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Garden With Color and Flair

A designer brings his sense of style to the garden

Written and produced by Marty Ross
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  • Matthew Benson

    Fearlessness is a fine quality in a gardener. When nature itself is your canvas and creating your own place in it is your main aesthetic purpose, it is good to have a well-developed sense of style and a bold hand with color. John Rufenacht, an interior designer in Kansas City, brought his confidence, experience, and sense of humor to bear when he carved out a clearing in the woods at Evening Place, his weekend home near Clinton, Missouri, which he has owned since 2003. John’s design sensibilities come sparkling through in his garden.

    Although he designs interiors for many clients with large homes, “I love great small spaces,” he says. “We all gravitate to them, to our own little nests.” The designer’s home, a square, three-story stone tower, is the centerpiece of the one-acre property.

    John drew up the plans for the buildings and grounds himself. “I really did it almost like an interior,” he says. The garden is in large part defined by the relationship of the house to the graceful outbuildings. A small structure dedicated to a library of books on plants and design—with a sofa for naps—is John’s favorite place in the summer for its view of the garden through wide-open French doors. A handsome English conservatory anchors one side of the courtyard behind the house. Interesting materials and meticulous craftsmanship make each building a work of art. A stone chapel with stained-glass windows by a Missouri artist is nestled into the trees at the edge of the property. John also added a fantastic, whimsical bright red gypsy wagon, made to order as a luxuriously appointed little guest cottage.

    Red flowers gleam everywhere in the dappled light under tall oaks and hickories. “Red has always been my favorite color, and it’s the only true neutral color,” John says. “I think it goes with literally everything.” Ruffled red mandevilla blooms in a never-ending show in the courtyard, accompanied by flashing trumpets of scarlet amaryllis. John picks up the beat with red-and-white pillows and deftly adds splashes of contrasting yellow here and there.

    The design has more than a touch of formality here in the country, but John is relaxed about it all. He has surrounded himself with comfortable spaces, colorful plants, and furnishings he loves.

    “It has been a real test plot,” he says. He carved out a deep flowerbed on one side of the library, filling it with daylilies, salvias, coneflowers, lilies, and other sun-loving perennials. A rich and varied tapestry of hostas, hellebores, epimediums, and ferns lights up the shade along a path under the trees. John constantly adds new plants to the collection.

    “As an interior designer, of course you are impatient—I’m terribly impatient,” he says. But he enjoys the process of watching his garden grow and change. Trumpet vines now romp across the rustic pergola over the back porch. Old-fashioned hollyhocks come up in different places every year.

    “It would be sad if the garden looked exactly the same year after year,” he admits. Evening Place is named for the idea that each day really begins in the evening, when the cares of one day fade and the possibilities of the next take shape. As the light fades, “You set your heart and mind toward the next day,” John muses. In this beautiful place, the twilight hour is certainly a time to savor.

    Interior designer: John Rufenacht Assoc. Inc., 5013 Wyandotte St., Suite 1 North, Kansas City, MO 64112; 816/561-7795, rufenachtinteriors.com

    Photography: Matthew Benson

    Daybed (discontinued): Restoration Hardware, 800/910-9836, restorationhardware.com.

  • Hearty Pink Mandevillas

    A vigorous mandevilla vine produces ruffled crimson flowers all summer long.

  • Espalier Garden

    The garden is made up of a number of gracefully defined “rooms.” Trained apple trees sketch boundaries of this espalier garden. Red cushions on the benches add vibrant color to the lush garden.

  • Work in Progress

    The pots on the shelves show John’s work on container plantings in the ever-evolving garden.

  • Bright Amaryllis

    A bright red amaryllis proves irresistible to a butterfly.

  • Entry Bridge

    A stone lion guards the approach to the tower.

  • Picturesque Library

    Old-fashioned flowers make a colorful living quilt at the edge of the library.

  • Colorful Shelves

    John’s gardening books are right at hand in the garden’s little library building.

  • Wheel-Like Window

    Birdcages and other collectibles add interest to the library.

  • On the Wing

    A butterfly alights on the grille of John’s vintage car.

  • Lush Hostas Behind the Library

    The shady area behind the library is an ideal spot for growing hostas.

  • Courtyard “Living Room”

    Enclosed on all sides, this area is furnished like a gracious living room. “I don’t know of any garden that is interesting without some sort of structure,” John says. “Within that, you can be as free as you want, but it takes some sort of structure to balance the freedom.”

  • Espaliered apple trees add structure.

  • Courtyard Cabana

    The cabana contributes to the festive atmosphere of the courtyard.

  • Cascading Succulents

    Succulents add texture and pattern.

  • Courtyard Sitting Area

    The symmetry of the twin chairs flanking the table gives a hint of order. 

  • Gypsy Wagon Guesthouse

    Who wouldn’t love to stay in this charming little gypsy wagon fitted out as a guesthouse?

    Gypsy wagon: Ozark Wagon Sales Co., 877/785-8469, ozarkwagonsalescompany.com.

  • Gerbera Daisies

    A pot of Gerbera daisies smiles in the sunlight on the wagon’s porch.

  • Designer and His Dog

    John Rufenacht keeps his ’53 MG at Evening Place. Waldo, his schnauzer, often hops in for a ride.  

  • Fit for a King

    Crowns on the lions bring a smile.

  • Lending a Hand

    Attention to details like this one makes the garden stylish at every turn.

  • Seeing Red

    Shades of scarlet, crimson, and other reds are repeated throughout the garden.

  • E-Place

    John’s license plate refers to the name of his getaway, “Evening Place.”

  • Pretty Pergola

    Terra cotta pots at varying levels give this entry area an almost Tuscan feel.

  • Classic Statuary

    Statuary throughout the garden nods to its underlying classicism.

  • Hanging Lanterns

    Lanterns hung unusually low are charmingly unexpected.

  • White Hydrangea

    White flowers help to tone down the exuberant floral palette.

  • Stone Chapel

    The stone chapel has an air of serenity.

  • Wagon Wheel

    Rusticity befits this rural hideaway.

  • Firefighter

    John’s lively sense of humor is reflected in the treasures that dot the grounds.

  • Garden Details

    Location: Clinton, Missouri, a 19th-century town in western Missouri.

    Conditions: Situated in a clearing in the woods in Zone 6, the garden has heavy clay soil that has been amended with lots of compost. Summers are hot and steamy; winters are cold but not bitter.

    Highlights: Boldly colored perennials, a rich tapestry of shade-loving plants, and a bright red gypsy wagon/guesthouse provide many eye-catching features.

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