Ask a designer: Six questions for Mission Hills landscape architect Joann Schwarberg

Naturalist John Muir once said “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

That sentiment is shared by Mission Hills-based landscape architect Joann Schwarberg, who takes a high-end and holistic approach to connect people with the great outdoors. To see more photos of her work, go to

Kansas City Spaces: What does a landscape architect do?

Joann Schwarberg: We design exterior spaces based on the desires of the client and the impact on the environment. The first step on any project is to complete an ecological assessment. That includes soil health, watershed management, important habitat for animals, and significant plantings. Then we move in to master plan design and construction documents. Those usually include a layout plan, grading and drainage, irrigation, planting, lighting, structural details and material selection.

KCS: How do you blend luxurious hardscape settings and lush living material?

JS: That’s the design side of what a landscape architect does. We design beautiful spaces for human beings to be outdoors, whether that’s a municipal setting for 10,000 people a day or a Japanese tea garden for one person to sit and contemplate. Humans are attracted to both physical security and visual beauty, so I incorporate a variety of spaces, materials and design features to accomplish both. The design process is really the practice of listening to the client and being the conduit through which they match their vision and dream with what the land can provide.

KCS: What are some of your favorite plants to use?

JS: The backbone of any landscape includes trees, evergreens and woody shrubs. After developing visual structure with those, I bring in flowering shrubs and perennials at strategic locations. My favorites always include blooms of some sort for a visual feast. Native species are becoming more and more important, or rather, they always were important, but we just now understand the degree. I also incorporate edible species into my planting plans. Why not get floral beauty, structure and food?

KCS: What are the best features to include in an outdoor living space?

JS: The most requested is a fire feature of some type, such as a traditional fireplace, fire table, fire pit or fire bowl. Fire creates such a warm glow, and it compels people to gather around. But placement is key. Form and shape of a space is the first priority on any design scheme, and you develop that by using both hard- and softscape. Hardscape (stone, wood, metal) is the perfect heavy base material for grounding a space. Then the plants, furnishings and textiles can add softness and comfort. I am a complete stone geek, because each type and piece of stone represents the earth forces, and the history of its place of origin. You can see the sea life and minerals in the patterns and texture of our local limestone.

KCS: What is the purpose of most of your clients’ outdoor spaces?

JS: Relaxation and beauty are first. The space must be stunning and satisfying or clients would feel that their expenditures were wasted. But along with the aesthetic value, client satisfaction depends on the logical function of the design, which is oftentimes hidden but still as important as the visual. These logistics areas include circulation patterns, wind and sun patterns, noise, positive and negative influences of features on neighboring property and, of course, water control. You want rain water to be conserved and stay on the site but not stand in the wrong places.

KCS: You recently tried something unique in your own backyard: Patagonian-style, open-flame cooking like Argentine celebrity chef Francis Mallmann. Tell us about that experience.

JS: It was trial by fire, in every sense. There are 17 of us (in The Hills Cookbook Club) who explore food through the repertoires and recipes of famous chefs. I hosted the Francis Mallmann dinner because he is so out-of-the-box. We created open fire pits and racks for all of us to cook at one time. My friend, stonemason Tom Gomerdinger, welded a series of racks for grilling and suspending chickens over the flames, and Kimi Nelson, our founder, had another welder do an amazing adjustable rack for a full butterflied lamb. We had the fires going for five hours before we even started cooking, just to get the temperature right. To launch our evening, we always create a signature cocktail around the selected chef, so we did a riff on a Manhattan and called it The Argentine Rogue, complete with flame-grilled brandied cherries. You can see our three years of crazy exploration and recipes at