The Making of the Towson Court House Garden
The Courthouse was built in 1855, but the “new” court house garden wasn't established until 1988. Previously, the court house garden consisted of an expansive flat lawn, a few trees (i.e., the giant Gingko on Pennsylvania Avenue and the Chestnut Oak on Chesapeake Avenue), some shrubbery, which was trimmed into large half spheres at the corners of the building, and a nice wrought iron fence to neatly contain everything.
The new garden became a reality thanks to the Rasmussen administration and Frank Robey in particular, who was then the Baltimore County Government’s Administrative Officer. In 1988, Robey wanted to replant the area around the portico that had been torn up during the installation of a new irrigation system. When Avery Harden, the County Landscape Architect for the Department of Permits and Development Management, was consulted on the project, he envisioned an entirely new landscape. Robey liked his plan and pictured the new garden as the "Sherwood Gardens of the north.”
To achieve their vision, a team of talented people was assembled, who in turn drew in resources from all over county government, private industry and the community. The core team consisted of Avery Harden, Harry Colter (Deputy Director of Recreation and Parks), Sam Cortez (Chief of the Bureau of Highways), and Joannne Dietz (Purchasing). The Planning Department contributed with graphic presentations. Working on the final planting phase of the project was Wolfgang Oehme.
In 1988, Harden was relatively new to the County, having recently moved here from St. Simons Island in Georgia. Everything on St. Simons was flat and his clients there wanted him to reshape their landscape to give it more height and dimension. So Harden developed the unique talent of land sculpting (still an under utilized aspect in many of today’s gardens). His experience was perfect for dealing with the flat expanse of the lawn.
The reshaping of the garden began with many dump trucks of dirt being brought on site, The dirt was then pushed, dragged, mounded and sculpted. Harden’s goal was to create a contrasting yin-yang between the green lawn and the planting areas. Finally, the walkways were laid to not just get you from point A to point B, but to allow a leisurely stroll through the garden.
At this point, Wolfgang Oehme was brought into the project. Oehme is a nationally and internationally renowned Landscape Architect with the firm Oehme, van Sweden and Associates based in Washington DC. He and his partner, James van Sweden, have written several books,"Bold Romantic Gardens" and "Gardening with Water" to name a few. Oehme is also considered to be one of the premier plantsmen in the world. Fortunately for the County, Oehme is a Towson resident and former County government employee.
The Design Begins
Oehme and Harden collaborated on the new design. Harden originally pictured a landscape of azaleas, magnolia and ivy, but Oehme wanted to break from traditional plantings. So the new landscape evolved much like painting by adding layers of plant structure, color and texture. Even today the garden continues to evolve as new plants are discovered and some of the old plants have played themselves out.
In the end, the Towson court house garden has one of the best plant collections in the world and is included in many horticultural tours. Unlike the original Sherwood Gardens, that has fabulous spring color and minimal interest the remainder of the year, this garden was designed to have something for every season. Even in the dead of winter, the garden has plants that have great structural character and the occasional burst of color from blooms and berries.
Private and Company Donations
Not to be overlooked in the making of the garden are the numerous donations made by private citizens and local companies:
- Manor View Farms - some plants
- Mercantile Bank - clock
- American Lung Association - red tulip display
- Private Donations - Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Librarian and Child sculpture, bronze plow, benches, various trees, shrubs and bulbs
As every gardener knows, the garden is a living work of art and it takes a lot to keep it looking its best. Credit for maintaining the garden goes to the Department of Recreation and Parks. Additionally, many private citizens donate their time weeding, planting and pruning. Among them are the garden's creators. Oehme has been known to fly into town from abroad and head straight for the garden at 2 a.m. to weed, and Harden would often stop by during his off hours to water and prune.
As a home gardener, it’s fun to take away elements of this very successful garden and apply them to your own plot. Some interesting perennials in the court house garden are Tanacetem (tansy), Pycnanthemum muticum (mountain mint), Polymorpha (fleece flower), Fallopia (Mexican bamboo) and Fargesia robusta (clump bamboo). The existence of many of these plants in North America can be attributed to Wolfgang Oehme.
Check it Out
So the next time you are in Towson, come take a stroll through the garden and then consider all the time and talent that went into the making of this extraordinary landscape.
Revised July 19, 2013