The garden in front of in Mary Frost's bungalow. April 28, 2011.

Little oasis

Mary Frost's garden is not large. It's a wedge of greenery and contrasting textures and colors, unfurling on that narrow cusp between the porch of her 1920s cottage and the street.

It's a mix of her careful selections, including a few mistakes, some heirlooms left from previous generations of gardeners and a little bit of what nature brought and allows to stay.

It's lovely, it's authentic and it sends an inspiring message to anyone who ever went on a home and garden tour just to ogle and dream.

Frost's little front yard garden and colorful bungalow, a bright article of faith and possibility amid Santa Rosa's proud but economically challenged Roseland area, is one of the featured stops on today's 20th Annual Garden Tour, put on by the Sonoma County Medical Association Alliance Foundation.

It is an endearing counterpoint to the headliner on the tour - the showstopping grounds of the newly restored McDonald Mansion, for generations Santa Rosa's most envied address. Tour-goers can enter a lavishly refurbished fantasy of old-world gentry at the mansion. When they reach Frost's cottage on the other side of the tracks, they won't be let down.

She has made the absolute most out of the space she has - yard space she also must share with her husband, Jack Frost, a concrete contractor who collects classic cars. Tour-goers will not only be able to visit Mary's gardens, but see his vintage trucks, decked out in zingy colors.

You'd think it would be a terrible clash, but the pair have made it work.

"The (tour) committee liked the fact that when we moved here we separated the property right away. From the garage back is his and from the garage forward is mine. The committee thought that was so funny they wanted me to put a sign on the fence - &‘his and hers' - with arrows," she says with a laugh.

Frost is a "gardening tutor," who works hands-on helping timid, time-constrained or overwhelmed homeowners come up with a maintenance plan or design that works for them and makes them happy. It's a job she invented after work-related injuries to her arms made it impossible for her to continue her occupation as a deep-tissue massage therapist.

She helps her clients choose their own plants, so "they feel a connection to the plant and want to take care of it."

But she began her own garden, which she uses as a demonstration area for clients, some 15 years before, when she and Jack bought the 900-square-foot fixer for $115,000, fulfilling what seemed like the unattainable dream of owning a home.

Their first task was to clean out the old - shrubs, hedges and Bermuda grass choking their 1/3-acre lot. Although she would later get her associate's degree in landscape management from Santa Rosa Junior College, at the time she was a neophyte, determined only to create a secret tranquility garden for massage clients in front of her little studio.

"I was just having fun throwing plants in and seeing what thrives," she remembers.

She has some regrets. Jack was zealous with his chainsaw on an ancient fig that was in the way of the fence. It eventually died and was replaced with a persimmon. And she wishes she had not removed an amazing but thorny Pyracantha on the other side of the house by her greenhouse.

"I didn't appreciate what we had at the time. If you have inherited a garden and you're not a gardener, have a professional come in and tell you what you've got," she advises. "Go slow and wait a year. There are things that are dormant and things that are going to pop up that you might love."

She offers up her largely hand-watered garden, with all its modest beauty, as both a lesson in how to do things and how not to do things. Some of her own mistakes she lives with because there are still things about them she loves. Like the magnolia that is too close to the house but is gorgeous and the two Deodara cedars, one weeping, one prostrate, that she likes but finds too similar for the same garden view.

She and Jack changed the face of the little house, adding terra cotta tinted concrete paths through the plantings so as to be accessible to any visitors in a wheelchair. And Jack built a large porch inset with deep blue tiles where she can sit and enjoy her handiwork. Hugging the front is a bed of uplifting seasonal annuals. Beyond are more complex plantings.

She loves the intermingling that comes with a garden's maturity, she says, pointing to a spiky Phormium sharing tight space with a softer Euphorbia and declaring it "sweet."

"I just love playing with color and color combinations and textural combinations, something hard next to something feathery, something shiny next to something dull" says Frost, who came by her attraction to color from her father, a Sebastopol sign painter.

She creates bones and definition with everything from a soft and low Teucrium groundcover hedge, popular in English knot gardens, to a vigorous gnarly hazelnut shrub called Harry Lauder's Walking Stick, which is probably too big for its space but which provides leafy screen from some neighboring apartments in summer and sculptural beauty in winter when bare.

Amid the landscape are artistic notes, often a good way to distract from a problem zone. Her most meaningful is "Tea for Two," a memorial for a departed sister with whom she shared a love of tea in fancy cups.

Still grieving, she found a pair of cups at the San Francisco garden show, which the sisters loved attending each year. She spray-painted a little bistro set and set out tea in perpetuity.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@ or 521-5204.

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