He sees splendor in the grass

Horticulture: Kurt Bluemel leaves no blade unturned as he passionately promotes the virtues of ornamental grasses.

October 18, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Kurt Bluemel, Kurt Bluemel's legs churn past row upon row of grasses, green stalks of various shapes and sizes, with names like Red Baron, Christmas Rose and Sweet Calamine. He brushes a fleshy finger across their tops, then stops.

"This is something I brought from the Straits of Magellan," he said, tickling the floppy, teal tendrils.

"It doesn't like the summer here, but in the winter, it's the bluest, bluest grass you can imagine. We call it Blue Tango."

A 69-year-old Baldwin resident, Bluemel is a kind of Johnny Appleseed of ornamental grasses, whose global search for new species, subsequent cultivation in Maryland and infectious salesmanship have spread all variety of the plumes across North America.

Now Bluemel is sowing the seeds of the 30,000-member American Horticultural Society, of which he became chairman in June.

His goal is as grandiose as it was four decades ago, when he emigrated from Switzerland to the United States and began making Americans realize there was more to a lawn than mowing.

"To make America a country of gardeners, a nation of gardens," he said in clipped, accented English at the 43-acre nursery in northeastern Baltimore County, where he grows 750 types of ornamental grasses, 100 bamboos and 700 varieties of peonies. "That's the vision."

In the rarefied world that is horticulture, Bluemel is a legend. Rick Darke, author of the Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses, said Bluemel transplanted Europe's considerable variety of grasses to a North America that was a gardener's desert.

"For years, Kurt Bluemel's catalog was so much more extensive than anyone else's that for a lot of people, if you were looking for a book of ornamental grasses, the best thing was his catalog," Darke said.

You couldn't tell from talking to Bluemel. He dismisses his field's propensity for Latin nomenclature. Instead, he sells many grasses with evocative musical names: Allegro, Adagio, Cabaret, Heavy Metal.

Walking through one of his greenhouses, Bluemel bounces as he points out black grasses, striped grasses, a meat-eating grass. Some stand straight up, others dangle lazily. He has brought their seeds from Chile, Germany, Korea, Tajikistan.

As much as a quarter of the year, Bluemel crisscrosses the world with a small group of fellow horticulturalists. They go by the name the Ratzeputz Gang, which is the name of a German liquor whose translation is "total annihilation."

A beefy man with flowing gray hair and a hearty voice, Bluemel wanted to become a diplomat so he could travel the world. His Bavarian stepfather, though, came from a family of horticulturalists, and he uninterestedly chose the field as the course of his schoolboy studies.

It wasn't until an internship in Switzerland, during the 1950s, that Bluemel realized the thrill of watching a bamboo sprout. Two Nobel laureates would visit the Zurich greenhouse where he worked, crawling on the floor to inspect plants.

"I looked at these statesmen and said there's got to be something they're seeing that I'm not," he recalled. He moved to Monkton in 1960 to work at a nursery, and four years later started his nursery and landscape design business.

With Wolfgang Oehme, a landscape architect in Towson, Bluemel helped create a public appetite for grass that wasn't just green, straight and short. Oehme designed gardens that shimmered with grasses Bluemel supplied.

"Nobody knew grasses in this country," Oehme recalled. Because Bluemel grew up in Europe where there was a variety of grasses, "he knew all the grasses, so he started to get them and propagate them."

Bluemel's company -- Kurt Bluemel Inc., a wholesaler -- averages $4 million in annual sales. It has 10,000 customers, including the theme parks in Florida, where he has a 15-acre nursery. His largest nursery, at 190 acres, is in Manokin on the Eastern Shore.

As chairman of the horticultural society, Bluemel offers advice for Americans to be green thumbs. He recommends watering only when it is absolutely necessary, preferably with a nighttime of slow dripping.

And he promotes more exotic gardening.

He says lawns should have flowers and plants along with grass, and gardens should feature a breadth of all three types of botanicals on asymmetric plots of land so every angle offers a different view.

"This is a key to my success," he said. "I want to share the grasses."

"I could have just sat on top of them. That's not what I want to do. I want to spread the gospel of horticulture."

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