Saturday, August 13, 2022

Ohme Gardens

Steep topography in the gardens overlooking the Columbia River

One of the Twin Pools when the pink Phlox bloom in Spring in the 1970's

This is an essay about a very special garden in Central Washington that I have only visited twice, but which holds a special place in my heart because I grew up in the Pacific Northwest.  

A map and aerial photograph of Ohme Gardens

After I had graduated from college, I began to collect a library of books about gardens, architecture, art and travel.  One of the first photo laden books I purchased, published in 1990 was Gardening America, by Ogden Tanner.  The first image in the book is of a lush green alpine mountain meadow strewn with boulders and splashes of radiant pink creeping phlox.  It is a photo of Wenatchee, Washington's Ohme Gardens, a family's laborious interpretation of idyllic landscapes found in the nearby Cascade Mountains to the west.

Ohme is unique among gardens in the United States as it was created to emulate the experience of hiking in an alpine mountain landscape.  Stone trails lace the hillsides, leading to enchanted waterfalls, ponds, flowery meadows, and dramatic viewpoints overlooking the Columbia River Valley.  

The Sylvan Pool was originally built as a swimming pool for the Ohme family and friends

Eastern Washington is high desert country.  Between 17 and 14 million years ago, a series of basaltic lava flows covered 63,200 square miles of the Pacific Northwest from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean.  Then during the Late Ice Age catastrophic inundations of water reshaped the surface of the region, erasing previous surface features.  The mighty Columbia River carves a route 1,243 miles long from British Columbia in Canada to the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon.  The river is unlike others as a the sections passing through Washington and along the Oregon border were scoured by as many as 40 or more catastrophic floods that occurred during the late Ice Age about 20,000 years ago.  An advancing ice sheet would block the course of the Columbia River, and another on the Clark Fork River in what is now Montana, forming a lake the size of Lake Michigan in the Great Lakes before breeching and sending forth an unfathomable torrent of water hundreds of feet deep, tearing at everything in its path.

Dry Falls is a 3 1/2 mile wide precipice with 4 alcoves formed by a series of catastrophic Ice Age floods with a volume estimated to be 10 times that of all the rivers flowing on Earth today.

The resulting steep walled canyons, scablands, dry waterfalls, and giant rock eddy's in the Columbia River basin confused geologists about their origins for decades until a geologist by the name of J Harlan Bretz hypothesized that catastrophic floods were responsible.  The academic community rejected his claims as contrary to accepted geologic theory but over time his ideas were validated.  Aerial surveys clearly reveal the path of the great deluges, called the Missoula Floods.

An early photo of a path with expansive views of the Columbia River and apple orchards below

Wind blown glacial sediments later formed south facing dunes that today are prime areas for growing apples and other orchard fruits.  Wenatchee is the self proclaimed 'Apple Capitol of the World'.

Apple blossom time

Around the time that geologist J Harlan Bretz began studying the region in 1910, a man named Herman Ohme moved from the flat plains of Illinois to Wenatchee.  He started out logging, which introduced him to the beauty of the snowcapped Cascade Mountains towering over the Western horizon.  Its apparent that Mr. Ohme had a love of nature that made logging an unappealing form of employment.  The region is utterly spectacular, with glaciated granite and basalt peaks and sculpted lake basins.  The Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which runs from Snoqualmie Pass in the south to Stevens Pass in the north contains some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes I have ever seen.  There is a reason that the most dramatic lake basin south of Stevens Pass is called the Enchantments.  

Snow Lake, north of Snoqualmie Pass 

In 1929 Mr. Ohme purchased 40 acres of land on a dry, sagebrush covered bluff overlooking the river valley with the plan of starting an apple orchard.  In 1930 Herman married Ruth Orcutt, who was born and raised in the Wenatchee region.    They planted apples on the lower slopes of the property, and after a long days work would often climb up to the top of the hill to take in the sweeping views of the orchard filled valley and the soaring Cascades in the distance.  Eventually an area was leveled and rows of poplars and black locust trees and a lawn were planted.  This was the beginning of the Great Depression and no bank loans were available for building a house so everything was done at minimal expense.  

Herman and Ruth Ohme

The landscape of Burch Mountain adjacent to Ohme Gardens in it's original state as dry sagebrush covered slopes

The Wenatchee River

Their love of the mountains motivated them to begin a laborious 40 year journey to create an alpine paradise of their own remeniscent of the nearby mountains.  The property features dramatic natural rock formations and cliff hanging promentories.  The couple would drive up in the Cascades in their Studebaker Coupe on the weekends and fill the rumble seat and running boards with seedlings of native Alpine Firs, Douglas firs, and Cedars, as well as native shrubs and ferns.  They had to haul 5 gallon milk cans to the top of the hill to hand water the new plants.  Soon they were transporting water in a large tank in a truck, and eventually installed an 800 foot pipeline to run sprinklers in the young garden.   There was no plan to begin with, just lots of trees planted here and there, but brutal hard work fueled by ambition led to the beginnings of an alpine landscape on the mountain slopes.  Having no training in landscape design or horticulture, they worked intuitively, inspired by what they had seen in the Cascade range.  They succeeded in creating a convincingly natural landscape unlike any other I have ever seen. 

