grasses, and nowhere do I see a mention of what I think is really a larger lesson to be taken from their work.

Yes, they (I will say 'they, because Oehme worked with van Sweden for decades, and it is their work together that is usually referred to) did create a new garden model, one that is a welcome addition to the British model of the velvety green grass lawn surrounded by a perennial flower border surrounded by a tall green hedge. As we see it in books or pictures, it involves large expanses of waving grasses set off, often, by quite strict and rigidly controlled hard-scaping.  It is a garden model based on a cross between the natural North American prairie and the Atlantic ocean beach, and as such is indeed new.

But designing a garden is not the same as designing a landscape. What the obituaries and reviews seem to miss is that while Oehme/van Sweden did invent a new garden model, their real achievement was in then using it in their projects as a brilliant way of making the designed landscape part of the natural landscape.

To put it another way, what was new about their idea is not that it uses grasses, or that it resembles the prairie/beach. What was new is that they designed gardens to be part of the surrounding landscape. If you think of other garden styles, such as the Italian style with it's sculptures and cypresses, the French style with it's rigidly pruned shrubs, the Eastern enclosed garden, the Oriental garden.... these are all gardens in, but separated from, their surrounding landscape. Their whole point is to be comfortable, safe, prestigious spaces removed from the surrounding wild landscape. Oehme/van Sweden gardens, most of which happen to be in the mid-atlantic states, are not separate from the landscape. They are in fact a concentration of the elements of  the surrounding landscape and so lead directly into it and become part of it.

That is, I think, the real lesson landscapers should take from Oehme and van Sweden's work. The designed landscape should fit into the natural landscape. Where woodlands are the natural native condition, there should be woodland gardens. In the desert areas, xeric gardens. In small inner-city backyards, old-style English flower borders. 

(More soon....)

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