Exotic tropicals mix with traditional Midwest garden plants to weave a tapestry of brilliant color against a background of green in this Mission Woods garden.
At a house where the homeowner loves unusual plants and considers her garden always in need of editing, the gardener’s work is never done. Founder and creative director of The Greensman, Kristopher Dabner, says he’s on constant lookout for unusual plants for this space.
“She’s a very adventurous gardener,” he says. Dabner describes the property as a “compact Johnson County yard,” and when he has an opening—as he recently did when a big azalea died—he and the homeowner seize that as an opportunity for experimentation.
Rather than replace the shrub with another similar one, Dabner found a kerria japonica, also a shrub but with variegated leaves and early yellow blooms.
The traditional Mission Woods home is surrounded by high fencing that conceals the backyard from view, which the homeowner describes as her “secret garden”—denoted by an ornamental rock saying as much.
“It is so private. Private and secluded. It’s really peaceful, and I love that,” the homeowner says.
Dabner and his team have spent eight years creating the peace she so enjoys. He largely accomplished it by staging several vignettes along a flagstone path that he’s wrapped around the house. The “hydrangea walk” is full of blooming shade-lovers, including hydrangeas, hostas, and the more surprising tiger’s eye sumac, which presents as chartreuse in spring but graduates to yellow by summer and orange or red in the fall.
“It really is a garden to wander through and discover different things,” Dabner says. “You’re trying to keep people moving and keep them discovering: What are we going to find next?”
The most functional and well-used of the vignettes is the patio area. A two-level concrete pad just off the house is edged by a Charleston-brick border—a motif that ties the yard and patio spaces together.
Black wrought-iron furniture and five black metal planters ground the spot the homeowners use for socializing. The black planters serve as sturdy bones for dramatic plantings, such as banana trees in warmer weather and ornamental evergreens in the cooler seasons.
Dabner and the homeowner work to coordinate the color palettes of the planters and border gardens with the decorative accessories, including the artisan birdhouses by Kathryn Arnett that pepper the property. A three-tiered concrete fountain just off the patio is surrounded by boxwoods, a formal design element that lends year-round green structure to the space.
But because the homeowner is more drawn to plants with great visual interest than she is to those that serve a structural purpose, Dabner offsets the fountain and boxwood with a purple-leafed Harry Lauder’s walking stick that begins as a deep red in spring.
He also placed a red-twigged dogwood that sports an unusual puckered leaf and a dwarf gingko tree to a focal point in view of the patio.
“I wanted to have something really interesting here that you would notice,” Dabner says.
The homeowner feels just the same. She, too, gathers items that will attract the eye. A few of the yard’s objets d’art are custom-made, such as the iron Kokopelli art piece she found in Scottsdale, Arizona, and antique architectural iron panels that she had made into a table. A statue of a girl reading a book is positioned in one of the shady areas of the garden and serves as an homage to the homeowners’ oldest granddaughter.
The Greensman team works year-round to ensure near constant visual interest both in the oasis of the backyard and near the entry area off of the driveway. Where tulips bloomed in spring along the drive, Dabner set colorful coleus at the start of summer, which he’ll replace with chrysanthemums as soon as the temperature drops.
One of the homeowner’s favorite plantings is near the front door where Dabner has positioned a bed of sedums, succulents, and a few small tropical plants beneath a specimen evergreen. He expects more than half will winter well enough to come back in the spring, firmly establishing the unusual assortment as a long-term feature of this plant collector’s garden.
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