News & Politics

What I’ve Learned: Reinventing the Garden

James van Sweden’s relaxed gardens revolutionized landscape design. Now the creator of 100 local gardens, including landscaping for the World War II Memorial, looks back on a growing legacy.

For much of his career, James van Sweden has been a man on the go. He and his business partner, Wolfgang Oehme, changed landscape architecture in the 1970s with their New American Garden.

Clients from across the world came calling, seeking the relaxed, organic look of their designs, which feature masses of perennials and ornamental grasses.

Last spring, the pair’s Capitol Hill firm, Oehme van Sweden & Associates, which now has three dozen employees, celebrated its 35th anniversary at the Cosmos Club. That van Sweden was able to attend was a blessing: Six months earlier, he had undergone brain surgery to repair a hematoma. The operation was a success, but van Sweden still walks with a cane—the result, he says, “of a disconnect between my brain and my right leg.

“It’s getting better,” he adds in his gentle tone. “The difficult thing has been learning to slow down.”

Van Sweden, 73, has designed more than 100 Georgetown gardens as well as landscapes for Francis Scott Key Park near Key Bridge and the World War II Memorial on the Mall. Other credits include the American embassies in Barbados and Afghanistan as well as Oprah Winfrey’s farm in Indiana, a project that took four years.

In January, he launched a line of china, the New American Garden series. The branding will continue in 2009 with the publication of his fourth book, The Arts and the Garden.

Van Sweden grew up in Grand Rapids, the son of a Dutch builder. As a child, he dabbled in gardening. “I enjoyed watching the evolution,” he says. “Gardens produce such fabulous results. For the amount of time you put in, the return on your investment is so great.”

He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1960 with an architecture degree, although he had become, he says, more interested in the spaces between buildings. Van Sweden spent nearly four years in the Netherlands studying urban design at the University at Delft. Upon his return to the United States in 1963, he became a partner in the Washington urban-design firm Marcou, O’Leary & Associates.

That same year, he met Oehme, a German landscape architect. “I became very interested in the building of gardens,” says van Sweden. “I’m from a family of builders, so I figured it was in my bones to build. I saw Wolfgang load up his car and go out and plant gardens and thought, ‘That’s what I’d like to do. I hate being in the office.’ ”

These days, van Sweden, who favors dapper straw hats, takes life a bit easier. Friday mornings find him at his country house on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The modern home—designed by architect Suman Sorg, a friend—is softened by plantings of grasses and perennials. Between the garden and the bay is a wild meadow filled with plants that sway in the breeze. In this serene setting, we sat down to talk about what he’s learned.

What is the New American Garden?

We didn’t really mean our work to be a new American garden. We did several private gardens, which were published right away because they were very dramatic and different. They did not feature lawn but tapestrylike plantings and perennials and masses of the same plant—3,000 black-eyed Susans instead of six.

And then we did the Federal Reserve garden on Virginia Avenue; that was our first big break. We’re inspired by the American meadow and natural landscapes, so the gardening world pinned that name—the New American Garden—on us, and we’ve had it ever since.

What are the trademarks of a van Sweden design?

I’m very interested in the bones of the garden, the constructed part—such as terraces, walls, and steps—and in using beautiful materials for them, like stone and wood, with splendid detailing. I always say we do magnificent bones and then soften them with a marvelous tapestry of plants on top. All the edges are blurred and softened, and that’s what it’s all about.

As a landscape architect, do you feel a need to protect the environment?

That’s a big part of it. In this garden here, I finally had a piece of land where I could practice what I preach—so no chemicals, watering, anything. The perennials are mowed down once a year, and it starts over. It’s very exciting, dramatic, and beautiful in every season. And it’s an alternative to a lawn. Hopefully, people don’t put chemicals on their lawns along the Chesapeake Bay, but I bet they do. And they’re watering, I know.

This garden is a filter of water to the bay. If the entire edge of the bay had this kind of treatment, we wouldn’t have all these chemicals spilling into it.

I lecture all over the world, and that’s a part of trying to make the planet better—by educating people, showing them a different way.

What were the challenges of doing the landscape for the World War II Memorial?

It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It took nine years!

Designing a memorial is very challenging because everybody has his or her idea of what it should be. And the location—can you imagine designing a major work that’s going to last thousands of years, with the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial there?

It’s become a meeting place for people, a kind of a central square for the Mall and for Washington. I think it’s a huge success.

A lot of what we did—and this is where we come into how complicated landscape architecture is—isn’t even visible. It’s not just about plants. I was involved in every aspect of the memorial—the lighting, the paving, the drainage, the grading of the terrace, which was so complex.

What are the pleasures of designing a Georgetown garden?