Mass plantings of Alpine Fir, Abies lasiocarpa have reached mature heights

When you hike in the mountains it's often to reach a lake.  At the base of a large rock outcropping Herman used a mule drawn drag bucket to excavate what would become the Sylvan swimming pool.  Going laboriously back and forth, the soil was removed down to the underlying bedrock.  He then he lined the pool with concrete mixed by hand to seal it.  As a stone mason I can fathom the amount of labor that went in to this project.  Water was eventually piped to the top of the outcropping to cascade in a small waterfall down its face.  What a wonderful swimming pool!

The waterfall at the Sylvan Pool

Stone paths were installed around two sides of the pool using flat stones collected from an area near the Columbia River.  This area was later flooded by the Rocky Reach dam, forcing them to find other sources for stone.  Herman and Ruth would carry the stones on a retrofitted stretcher with holes cut in it so the person at the rear could see what they were walking on.  Larger ones were dragged on a sled pulled by a mule.  

I am guessing that this huge, beautiful slab ended up here and was impossible to move again.

An early view of the Sylvan Pool

The Sylvan Pool today

Herman experimented for 20 years with paint attempting to capture the color of the water in alpine lakes.  Goldfish were added and there are many to be seen swimming about today.  He built a canoe to paddle around his family alpine lake, and a bathhouse changing room for swimmers.

Goldfish in the Sylvan Pool

Walls were built with stone moved to create areas for gardens and lawns.  Over time hundreds of tons of rock were transported and placed by hand.  Slabs were split with sledge hammers and wedges, and once unloaded they were shifted in to place using a crow bar.  Paths and steps built with flat stones were arranged to emulate naturalistic trails seen in the mountains and rougher stones were used for walls and to create naturalistic planting areas.

Native Lady Ferns, Athyrium felix femina growing along a moist section of pathway

Ruth soon gave birth to two sons, Calvin in 1931 and Gordon in 1934.  Gordon inherited his parents passion for building in the garden and was carrying stones at an early age.  He and his children would dedicate their lives to continuing work to build what you see today.  After the Sylvan pool and pool house were finished, a fireplace was constructed against a rock outcrop.

The fireplace is a remarkable construction that beautifully blends the natural and man made.  The lintel is about 6 feet long and a large oval specimen of quartzite was placed in the center of the chimney.  The arrangement of stones if very organic but also alludes the to work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, workers camps during the Great Depression who built rustic structures in parks and planted millions of trees.  Originally the fireplace was fronted by a lawn where the family would gather to roast hotdogs and marshmallows.  Trees have grown to great size around it so that it can no longer be used for fires, but until then it was a gathering place for the family after hard days moving stone.

The fireplace in the early 1930's

The fireplace now

Herman then built the Ox Yoke Lodge, named for a hand hewn Ox yoke hanging the the center gable.  Logs were hauled from the mountains to build the columns and walls that were chinked with lichen to seal the gaps.

The roof and siding was made from strips of cedar bark as there was no money to purchase building materials.  

The Ox Yoke hanging from the front gable

The lodge was furnished with hand made tables using electric cable spools and hand carved log chairs, warmed by a stone fireplace, creating a family gathering place on rainy days.  The structure has been preserved in its original state but is closed because of collapsed logs in the walls and sagging sections of cedar bark in the roof.

Furniture in the Ox Yoke Lodge

Next came the construction of the Wishing Well in a steep area below where the Vista House would later be built.  Water trickles down a vertical rock outcrop in to a round pool.  A cedar tree has grown to envelope one side of the pool.  There is an intimate feel to this destination along a meandering path and steps.  Coins collected from the well were originally donated to the Children's Orthopedic Hospital.

The Wishing Well Pool

Friends of the family would come up to enjoy the gardens and swim in the Sylvan pool.  Eventually word spread of this wonderful green sanctuary on the otherwise barren hillside and visitors started to come in larger numbers.  In 1939 the local newspaper published an article with photographs and people started to come in greater and greater numbers.  Herman eventually conceded to open the gardens to the public and charged 25 cents a carload to keep the gardens from being overrun.  But people would drive to the base of the hill and then cram themselves in to a single vehicle for the final leg to save money.  Eventually there were so many visitors that Herman leased the apple orchard so that the family could dedicate itself full time to the gardens.  

The gardens in 1939

Family and friends would still swim in the Sylvan pool but would have to hide behind trees when visitors came along so that they wouldn't be encouraged to hop in as well.

