Conspicuously Contemporary Karen and Chip Offutt have created a modern garden for their modern Baltimore County home.

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No fishing! Above a large, curved koi pond, a rock garden designed by Karen Offutt’s brother, Dr. Alex Jerome, includes sun-loving lavender, veronica, creeping phlox and succulents with nearby Golden Dwarf Hinoki cypress trees, daylilies and Gold Mound Japanese spirea across the pond.
No fishing! Above a large, curved koi pond, a rock garden designed by Karen Offutt’s brother, Dr. Alex Jerome, includes sun-loving lavender, veronica, creeping phlox and succulents with nearby Golden Dwarf Hinoki cypress trees, daylilies and Gold Mound Japanese spirea across the pond.

The mature sugar maples that line the long, elegant drive at Karen and Chip Offutt’s Baltimore County home do not appear on either the neatly typed 1960 plant list or the fading blueprint that the property’s previous owners left for the couple in 1979. Nor will you find mention of the graceful series of gardens, filled with swaths of perennials, that fully embrace their modern, sun-filled house. Over the past 37 years, the Offutts have created one of the most outstanding gardens in the area, one that is emblematic of the New American Garden style.

“It was all open space except some big and very good trees,” remembers Karen

Offutt of the 15 acres (with a picturesque barn) that have become her horticultural canvas. A born gardener, Offutt grew impatiens at age 4 and was extremely upset to leave her tomato plants behind when she moved from Pittsburgh to Florida as a child.

Decades later, after she relocated to Baltimore County from a Baltimore City apartment with a plant-filled balcony, the scope of Offutt’s gardening broadened. She moved into a 1959 home designed by Baltimore architect Richard Jackson, surrounded by a variety of fine deciduous and evergreen trees: a copper beech, a weeping cherry, a Moraine locust, hollies, magnolias, Blue Atlas cedars, cutleaf maples and a white birch.

Immediately, she started expanding her horticultural knowledge. She took courses at Longwood Gardens, joined the Lutherville Garden Club and became a Baltimore County master gardener. “First I put in a dumb perennial garden by the fence,” admits Offutt.

Then, in 1985, Kurt Bluemel, an innovative and artistic Maryland nurseryman (who, by the time of his death in 2014, was nationally known as “the king of grasses”), visited the Offutts’ garden. “He recommended we move some spruce trees to group them together and put a cutleaf maple closer to the house,” Offutt explains. Thirty years later, those anchoring trees remain in place.

The envelope was pushed when Offutt saw a Mount Washington garden influenced by landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme, who, after consulting with the couple in 1987, helped them transform their own garden. His trademark free-form style of curvaceous beds filled with waves of mass plantings of grasses, perennials and shrubs fit naturally with the rolling countryside. Along with fellow landscape architect James van Sweden and nurseryman Bluemel, Oehme pioneered the New American

Garden style, one that is environmentally friendly and champions native plants and lawn reduction. (In 1975, Oehme and van Sweden formed the now-renowned landscape architecture firm Oehme, van Sweden.)

In 1988, a pool went in, tucked off to one side and surrounded by stylish bluestone terraces and gardens. “I didn’t want to look at an ugly pool all winter,” says Offutt.

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Swaths of grasses and perennials, including feather reed grass, sedum "Autumn Joy" and Russian sage are hallmarks of landscape architects Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden.
Swaths of grasses and perennials, including feather reed grass, sedum “Autumn Joy” and Russian sage are hallmarks of landscape architects Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden.

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Native plants like Joe Pye weed are also touches of Oehme and van Sweden.
Native plants like Joe Pye weed are also touches of Oehme and van Sweden.

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Flame grass, Oriental fountain grass and Korean feather reed grass flank the steps with perennial nandina, astilbe, plumbago and a Black Lace elderberry bush by the bluestone patio.
Flame grass, Oriental fountain grass and Korean feather reed grass flank the steps with perennial nandina, astilbe, plumbago and a Black Lace elderberry bush by the bluestone patio.

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A 50-year-old cutleaf Japanese maple stands at the center of the driveway.
A 50-year-old cutleaf Japanese maple stands at the center of the driveway.

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Deep perennial borders surround a black-lined pool.
Deep perennial borders surround a black-lined pool.

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Burgundy Wine dwarf nandina
Burgundy Wine dwarf nandina.

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Light-catching glass balls hang from a Coral Bark Japanese maple.
Light-catching glass balls hang from a Coral Bark Japanese maple.

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The view out over the gardens includes three shadblow serviceberry trees as well as deep perennial beds around a reduced lawn.
The view out over the gardens includes three shadblow serviceberry trees as well as deep perennial beds around a reduced lawn.

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Four years later came a pond and a rock garden masterminded by her brother, Dr. Alex Jerome, a longtime member of the American Rock Garden Society.

These days, mature gardens undulate on several levels around the house. “What makes it unique is that no matter where you look, there is a vista,” says Offutt. “Not just a vista looking out, but looking in as well.”

Steps lined with stone troughs lead down from the pond and front gardens to a wide bluestone terrace with breathtaking views. From there, three more steps access the pool area and its surrounding berms filled with trees, shrubbery and plant collections. Curved paths wind across the back of the house to a woodland garden; out front—a circular driveway with a green island at its center.

Among Offutt’s favorite plant collections are her pennisetum and panicum grasses, hellebores, caryopteris, acanthus, perennial begonias and plumbago, the latter being one of her many groundcovers. “Use groundcovers and find ones that work,” says this now expert gardener. (Offutt has taught courses and led trips for the Horticultural Society of Maryland and the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland.)

Her garden has been showcased in Southern Living, Horticulture and Garden Design magazines, the Baltimore Sun and in the book Bold Romantic Gardens, as well as in books featuring the work of the Oehme, van Sweden firm.

“I’m a plantaholic,” says Offutt, who arranges garden tours as a part-time business under the name of Gardenholic Tours. “I’ve added lots of plants to the garden since Wolfgang was here. I try to add a good number at once. Luckily, Chip has a good eye and can usually find a spot.”

She’s also eliminated plants that don’t work: brunnera, for example, which took over. “If you don’t prune your garden, you’re going to have a wild space,” she cautions. “But don’t go filling that space with a lot of tchotchkes.”

Her current project: Replace Bluemel’s line of spruces. “We’re going to lose the first spruce, then we’ll lose others,” Offutt notes, “but we’ve planted three Bracken’s Brown Beauty magnolias.”

With both Bluemel and Oehme deceased, Offutt called in Eric Groft of Oehme, van Sweden to review the garden. “You don’t realize how fast gardens change,” she says. “At 30-plus years, we have some major things happening.”

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Liriope used as groundcover under a river birch tree.
Liriope used as groundcover under a river birch tree.

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Evergreen and deciduous trees create a backdrop for textured layers of perennials and grasses.
Evergreen and deciduous trees create a backdrop for textured layers of perennials and grasses.

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Looking in, a Katsura Japanese maple and a mature weeping cherry tree with more perennial borders encircling the house.
Looking in, a Katsura Japanese maple and a mature weeping cherry tree with more perennial borders encircling the house.

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Published in the May/June 2016 issue of STYLE.

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