A World In Itself

Kate & Ben Frey’s Garden, Hopland, California
by Kate Frey
Spring 2015

As I write in late spring a sweep of deep blue/purple and raspberry native penstemons laps against a froth of blue catmint. Pale orange desert mallows, orange bearded iris, California poppies, and the small, pinked edge bright yellow daisies of tidy tips provide contrast with upright form, warm color tones and finely cut flower shapes against the softness of the massed catmint and penstemons. Tissue-like white evening primrose pose elegantly against the miniature deep purple canterbury bells of Phacelia minor. In the background crimson Salvia darcyi revs its engines in front of the muscular deep burgundy stems of bushy manzanitas, their pale gray leaves scalloped against the afternoon sun.

The air is perfumed by sumptuous old-fashioned roses in shades of pink, apricot and raspberry stationed around the vegetable garden along with purple Salvia ‘Ultra Violet’ and deep red Salvia flowers amidst the shimmering bronze seedheads of Stipa gigantea. The lose profuseness of the flowers is a soft counterpart to the measured rows of the vegetable garden. Chard, kales, broccoli, tomatoes, basil, eggplant, beans, onions march in orderly lines down rows interrupted by wildflowers.

Against the house the peonies are just finishing blooming, and more orange and deep purple is expressed with geum, red hot pokers and campanulas, joined by the crimson rose ‘Don Juan’ climbing on the house.

Around the perimeter of the three-quarter–acre site are the soft forms of many trees and shrubs waving in the breeze and creating a complete sanctuary from the road running the length of the property and the row of five houses behind.

And everywhere, all season long is the sight and sound of bees, butterflies and birds. Each plant, besides some of the very double roses, offers floral resources to a variety of native bees, honey bees and butterflies. Each bloom has numerous flower visitors. Honey bees, the heavy forms of queen bumble bees, smaller worker bumblebees, blue orchard mason bees, green sweat bees, carpenter bees of all sizes, and many small bees are incessantly busy. Birds are nesting everywhere, and their song hides the background noise of the road not far away.

I think of gardens as an intersection of nature and horticulture, where each plant should express a connection with the sites soils and climate, but especially the insects and birds that live locally or migrate through. The inherent beauty of the forms of the plants, the floral resources of the flowers, and the insects and birds that visit them are paramount in my concept of design. In our gardens, and all the gardens that I design, the goals are to appear as if they happened without human intention, yet address our needs and desires for a transformative and relaxing space. Our aim is for gardens to be experiential and participatory, and leave a lasting impression about the specifics of place through smell of flowers and resinous foliage, taste of herbs or fruits, the interaction of foliage, flowers and form with light and sky, and be filled with a profusion of flowers and the perpetual motion of insects and birds.

I used to look at the composition of color or form as the criteria of garden design, now I look at what is visiting the flowers as an estimate of success, as well as the adaptation of the plants to the site, climate and soils. Developing healthy soils is a key element in the success of a garden. Designing for drought in our climate is as well.

My husband, Ben Frey, and I created three gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show in London in 2003, 2005 and 2007. We are the only American designers to win a Silver-Gilt medal and two Gold medals. Our gardens showcased the vitality of organic viticulture in California and the possibilities for such vitality in horticulture. All the gardens were composed of wildflowers, agricultural plants and plants that support insects and birds beneficial to agriculture. Above all, our gardens at Chelsea communicated happiness. We watched 157,000 people’s faces light up and smile at the bright wildflower meadows of color that attracted many insects, the softness of form, curving lines and rustic structures that Ben designed and built.

As transporting and life filled as our garden is, anchored by our California-style Swiss chalet house, and structured by rustic arbors, greenhouse, chicken coop and gates that Ben built from resuscitated wood, all must function in the dry, hot summer climate, current drought, and impoverished native soils. We have no lawn, no impermeable paving, the planted areas are mulched yearly with compost and our paths are woodchipped. The whole garden is watered by drip irrigation on automatic timers for measured and regular amounts of water. Some 90% of plants are very drought resistant and all thrive in the summer heat.

Gardens should be expressions of place. We hope that each visitor to our garden connects with the inherent beauty of the plants and their associated floral visitors, and goes home to create their own.

Kate Frey has co-written a book on bee-friendly gardening with Gretchen LeBuhn, a professor at San Francisco State University, published in February 2016 by 10 Speed Press of Emeryville, California. More information here.