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American Society of Landscape Architects


January 2004 Issue

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 irrigation.

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 friends—Washington 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 structures—the main house and a smaller guesthouse—250 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 feet—the distance between the two structures—and 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 vegetation—algae and plants—that 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 over.

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."

Project Credits
Landscape architect: Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Inc.
Architect: Sorg and Associates, P.C.


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