Two country gardens by James van Sweden


I’ve admired the landscapes of Jim van Sweden and his firm for decades now, and their lawnless “New American Garden” style is finally gaining real traction in the U.S.  So when he invited me to the Eastern Shore (of the Chesapeake Bay) to see his country garden, I hit the road.

What I found were not one but two of his works – the landscape around his own home, designed by architect Suman Sorg, and Sorg’s garden next door.  (Nice barter between old friends.)  He calls his garden the “ugly one” because it’s all meadow and big sweeps of dramatic plants, including Rudbeckia maximum, Little Bluestem, Panicum, Mountain mint, and a few I didn’t recognize.  It all adds up to my kind of ugly.



Next, Sorg’s more garden-like landscape – notice the roses and oakleaf hydrangeas.  Still very low-maintenance, though.



After ogling the gardens and the seaside view, I sat down to pump Jim for stories, and boy does he have them.  My favorite was about designing Oprah Winfrey’s $9 million country garden near South Bend, Indiana.  She wanted to replicate the gorgeous field in “The Color Purple” and Jim had to give her the bad news – that that was a temporary movie garden (mostly cosmos in bloom) and that a real meadow would take 5-6 years to mature.  But Oprah got with the program and spent long hours with Jim  choosing every single plant.  So what’s it look like?  Photos exist but have never been published.  (Maybe we can get an exclusive!  I’ll summon some blogger chutzpah and ask.)

So how do you sum up the long award-winning career of one the greats in a short blog post?  Well, you don’t.  But I can send you to his books.  And here’s 10 Q+As with him by Garden Design Mag, with full bio and photo.  In one answer he declares that he’s anti-lawn and has been for 30 years!  As he told me, he’s been designing sustainable gardens all along, since they were called low-maintenance.


  1. beautiful! I love rudbeckia maxima–I bought 2 plants, divided one this spring, and plan to divide the other next spring. Everyone who sees my garden asks about them. The blueish foliage,the big leaves, the tall tall stems and flowers. I leave the dried flower heads all winter for the birds, which I’m sure van Sweden does as well. It would be fun to see his garden in the fall and winter!

  2. JEALOUS I love the prairie landscape. I have some rudbeckia maxima in my yard in NC. It looks a little out of place, but I love it! Creating my own little meadow on the coastal plain!

  3. I am definitely in the minority. I find the meadow blowsy and dull. I went on a master gardeners’ tour on Saturday, and the gardens I loved the most were mixes of small trees and shade-loving plants or (for sun) densely packed borders. But, there is room for all sorts of styles, and part of the wonderful charm of gardening!

    Recently, it also made me happy to see a suburban dentist’s office landscaped in meadow-fashion–I’d much rather that than intensive lawn with oval-shaped beds filled with boring plantings.

  4. The gardens of Oehme and van Sweden have been inspiring me for years.
    I love their beautifully designed site specific hardscapes just as much as their sweeping softscapes.
    I had always been under the impression that their gardens required plenty of room to achieve that ‘vast sweeping meadow’ look but was given a new point of perspective when I saw an extremely successful small exhibition garden that they designed in Sonoma California at The Cornerstone Festival of Gardens. Link :

    Enjoyed the link to the 10 questions by Garden Design , especially Mr. Sweden’s answer in regards to the most dreaded question/ statement : I want to be swimming by Memorial Day !.
    Which for those who are not in the profession of landscape architectural design means unrealistic expectations from the client.

    thanks for the visit to his private country garden.

  5. Geez, I could create a lot of gardens for $9 million…. wouldn’t it be nice if Oprah had spent that money to send seeds to all her viewers or something?

    I can’t see why people idolize her.

  6. Hi Susan,
    Great photos of a master designers garden! I’ve admired Mr. Sweden’s work for many years and have been influenced by the natural style that he favors.
    I’m off to read the Q & A link you posted.
    What, no video?

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