Mediterranean Marvel

Master Gardener's West Coast legacy grows Mediterranean magic.
William & Jill DiMartino

Looking back, Susan Laha suspects her self-assured approach to gardening originated more from naïveté than skill. While it’s been more than two decades since the lifelong gardener first found herself transplanted among the arid extremes and unforgiving soils of Kansas, the California native remembers it well.

“I had the confidence that I could be successful in growing just about anything,” says Susan, who got her start making flower-petal mud pies with her grandmother under California’s perennial sun. “Gardening here seemed like a do-able thing.”

Twenty-five years later, Laha’s Deer Creek garden seems not merely do-able, but divinely delightful—as its inclusion in this month’s Extension Master Gardener Public Garden Tour attests. And while the smart positioning of its hardscapes and zone-appropriate flora result from a meticulous Midwestern plan, its unapologetic, freedom-loving mix of colors and textures teem with Mediterranean magic and West Coast let-it-be attitude.

Here, manicured evergreens meld comfortably with sprawling purple vinca; buttoned-up boxwoods share a lot with a meandering natural spring.

“It’s a balance,” says Susan, of both the cultivated and the spontaneous. “I don’t want to have to nip and snip every week. Sometimes you have to let things be.”

Working on hands and knees with what she calls her “little red wagon” close by—“Who needs a wheelbarrow when you’ve got a Radio Flyer?” she asks—the gardener dispenses kernels of wisdom as she toils among the plants she loves. Save for her physician husband David, the master gardener does all the work in the garden herself.

“That’s why it’s good to install a garden in phases,” she recommends. “Start slow and small, because everything you put in will need to be maintained. That way you can decide if you can keep up with it.”

Susan admits to working an average of eight hours per week in her garden in addition to the time she spends researching cherished plants’ frills and foibles. From her exquisite Japanese maple—“I’m totally in love with it because it holds its red leaf color all season long”—to her cherished Shasta Daisies—“they remind me of camping in California’s Shasta Trinity National Forest,” Susan knows what grows.

But even for Susan, creating a four-seasons garden to weather the plains’ meteorological extremes presented a challenge. Injecting year-round evergreens and varying textures was key. “Fifty percent of your garden should be evergreens,” she says. “And don’t underestimate the importance of hardscapes like fountains, walls, and patios.”

Case in point is the cozy patio enclave Susan created just steps from her home’s front door. Encircled by her trademark bevy of gracefully thin 12-foot evergreens, the patio’s dark-stamped concrete, wrought-iron café table, and tiered ebony fountain exude both European charm and West Coast ease. Purple salvia springs nearby, as do the rabbit-repellent herbs—rosemary, thyme, lavender, and basil—ready for fresh cutting.

Tips From a Master Gardener

Learn First. “Education is important,” says Susan Laha, who was an avid researcher even before she completed her Master Gardener certification. “Knowing the right plant for the right place is key.”

Know Your Zone. School yourself on what grows here. Even small changes in climate can make a big difference. For instance, Mission Hills and The Plaza area are slightly more temperate than south Johnson County.

Front and Formal. Don’t be afraid to create a small garden or patio in the front yard. “The front of your house is a great place to create a more formal garden,” says the gardener.

Essential Evergreens. During a harsh Kansas winter, evergreens are a must. To ensure year-round color, evergreens should make up half of your plan
Consider the View. Create a garden that lookszgood from both outside and inside your home. “The view from inside is what you’ll see most of the time,” Susan points out.

Phase Your Approach. “Start slow and small, because everything you put in will need to be maintained,” reminds Susan. “That way you can decide if you can keep up with it.”

“I wanted the patio to have a Mediterranean feel that matches the style of our home,” says the gardener, who believes home and garden should complement rather than compete.
Into the backyard, hardscapes become softer, with arbors and trellises tamed by free-climbing vines, and bursts of color drawing the eye first here and then there. Soft, Indigo-hued Clematis cling to the rough peeled bark of a river birch, as do bright yellow-greens of a leafy Euonymus. Beneath a shade tree purples abound: vinca minor sprawls horizontally at will, dotted by grape hyacinths sending shots of lavender upward.

One thing you won’t see here is an abundance of perennials.

“They’re really ‘in’ right now, but they bloom for only two to three weeks,” says Susan. “If you want lasting color, annuals are the way to go.”

One of her favorite shrubs?

“Hydrangeas,” says the gardener, who finds her yard dotted with the delicate yet lavish blooms which flourish throughout spring, summer, and fall. “They’re also a winter interest plant,” she adds, “because they retain their seed heads throughout the season.”

Flora that radiate color year-round are also favorites, like the red twig willow that weeps chartreuse fronds during growing season, then reveals emblazoned red branches through the winter. Save for the dark green ivy climbing nearby limestone walls, the gardener follows a rule of (green) thumb: “If it’s not an evergreen, I want it to have color.”

In addition to color, texture plays a starring role in making the garden both visually appealing and low-fuss eclectic. Forgoing a more manicured aesthetic, Susan opted for native stone steps in her backyard, coupled with a stair railing fashioned from rough-hewn sapling trunks. Jagged and knotty, the trunks juxtapose beautifully with the delicately hanging bleeding hearts and sunny Japanese anemone lining the railing.

And yet not all this space’s juxtapositions are planned. Susan’s willingness to follow nature as she finds it resulted in one of the garden’s most unique features: a fresh, natural spring. After digging out a patch of curiously marshy ground, the gardener discovered the spring, then wrung from the mud by unearthing natural wonder and lining its bed with stone.

“I don’t like a lot of fuss,” says the gardener, who demonstrates time and again a knack for pairing form and function to her haven’s aesthetic advantage: even her terraced vegetable garden, blooming with practicality and soon-to-be squashes, kale, peapods, and asparagus shoots, exudes a quiet beauty from its paver-lined beds.

But perhaps nowhere are practical plantings employed to a more stunning coastal effect than in the pool area, where evergreens (yes, evergreens) steal the show.

“We needed to plant something that would minimize leaves and other debris blowing into the pool,” explains Susan, who solved the problem by clustering four groups of 15-foot shaped evergreens along the water’s undulating perimeter. Tall, thin, and strikingly statuesque in their forest-green contrast to the pool’s aqua blue, the Mediterranean-style evergreens are low maintenance crowd-pleasers. “People always notice those,” says the gardener, who injects additional color with flowering pots and pyracantha-adorned grottoes near the water’s edge.

Undoubtedly, guests of the Garden Tour will be noticing the evergreens and more this spring as they traipse through the easy paradise of leaf and color that Susan’s diligent work is creating.

But even as she toils, the master gardener recalls those sun-soaked California days with her grandmother when she first learned how to identify a weed, prune a rose, and appreciate the variety and beauty of nature. What’s the meaning of it all?

“A garden is the antidote to our technology-filled lives,” says Susan. “It’s a gift.”

2012 Extension Master Gardener Public Garden Tour
Friday, May 18 and Saturday, May 19, 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.
Tour six of Kansas City’s best gardens and chat with the experts.
Tickets available at Johnson County Hen House stores.
To learn more, go to

Categories: At Home, Homes & Real Estate