The next structure to be constructed in the gardens was the Totem Lodge, dating from the 1940's.  Built using fantastically burled logs for columns, the cedar bark roofed structure has a rock fireplace and blue stained plank walls.  Structurally it is much better condition than the Ox Yoke Lodge.  Round tables and hand carved log chairs were used for picnics, which are no longer allowed in the gardens. The lower lawn is surrounded by low beds of creeping phlox, ajuga and other ground hugging plants to replicate alpine meadows.  My Grandparents lived in Bend and had an immaculately tended garden and lawn.  In the high desert well tended bright green lawns are a trademark oasis of region to contrast the dry native scrub.

Burl log columns in the Totem Pole Lodge

Blue stained plank walls and rustic furniture in the Totem Pole Lodge

Herman kneeling by an inscribed poem about the garden written by Bertha Whitley Graham

Vinca minor, Ajuga reptans, and Cotoneaster horizontals along a rustic path

The gardens were continuously developed and expanded, with new paths and plantings using native plants and non natives that were available at the time which were propagated on site.  Alpine meadows are planted with a variety of plants collected by the Ohme's, including creeping phlox, sedums and thyme, hardy geraniums, ajuga, and native Lewisia tweedyi that sprouts from rock crevices like they do in nature.

Creeping thyme, Ajuga, and Mahonia nervosa

Armeria maritima, Sea Thrift growing in a moist rock outcrop

Native Lewisia tweedii

The paths themselves are some of the masterpieces of the garden.  Each one is different in character, crossing meadows, winding along steep cliffs and leading to grand viewpoints.  The growth of the trees has changed the character of the landscape so that many of the paths lead through wooded areas now.  There are small lawns and many stone slab benches to rest and take in the views.

An alpine meadow path

A path crossing the Hook Lawn

A forest path

One of my favorite paths comes to a rock outcrop and like a steep trail in the mountains you have to climb using your hands to get to the top of the slope.

Climbing a steep path

Wandering the extensive path system is a journey of discovery

Large stones were hauled on a stretcher or by a sled pulled by a mule to create the many sets of steps that navigate the steep slopes

Gordon Ohme and his son Brian carrying stones on a stretcher

Paths were laid without the use of a plan.  Stones were placed to fit the topography to feel like mountain trails.  They were hand swept for many years until the advent of backpack blowers.

Cactus Point used to display a collection of potted cacti that were brought out in the Summer.  They were overwintered in the old house but were lost in a fire.

Steps are not always even, to feel more natural

Steep slopes are navigated by laboriously engineered paths that now have railings for safety

The paths can feel like trails in the wilderness

A path leading to Hidden Pool

In the early 1950's, Herman's and Ruth's youngest son Gordon built the Hidden Pool at the bottom edge of the garden.  He inherited his father's intuitive skill at design, and was quoted saying "It gives me a creative outlet.  To build something that brings enjoyment to other people is very satisfying."  A tractor was used to excavate the pool, the first piece of machinery used for construction in the garden.  The steep slope made it impossible for a cement mixer truck to access the pool so the concrete had to be wheelbarrowed by hand to the site.  A dramatic stone outcrop at the edge of the pool can be climbed via sets of winding stone steps  to a dramatic view over the city of Wenatchee.

The Hidden Pool in the early 1950's

Path around the edge of the Hidden Pool

Waterfall at the Hidden Pool

The gardens were meticulously maintained, 7 days a week.  Paths were swept by hand, the expansive beds were laboriously watered using hoses and sprinklers until the 1960's when Gordon took on the considerable task of installing a sprinkler system with 140 impact sprinklers ingeniously hidden on high points in the garden to reach the expansive garden beds.  This relieved him of the task of having to get up in the middle of the night to move and roll up hoses as all watering was done after the gardens closed.

Hidden Pool seen from the stone outcrop

In 1965 Gordon and his wife Carol took over management from his aging parents.  Gordon continued to expand and develop the gardens, expanding them from the 4 acres Herman and Ruth developed to the 9 acres that the gardens cover today.   

The Hidden Pool

Gordon built the Twin Pools in the 1970's using a Caterpillar Tractor borrowed from a neighbor to excavate them.  A cement truck was able to access this area making the construction considerably easier.  A stream was built that connected them to the Sylvan Pool, which continued down the slope to the Hidden Pool. 

Pouring concrete for the Twin Pools

Enchantment Falls cascade down a rocky face in to one of the Twin Pools

A naturalistic stream flows in to one of the Twin Pools

This is a natural stream in Mt. Rainier National Park

One of the most impressive features of the garden are the more than 50 rock benches that were built to rest and contemplate the views along the more than a mile of stone paths.  

