Garden Tour: The Art of Change

Hosta and groundcover with bell jar by garden path
A lush, ever-evolving garden in Kansas City combines classic garden furniture and modern architectural elements.

When a tree fell in Constance and Ray Beagle's front yard in Kansas City, they replaced it with a dance floor of sorts. Now instead of the dappled shade of an old oak outside their front door, the Beagles have a weathered brick patio on which 24 neatly trimmed boxwood globes seem to swirl in a beautifully choreographed shrubbery ballet.

The Beagles never lament the loss of the old oak, or worry much about any other such calamities that befall their garden. They turn the problems into opportunities. When another big tree died in the backyard, they planted four linden trees in a tight square to define the corners of a cozy garden room. When a long section of fence blew down in a storm, they installed a lively mixed hedge that provides privacy and expands their planting repertoire. "A lot of things in your garden just happen because you were forced into it," Constance says. "You respond to things."

Constance and Ray's house, a tidy gray saltbox built in 1965, is nestled into an older neighborhood in the heart of Kansas City. During the 31 years the Beagles have lived here, the landscape has evolved steadily from mostly lawn into a densely planted collector's garden. "I fall in love with certain things," Constance says. "And when you find things that really work, you want more of them."

One of those things is the antique wire planter shown here. It is painted to match the cast aluminum furniture and holds plants with gray-green and chartreuse foliage.

The dancing boxwoods came about in 1999 through collaboration with garden designer Kristopher Dabner, shown here confering with Constance. "We toyed with lots of ideas to make the front yard conform with the style of the house," Constance says. "We thought about Colonial Williamsburg gardens and went through books, but we couldn't hit on it." They extended an existing brick walkway into a large, oval patio, and Dabner brought over 10 boxwoods. "We wanted something playful," he says, "and we started playing around with the grid and the spacing."

By the time they were done, they had planted two dozen boxwoods among the bricks. From one angle, the evergreen globes of clipped 'Green Velvet' can be seen to form a pattern; from another, they look as though they were simply rolled out onto the patio, like big billiard balls. It's a wonderful minimalist parterre and a delightful complement to the house. "It's like a traditional garden, with a contemporary twist," Dabner says. "It has traditional elements put together in untraditional ways."

The Beagles' eclectic approach is also evident in the confidence with which Constance has employed strikingly fresh architectural features in the garden. A bluestone walk along one side of the house passes through a soft-yellow gate built in an airy open grid and framed by a tall white trellis. The gate opens temptingly into the shady backyard.

Constance likes unusual plants and has experimented successfully with many varieties that are not well known. The backyard is full of viburnums, witch hazels, hydrangeas of all kinds, fothergillas, and other interesting shrubs. Star magnolias, Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus), dogwoods, and a white fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) are planted on either side of another bluestone path that cuts through the sophisticated woodland.

A brick patio at the back of the house is furnished with cast aluminum furniture. Over the years, Constance and Ray have collected dining tables, chairs, love seats, and side tables in the old "rose and lyre" pattern made in the early 20th century by a foundry in St. Joseph, Missouri. The furniture is powdercoated sage green, so it will not compete with the garden around it, and the pieces are arranged with ease and grace.

Most of the furniture is placed under the four little-leaf linden trees (Tilia cordata), which are now almost 10 years old. Their crowns are kept pruned in tidy cubes; they have to be cut two or three times a year to prevent their canopies from growing together.

Along one side of the backyard, large white trelliswork columns, their design borrowed from the trellis around the garden gate, are set at 8-foot intervals, like great modernistic fence posts. The white towers establish a stately rhythm along the property line. Weeping Norway spruce, serviceberry, Amur maples, and other small trees and shrubs fill the spaces between the columns, creating a richly textured living fence.

Constance finds inspiration in books and magazines, on garden tours, and in the course of her travels. "You just take bits and pieces of ideas from all over," she says. "Some things that you try in your own garden won't work because they belong in somebody else's garden. This place is just things that we like, and that fit in this space."

In addition to their antiques, the Beagles enjoy modern art and architecture. The patio just outside the kitchen, shown here, is furnished with a table and chairs designed by noted artist Harry Bertoia in the 1940s. Ray and Constance once saw a wren fly right through the round hole in the gate.

Constance walks through the garden daily, plucking off spent flowers or pruning the shrubs lightly. When Dabner's landscaping crew comes to plant or mulch, she works alongside them, grooming plants and clipping boxwoods. "The garden changes all the time," she says. "It is a work in progress -- gardens always are. But it gets better all the time."

Wildlife needs water as much as food and shelter, so the Beagles provide it with this birdbath nestled among the plants bordering the back patio. Its somber tone emphasizes the decorative design, and helps the birdbath blend into the landscape.

A sumptuous 'Sum and Substance' hosta shades a bell jar that protects a young seedling in a shady area. The contrasting plants in front of the hosta are another shade-lover, coleus.

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