Kansas City master gardener Joan Carhart creates an idyllic oasis in her own yard with an impressive array of lush plantings inspired by the grand gardens of England and the sun-drenched rolling hills of Tuscany.
Story by Jeanne de Lathouder | Photography by Matthew Anderson
Some people are born with green thumbs, while others develop their gardening skills through academic study and years of relentless trial and error. But when visitors first step foot into Joan Carhart’s prolific garden, it immediately becomes apparent that her talent stems from the best of both worlds. With the perfect balance of creative vision and well-studied planting expertise, this master gardener has clearly tapped into her true passion and is doing what she was meant to do.
“I entered the K-State Extension Master Gardener program in 2013, one year after we purchased our home,” says Joan. “I have always admired the flower gardens of others but didn’t know how or where to begin creating the look I wanted. I soon realized I had a passion for flowers and that I loved perennials,” she adds.
When Joan and her husband, Ed, first purchased their Leawood home in May of 2012, the landscaping consisted of foundation shrubs, trees, and rose bushes. Over the next two years, the rose bushes in the front berm became diseased, and in their place, she created a perennial bed enhanced with planters, annuals, and groundcovers. In the Summer of 2014, the couple added a back outdoor living space, fire pit, and perennial bed, and created a creek bed to solve a drainage problem. Next, they added all of the plantings along these areas, as well as a privacy fence comprising clematis trellises and giant junipers.
“We live in a maintained villa community, where the home styles are inspired by Old-World Tuscany, with stone and stucco exteriors, paver driveways, and tile roofs,” says Joan. “The lot sizes have a small footprint and limited garden space, and the challenge has always been to creatively make the most of that space,” she notes.
A basic irrigation system was installed by the builder to accommodate the turf and some of the planting beds that contained shrubs and rose bushes. The Carharts have since expanded the system, implementing drip hoses to the planters and urns to help irrigate the perennials, flowering trees, and shrubs they’ve added over the years.
“I’ve always been inspired by the English Gardens we visited during our travels to the UK, the Tuscany countryside during our visits to Italy, and the tropical landscape of Florida where we live during the winter months,” says Joan. “Guided by the knowledge I took away from the EMG classes, our garden has become a blend of all of these styles,” she notes. “I’ve also gotten many ideas from the homes of our friends, the countless trips to local nurseries, gardening magazines—and a bit of my own creativity,” she laughs.
The couple’s gorgeous Mediterranean-style home featuring a semi-circular stone paver driveway framing the front berm, planting beds, and courtyard sets the tone and backdrop for the entire garden. The front berm area is graced with a lush perennial garden that includes stand-out focal points such as a river birch tree and a sumac tree. Other plantings such as burnt orange yarrow, variegated-leaf garden phlox, giant allium, and a mix of stone planters complement the setting and create visual interest.
“I love the cottage garden look of upright garden phlox — their blooms are large and vibrant and last a long time,” says Joan. “The giant allium is a new favorite for me — I love the architectural aspect they bring to the garden,” she notes.
Mounding boxwoods and a crepe myrtle anchor the entrance courtyard, while a lattice stone urn and a variety of round stone planters bring rustic Old-World elegance to this charming space. Meandering rock pathways that are both highly functional and add a unique design element draw attention to different plant varieties on both sides of the home. Well-planned plantings along these paths reflect two different light exposures— shade and partial sun on the north side and full sun on the south side. A sunflower sculpture nestled among a cluster of striking purple loosestrife embellishes the north side path along with clematis trellises and giant junipers that form a privacy fence leading to the patio. Variegated euonymus and mounding boxwoods work to frame this pristine and peaceful area.
Climbing hydrangeas at the south entrance to the patio are trellised along the rear rock bed. A pleasing variety of plantings and creeping groundcovers help to soften the appearance of the rock, as do the assorted sedums at the top of the south side path.
“I like to use sedum groundcovers to create color, texture, and dimension against the soil,” says Joan. “And I hate to weed, so once they are established, they do a great job of choking out the weeds,” she laughs. “I also love all varieties of begonias. They bloom all season and require zero maintenance with respect to deadheading to encourage blooms. I especially favor Dragonfly and varieties that don’t flower but have large, colorful variegated leaves,” she adds.
Aside from the visual beauty that Joan creates throughout her garden, she has also become an expert in understanding soil, sunlight, and moisture requirements of the plants she selects, as well as their space requirements at maturity. She has learned through her years of experience that practice makes perfect and it is essential to know which areas in your garden have the sunlight requirements your plants need to thrive. Another valuable insight she has gained along her EMG journey is that you can easily create a signature style using artful and whimsical containers, urns, and accents strategically placed throughout the garden.
“You can absolutely give a ‘master gardener look’ to your garden by placing planters in key areas around the landscape,” she says. “Incorporate colorful annuals — ones with unusual and bold leaf designs — exotic plants, and shrubs. A garden is never finished, ever-changing, and always evolving. That’s what makes it fun.”