A rock bench makes a pleasant place to sit and admire Hidden Pool

Large stone slabs were built in to stone outcrops to create natural looking resting spots along the paths

A large bench with a sloped back takes in the view of the Hidden Pool

A piece of Petrified wood tree trunk makes an attractive arm rest

I love these benches built in to stone outcrops

A shady nook

Another enchanted place to sit

Herman was always looking for new features to add to the gardens.  This stone table was built in the 1940's.  The original slab cracked when it was being installed.  A group of Eagle Scouts recently built a jumbled looking waterfall adjacent to this area that could use some remodeling to make it more in fitting with the standard of the work done by the Ohme family.

The Stone Table

A waterfall adjacent to the Stone Table

Weddings have been held in the gardens since the 1940's and steps leading down the slope to the Entrance Lawn are called the Wedding Path, where brides traditionally process to the ceremony.

The Wedding Path

A path leading to the high point

Herman had one unfulfilled fantasy, to build a Medieval Castle on the highest point on the property.  He wished that a millionaire would come along and finance its construction since he lacked the funds to do so himself.  In the end he built a humble wooden Vista House on the promontory in the style of a lookout.

The current Vista House

The original log Vista House, built in the 1930's

Gordon rebuilt the Vista House using stone and logs in the 1970's.

The current Vista House

The view from the Vista House

Today the magnificent views from the gardens are sullied by the huge agricultural warehouses that have replaced the orchards and riparian landscapes of the Columbia River with pavement a expansive roofs.

An photo from a 1960 article in Look Magazine with a view of the Columbia River

The gardens came to the attention of the wider public in the 1960's with the publication of articles in popular magazines such as Life, Good Housekeeping, Look, Women's Day, Holiday, and Better Homes and Gardens, along with a number of books like Gardening America.  Visitor numbers climbed as a result to 30,000 annually.  The old wind break of poplar and black locust trees were cut down and replaced with conifers and the parking lot was expanded.  In 1965 Herman and Ruth sold the garden to Gordon and Carol for $60,000.  That same year the Washington State Arts Commission gave the family a State Beautification award.  Herman Ohme passed away in 1970 at the age of 81.  10 years later the family negotiated the sale of the gardens to the State of Washington, and Chelan County later took over management as a county park.  Ruth continued to work a few hours a day at the ticket booth late in to her life.  Gordon passed away on October 15th, my birthday, in 1993 at the young age of 53.  Ruth passed away in 1997 at the age of 86.

Gordon, Ruth, and Herman Ohme taking a break on a rustic bench by the Sylvan Pool

An man made alpine paradise

Today the gardens remain a popular wedding venue, and hosts concerts, yoga sessions, outdoor movies, and Gnome and Fairy hunts for children.  The garden is maintained by a hard working staff and volunteers.  My last visit was during the height of the Covid pandemic.  I spoke to a maintenance worker who was busy weeding.  She told me that the garden had been closed for a while prior and the renovation of large planting beds was undertaken at that time.

Pieces of glacially striated stone brought to the gardens

The Top Pool undergoing restoration

Ohme Gardens is open to the public from April 15th to October 15th, 7 days a week.  Adult admission is $8.  The gardens website is

A wood carving of Ruth Ohme carrying a bucket of water

The parking lot has an adjacent picnic area outside the gardens and an entrance ticket window

Gardens that take 40 years to build, especially those built by hand with a fresh and unique vision inspired by Nature are a rare and extraordinary occurrence in the United States.  I know first hand as a garden builder and a person who has spent nearly that long working with stone how difficult that labor can be.  It requires extraordinary perseverance and strength that is often born out of necessity because the material is heavy, challenging to transport, and takes natural and acquired skill to do well, especially on steep inaccessible terrain.  There are recent renovations that have happened in the garden that I don't believe meet the standards that the Ohme family would approve of, but there really aren't that many great stonemasons available and few opportunities for people to learn the craft.  I shouldn't be too critical though.

A new path leading to nowhere is made of a exotic sparkly quartzite commonly available in stone yards that doesn't match the native stone used by the Ohme family.

It takes patience and drive and endurance.  I was so impressed the first time I visited Ohme Gardens by the way they translated the inspiration of the Washington Cascade mountain landscapes in to a much drier environment, working with the topography of the magnificent site.  

Basket of Gold, Aurinia saxitilis is an old fashioned trailing garden plant used well on this rock outcrop

I am always absorbing what I see in my travels, observing how things are built and composed and studying the motivation behind design concepts.  I utilize those things that inspire me the most in my own work, Nature being the foremost of those inspirations.  I have a fond affinity to the masterpiece that the Ohme family manifested on 9 acres of challenging terrain overlooking the city of Wenatchee.

A path I built using native Schist at Camp Glenorchy on the South Island of New Zealand

A recent patio project using Bluestone imported from the East Coast and modifying an old existing retaining wall.

Thank you for reading, Jeffrey

Goldfish in the Sylvan Pond

A post card view of the gardens from the dry slope below