Most people see their gardens as peaceful refuges from the tumult of life. That’s not Brian Kissinger’s view of his Kansas City garden at all. ”I think it is an exciting place,” he says. “There is something happening the time. It’s got a stirring tempo.” Brian, a landscape designer, bought three-quarters of an acre in the heart of old neighborhood of large homes in 1993. There was already a magnificent canopy of mature trees, but it would take eight years for him to plan and plant every last inch of the property. Fond of the luxuriant textures of Southern gardens, he refused to be limited by the cold, dry winters of the area. Fearlessly combining tender tropicals with hardy shrubs. He actually conceived the design for his front yard while gazing out of the leaded-glass windows on the third floor of the house, which was built in 1908. Looking down on the area, he envisioned a formal but exuberantly welcoming garden.

“I tried to create mystery and depth, to make the garden both welcoming and private.” – BRIAN KISSINGER

’Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ southern magnolias frame a view of the front garden. The lines of a low boxwood hedge echo the architecture of the porch, and five kinds of coleus make a tapestry around a honeysuckle fuchsia.

The front yard as seen from a third-floor window was conceived as a grand outdoor parlor.

Winters can be harsh in Kansas City, but the threat of frost is over by early May. Elephant’s ears, tree ferns (in the stone pot, right) and caladiums (in urns) flourish all summer.

“I tried to create mystery and depth, to make the garden both welcoming and private.” – BRIAN KISSINGER

On one side, he picked up the lines of the front porch with a medal- lion of vinca, elegantly cut in at the corners and surrounded by a narrow brick path. A tight boxwood hedge traces the design most of the way around and then takes a couple of swaggering loops, as confident as John Hancock’s signature, on the side closest to the house. Working around a towering old oak on the other side of the front yard, Brian created a carefully structured understory of woody and perennial plants in another, smaller medallion defined by lines of box- wood that vanish into the deep shade. ”I’m a fan of symmetry when it works,” Brian says. When it doesn’t, he shoots for balance. Two aristocratic magnolia trees stand guard on both sides of the iron gates separating the front garden from the public sidewalk, and two more anchor the front corners of the property. Pairs of windmill palms and tree ferns – they spend winters in a greenhouse – line the walk in a stately procession toward the front steps. Evergreens and deciduous trees and shrubs give the garden structure year-round. Masses of hollies, rhododendrons, azaleas, ferns, and hostas fill in the wood- land microcosm under the oak and spread, as if by nature’s hand, along the foundations of the house. It adds up to a lot of plants, but the effect is strongly coherent.

“I wanted to have the feeling of a season that lasted for 10 months of the year.” – BRIAN KISSINGER

It’s only a few steps from a New Orleans – style patio to the side porch, where Brian is relaxing.

Dusty miller and bromeliads grow among loops of boxwood in the front yard.

The backyard’s four gardens include the pond area and the dining terrace which flows into the patio area.

A stream emerges from the woodland plantings and splashes into the pond.

”I had to use layers to work with the scale of the house and the tree,” Brian says. ”I needed things that, in their own form and texture, are as strong emotionally as that tree.” When he took on the backyard, Brian cleared the decks. ”I wanted it to be a party space,” he says, ”but I wanted pockets around the main room, places you could meander off to.” A brick terrace with a red-granite table big enough to seat 12 claims almost half the space. The surfaces are hard, and the scale is imposing, but the mood, especially with the lush plantings all around, is cool and inviting. Beyond the outdoor dining area is a secluded New Orleans – style courtyard, with a classic three-tiered fountain splashing amidst ferns, ivy, and elephant’s ears. The planted square around the fountain has tree-form standard azaleas at the corners, and tree ferns spout up from nearby large pots. Brian tucked dancing white caladiums into the shadows.

On a trip to Seattle, he developed a passion for the plants and the mists of the Northwest, and when he came home, he recreated something of that moist, lush landscape in a corner of his own backyard. He constructed a stream bed of Missouri limestone; covered with mosses and lichens, it appears to have been there forever. Hellebores, dwarf conifers, sedums, and ferns spring up around ancient stumps placed by the landscaper’s artful hand. Subtle shifts of materials and plants create movement and define spaces in the gardens he designs. ”It’s like the edge of the woods,” he says. ”You can see all the best things at the edges.” The idea of working sketches from nature into the confines of a garden has fascinated Brian since he was a student of horticulture at the University of Missouri in Columbia. A favorite professor used to take the class on field trips to the Ozarks. Walking in the mountains, they studied the great variety of trees, the lushness of the under- story, and the way rocks nestled into the landscape. ”We were looking at nature and trying to duplicate the best parts of it in our work,” Brian says.

”There is something magical about copying nature instead of always trying to reshape and control it.” Inspired by that experience, he has created a quiet pond reminiscent of the rock pools found in the mountains. Tidy but easily grown mazus spreads over the bricks on one side of the terrace and leads the eye to the sparkling water. It’s difficult to imagine leaving all this lush beauty and years of effort behind. But Brian recently moved to a new home and new gardening challenges in Phoenix. He’ll doubtless plant a deft, distilled interpretation of a Kansas City garden there in the desert, just to show them how it’s done.

Near the side porch. This area was inspired by the forests of the Ozark Mountains. Hardy water lilies, water canna, sweet flag, and lotus thrive here.

The branches of a young Atlas cedar fall like a delicate curtain across the dry stream bed of lichen-encrusted limestone. Fiery flashes of coleus leaves and crocosmia ’Lucifer’ light up the woods.

A Sawara cypress has found a foothold among the ferns around an old log.

A small angel animates a richly textured tableau of oriental hybrid lilies, dwarf heller hollies, cobweb houseleeks, and a burgundy-leafed sempervivum.


A well-thought-out plan is the most important part of any landscape design, Use your home’s plot plan to make a map (double-check all the measurements). Copy the plan (enlarge it a little, too) and draw your present landscape on it. Use extra copies to sketch out ideas.

Every landscape has strengths and weaknesses, Decide what to keep and what to take out. You may have to be ruthless. Removing overgrown trees and shrubs can be traumatic, but having sketched the look of your new landscape may give you the courage to make the cuts.

Observe traffic patterns in your yard and work with them, It will be difficult or impossible to grow grass where dogs run, under trees, or under the children’s play equipment. Be realistic.

Make sure your proposed planting sites drain well, Dig several test holes and fill them with water; if water stands in the holes 10 to 12 hours, the grade of the yard may need to be changed. This is a job for professionals.

Take the time and trouble to improve the soil before you plant anything. Organic material such as compost improves the soil’s structure and adds nutrients. Send soil samples to your local Extension Office and follow Extension agents’ advice.

Resist the temptation to plan a landscaping project as you wander around a nursery or garden center. Keep your plan in mind, or better yet, in hand.

Many gardeners want more color in their landscape, but remember that green is a color, too. Gray green, olive green, blue green, and deep, forest green look dramatic together, and form sophisticated combinations with fissured or smooth trunks of trees, red holly berries, different shapes and textures of leaves, and the bony branches of deciduous trees in winter.

When you buy plants, ask for advice on their care at the nursery or garden center. Make your own decisions, but follow planting and care directions. A professional landscape architect or garden designer should provide written maintenance instructions.

When designing paths and borders, consider the style of your house. Straight lines are very formal. Symmetry is formal. Curves are almost always more relaxed.

If you have a large yard and want to landscape it yourself, phase in the work, Assign priorities and work on one phase at a time.