Back to (controlled) nature on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
By Allen Freeman
Photo Copyright Richard Felber
James van Sweden, FASLA, envisioned a house set back from water
and floating above a meadow. This was to be his weekend getaway.
What he didn't want was lawns. He considers them unnatural and uninteresting
and much too dependent on upkeep, polluting chemicals, and wasteful
The house and its landscape began to be more than a vision five
years ago when van Sweden, a founding partner in Oehme, van Sweden
& Associates in Washington, D.C., located 25 agricultural acres
for sale in the hamlet of Sherwood on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
The land sloped gradually westward to the edge of the Chesapeake
Bay and was bordered on the north by a 50-foot-wide hedgerow of
mature loblolly pines, a windbreak planted when the land was still
farmed. The acreage was much more than van Sweden needed, so he
partnered with friendsWashington architect Suman Sorg and her husband
and business partner, Scott Sorg. Suman designed three houses oriented
toward the bay, and Oehme, van Sweden & Associates designed the
three gardens. Home and Garden Television built and featured one
house, now privately owned; the Sorgs own the second and use it
as their weekend retreat; and the third is van Sweden's-spare, rectilinear,
and featured in national design journals, The Washington Post Magazine,
and several books. This is the story of the landscape around van
Sweden's famous house.
For his part of the land, van Sweden claimed three acres along
the hedgerow and more or less gave Suman Sorg carte blanche for
the house. She designed a spare pair of flat-roofed structuresthe
main house and a smaller guesthouse250 feet east of the water's
edge. Extending perpendicular to the bay, the hedgerow defines the
landscape's northern edge and gives the house a backdrop when viewed
from the south. A tall wall of concrete blocks bisects the main
house from north to south; it then folds 90 degrees and becomes
a portion of the south elevation, bends back 90 degrees toward the
south, runs freestanding for 40 feetthe distance between the two
structuresand becomes the east facade of the guest house. Sorg
calls it van Sweden's garden wall. The interval between the two
structures, enclosed on the east side, is a boardwalk deck that
extends north-south and is oriented west toward the bay.
Van Sweden picks up the landscape story: "The land was in soybeans.
I knew I wanted a meadow, and I wanted in some way to help improve
the bay and prove that you can have a wonderful landscape without
any lawn and chemicals." Pesticides and herbicides make their way
into the Chesapeake and harm aquatic life, but fertilizers are also
potentially harmful. They promote dense growth of aquatic vegetationalgae
and plantsthat crowds out natural, desirable aquatic life including
grasses, crabs, and oysters. In 1998 the state of Maryland superseded
a voluntary farmland nutrient management program with regulations
aimed at reducing the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, the main
culprits in the bay's nutrient overload. Citing "dead zones" in
the bay and its tributaries where levels of dissolved oxygen are
too low to sustain life, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation lists nutrient
pollution as the single largest problem facing the bay.
And so, with advice from his friend Darrel Morrison, FASLA, of
the University of Georgia, a specialist in the use of native vegetation
and a self-described "big fan of grasslands and meadow," van Sweden
had soil samples taken. After reading the laboratory analysis, he
planted soybeans one more time, unfertilized, to absorb chemicals
remaining in the soil.
"Then," van Sweden continues, "we stopped farming and let whatever
would come up come up. The first thing that happened was a sea of
horsetail, Equisetum hyemale, generally the first succession weed.
It's amazing. It grows everywhere, including out of the pavement
cracks in Georgetown [Washington, D.C.] near my house. Darrel came
up, and we looked at it and decided it looked rather nice. I'm very
flexible as far as meadows, and easily pleased." Some less-wanted
usual suspects also appeared, including crabgrass and ragweed. They
tend to fill in a space in the first year and then quietly go away
when plants like broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) start to take
Says Morrison, "I was pleased in the sense that I didn't see a
lot of problem plants." There was no Johnson grass, for example,
which is very coarse, invasive, and aggressive. You get rid of Johnson
grass, he advises, by digging it out laboriously or spraying an
herbicide on each specimen. Otherwise, it will dominate the meadow
and preclude plant diversity.
In August of the year of the horsetail sea, van Sweden had the
meadow mowed fairly high, about half a foot, and a variety of grasses
and flowers began to appear the following spring. At this point,
he defined an area that he calls "the designed garden," which extends
in arcs from 50 to 100 feet out from the house and is separated
from the meadow by a 10-foot-wide path that keeps the meadow from
invading the designed garden; beyond the path, nature takes its
course. Van Sweden uses "designed" in a loose sense, however, meaning
that a drum seeding drill was employed to plant several varieties
of grasses native to the east coast of North America, including
Schizachyrium scoparium. He also seeded native bloomers, including
asters and coreopsis. The meadow, he says, is "a big mix-up of everything"
contrasting with the designed garden, which consists of masses of
casually seeded plants.
As a prolific writer of books and a partner in an active 23-person
practice, van Sweden doesn't do much hands-on gardening. "I'm not
a plants person," he says, instead identifying himself as a landscape
architect and an architect who leaves decisions about the uses of
natives versus exotics to his professional partner of 29 years,
Wolfgang Oehme, FASLA. "We meet in the middle," van Sweden says.
For his part, Morrison likes the idea of separating the untended
meadowland from the designed garden. He generally endorses creating
what might be called linear lawns, which can flow like a river through
and between areas of taller vegetation. Such divisions signify design
intent, he says, and provide firebreaks during fall and into early
spring when grasses go dormant.
Oehme, a landscape architect and horticulturalist, advised van
Sweden on the designed garden. "I like focal points of tall plants
with a bigger leaf," Oehme says. "You put them in place where people
will notice them, walk over to them, and then see something else.
You get pulled into the garden. The main point is that you don't
see everything at once."
That kind of intimate contact with nature was what van Sweden had
in mind for the east side (front) of the main house, where Suman
Sorg designed a long screened porch to remind van Sweden of his
childhood and the screened porch of his grandmother's cottage on
Lake Michigan. A little way out from the house, he had dug an irregular-shaped
pond, about 80 feet in diameter. The long view west toward the bay
is very fine, but van Sweden knew he wanted cozy scenery as well.
"You get tired of a dramatic view if you look at it all the time,"
he says. "A pond is a way to get close to the water. Also, I wanted
water plants, lilies and so on, that you don't get on the bay."
His meadowland experience on the Eastern Shore taught van Sweden
that a garden like this requires thought, intervention, and maintenance,
especially in the first two years. As Oehme puts it, "You have to
be patient with nature." But for van Sweden, the experience has
been a great way to engage with his land. Along the way, he says,
he learned that you can let nature take its course and start from
there. You can emphasize the meadow grasses and other plants you
like and remove the ones you dislike or let the good specimens crowd
out the bad. And you can introduce new varieties as you see fit.
Sitting on his deck with luncheon guests, van Sweden surveys the
bay and calls attention to a distant landscape. Typical of perhaps
99 percent of such domestic lots on the Chesapeake, it consists
of a house surrounded by mowed lawn extending right down to the
shore. "Think of all the chemicals and water and noise and gasoline
that requires," he says. "My landscape is the alternative. Look
how wonderful it is."
Landscape architect: Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Inc.
Architect: Sorg and Associates, P.C.
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