Because I live in Georgetown, I was always interested in the town garden, and urban design also made me interested in it. Plus it’s designing an outdoor room, which is fascinating and complicated, too.

Balance is very important. You want to have a lot of planting, but you have to be sure you have enough terrace for entertaining. The design of a town garden takes at least six months, and it takes another six months to build it.

And there are always unknown problems in a Georgetown garden: leftover sewer tiles, cesspools, and old wells. It’s difficult to know what you’re going to find when you start digging.

But it’s fun. I like going from designing a Georgetown garden to designing the World War II Memorial. We have about 65 jobs on the boards right now. We’re designing a pedestrian bridge in the Chicago Botanic Garden and a huge private project in the Ukraine.

What about the push toward using indigenous plants in gardens?

I think you have to be reasonable. In my garden here, it’s 95 percent native plants, but I have a few exotics, like Chinese witch hazel; I love it because it blooms in winter.

We follow a rule of thumb: Far out from the house, we use native plants; closer to the house, we use some exotics to create a garden and we use what the client finds interesting and loves.

If you want a real flower garden, you have to have plants from other parts of the world.

What did you learn from your experience with Oprah?

It was a very big project—our biggest and most expensive at the time. Her farm was several hundred acres, and I did a 40-acre meadow and a big farm pond. It was about $9 million, and I learned a lot about dealing with that kind of scale, which now I’m applying in the Ukraine. It was complicated, but one learns and we took our time. And she let us. No client ever wants to wait for anything, but we went through it very carefully and she was very involved. It also teaches you that the more involved the client, the more successful the garden.

I remember when I presented Oprah’s plan, which was 400 types of plants. I got to the blue hydrangeas, and she burst into tears because her grandmother had blue hydrangeas in front of her shack in Mississippi.

What are the biggest mistakes a novice gardener makes?

Thinking too small. Outside, scale is tricky because everything looks smaller. I think the most important element of garden design is getting the proportions right and building a garden that fits into its surroundings, in the sense of the materials you use.

For example, in Washington you’d probably use brick; in Santa Fe you’d use terra cotta. The materials should be compatible with the place. That makes a great garden.

Another common mistake is not using enough of one kind of plant, just using one of everything, which makes a hodgepodge. And cutting shrubs into geometric shapes.

Organize your thoughts before you start. Put them down on paper first.

And decide exactly how much lawn you need. What are you going to do with the lawn? Are you going to use it as an extension of your terrace for parties for 40 people? Are you going to throw a Frisbee? How much lawn do you need? Cut the lawn to that size and plant the rest.

Can a garden be as beautiful in winter as during the growing season?

Oh, yes. It’s the dried garden. I had somebody here the other day who said, “You should deadhead that hydrangea.” Well, we don’t deadhead anything. Those dried petals will catch snow—it’ll be beautiful straight through the winter. All these grasses dry and turn a golden color, so they’re wonderful in the fall and winter.

And everything is lighted because it extends the house outside, and you can enjoy the view of the garden right through winter. Otherwise, you’re just seeing black window glass at night.

In Washington, leave everything up until February. Then cut it all down, clean it up, and mulch. Then you’re ready for the new season.

Are there public spaces in Washington you would like to get your hands on?

I’d love to work on the Mall. I’d upgrade the paving from gravel and work on the lighting and the furniture. And I’d improve the lawn area by adding trees. They would help create shade and emphasize the linear quality of the Mall’s design.

We’re working on the Eastern Market Metro stop right now. It’s just a mess; there’s been very little maintenance. We’re doing beautiful gardens in the Metro-stop area and placing sculpture and creating shade.

Do you know our design of the south parking garage at National Airport? You can’t see the building at all—it was designed with these great planters so it could be covered by plants. That’s the kind of thing I love to do—soften all the concrete with plants. We did that at Pershing Square on Pennsylvania Avenue. Francis Scott Key Park, at the Key Bridge, has a lot of that now—it’s so lush.

I think the German-American Friendship Garden on Constitution Avenue is nice. I hope we’re going to add on to it. We’re talking about adding a fountain there.

You devoted a book to water features. Why is water important?

It brings nature into the garden—you get all kinds of wildlife. It brings the sky into a small garden and expands the space. Water plants are so fascinating and so beautiful—lilies and lotuses and miniature cattails. And the sound of water cascading can disguise urban noises. The bigger the water feature, the better the garden.

What has landscape design taught you?

To be patient. To enjoy every moment. It also has taught me that once we put the garden in, it’s out of our control. The great thing about gardens is they take off at their own speed. If you build a building, it goes downhill the day it’s opened, but a properly maintained garden gets better every day.