Maryland's Mr. Grass

Plantsman: Kurt Bluemel helped popularize waving blades and plumes. Now he copes with Disney giraffes and elephants.

In The Garden

March 04, 2001|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Nurseryman and landscaper Kurt Bluemel had dealt with groundhogs, rabbits, and rapacious deer. But nothing in his career prepared him for the destructive powers of elephants and giraffes.

"They are like organic lawnmowers!" he says in a Czech accent still strong after 40 years in Baltimore.

On a gray winter's day, Bluemel stands inside one of the green- houses that blanket his 40-acre property in Baldwin. Nearby, staffers prepare potted grasses -- a sea of blue fescues, yellow and green zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') and cortaderias (pampas grass), whose plumed seed heads glow in the autumn sun -- for shipment. Kurt Bluemel the company is one of the largest, most extensive wholesale growers of ornamental grasses in the nation, which is why six years ago the Disney com-pany asked him to help design, supply and plant the 125 acres of savanna at its new Animal Kingdom in Florida.

But while he was an expert on grasses, Bluemel knew little about African animals or Florida soil.

"We did a lot of research before we started," says Bluemel, 67. He assumed the animals would graze the landscape, so was careful to avoid poisonous plants. But he was unprepared for their voraciousness.

"We planted acacias -- they have very long thorns -- as part of the permanent landscape, but the giraffes ate them down to the ground. Thorns and all!" he says.

Another surprise was the soil -- or lack of it.

"Florida only has sand," he says. "It's like hydroponic growing. As soon as you stop giving things water and fertilizer, they stop [growing]. But with food and water, in three months, the vegetation was unbelievable! We miscalculated [planting distances] as a result."

Bluemel couldn't change the soil composition, but he could solve the problem of foraging animals with nonstop replanting. To supply plants, he opened Floraland Farms and Nurseries near Orlando -- his third nursery. (In addition to Kurt Bluemel Inc. in Baldwin, he also has Somerset Farms and Nursery in Manokin, Somerset County, on the Eastern Shore.)

Apprenticed in Europe

Bluemel did not set out to become a plantsman. He wanted to be a diplomat and travel the world. But World War II shattered his dreams and made him and his family refugees. His education was over; they needed to eat. Bluemel's stepfather, descended from a long line of nurserymen, suggested Kurt go into plants.

"They offered room and board," Bluemel says, "so I became an apprentice in a West German nursery."

He discovered he liked it. In 1950, the family moved to Switzerland, where he worked for renowned plantsman Arnold Vogt.

"He had an enormous influence on me," Bluemel says now. "He showed me there was a plant for every place."

At Vogt's nursery, Bluemel met Richard Simon, who owned Bluemount Nurseries in Monkton. Simon had come there to study on a Cornell scholarship. The pair hit it off and Simon offered Bluemel a job, which he eagerly accepted, moving to Maryland in 1960. He soon discovered that American gardens lacked the breadth and variety of those in Europe. Conspicuously absent were ornamental grasses, an essential element of European garden design.

"There was a large void," he says.

So in 1964, hungry for success after the deprivations of the war, and with a sense of mission, he started his own business to supply grasses to Baltimore.

"At first, we had only 15 kinds of grasses. Then when I started growing them in masses, people would come to visit in masses. One visiting farmer said: 'This is nothing that a mountain of Roundup wouldn't cure,' " Bluemel says with a laugh.

Successful team

It wasn't enough to grow grasses and hope customers would come. He needed to get the word out. Fortunately, garden designer Wolfgang Oehme -- a German landscape architect steeped in the European tradition of ornamental grasses -- had immigrated to Towson in the early '60s.

"We worked together," says Oehme, whose firm, Oehme, Van Sweden & Associates has designed projects ranging from Washington, D.C., to Texas to Oprah Winfrey's Chicago estate. "I got the grasses from Germany and Kurt propa- gated them. He's a wonderful propagator."

Thanks to the pair of them, grasses now wave in municipal and private gardens across the country.

In addition to growing, Bluemel -- who's now often called "Mr. Grass" -- also lectures nationwide.

"I go around preaching the good news," he says. "I was in Indiana, and one man asked how I managed to popularize grasses. I said, 'You lock 400 Indiana nurserymen in a room and talk for an hour.' "

This year, Bluemel opened a retail catalog arm of the nursery, run by his half-sister, Monika Burwell, the daughter of his beloved stepfather, Bruno Lammel. "She is blood-related to a long line of plantsmen," Bluemel says proudly. His 16-year-old grandson, one of his daughter's three children, works with him in the summer.

"I don't know whether he will become a plantsman or not," Bluemel says with a shrug. The possibility is obviously there, but Bluemel declines to push it. "If he does, it will be his choice."

Sources

Kurt Bluemel Inc.

2740 Greene Lane

Baldwin, Md. 21013-9523

410-557-7229

www.bluemel.com

Wholesale. Visits by appointment only.

Monika Burwell

Earthly Pursuits Inc.

2901 Kuntz Road

Baltimore, Md. 21244

410-496-2523

Retail catalog

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