Hopland's golden garden

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The saying is, behind every great man is a great woman. But in the case of Kate Frey, there is a talented man whose complementary skills and shared enthusiasm helped her win two gold medals at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show in England and established her reputation as a world-class garden designer.

Renowned for her singularly beautiful, sustainable landscapes, Frey often turns to her husband, Ben, a contractor and woodworker, to create the rustic farm structures and infrastructure that add charm to her display gardens and give them such a profound sense of place.

That collaboration is in clear evidence in their own garden, two acres hidden behind a tall fence down a country lane from downtown Hopland. It is a joyful mix of the native and Mediterranean plants that are a signature of Kate’s designs, and the arbors, naturalistic outdoor furniture and garden buildings built by Ben out of wood he “rescues” from the same North Coast farmland that inspires his wife.

“He will approach people when he sees a shed or a barn and blackberries are growing all over it,” Kate says with a smile, “and he’ll ask if he can salvage the wood or clean up a pile. A lot of times people don’t want to part with it when it’s standing, but then it will fall down and they don’t want it.”

Ben, who grew up tenth of 12 kids on his family’s vineyards in Redwood Valley, watched a particular barn on Highway 128, built back in 1868, slowly collapse while his offers to salvage the wood were rebuffed. Then two years ago a friend tipped him off that the barn was finally down completely and its beautiful redwood bound for the dump. It now has new life as an arbor in the center of the Frey garden where the couple love to relax in the evening with a beer. Wisteria, trumpet vines, purple Agastache and honeysuckle are slowly making their way over what once were the rafters.

Their garden is a densely packed display designed to attract bees, butterflies, birds and other beneficial creatures. With the exception of a few of Kate’s favorites, like old-fashioned roses and peonies, 95 percent of the garden is filled with a banquet of habitat plants, from milkweed for butterflies to lamb’s ears for bumblebees to Grevilleas, Agastache and Peruvian lilies for the hummingbirds. The tall purple Teucrium hircanicum is great for beneficial insects and is one of Frey’s personal garden favorites. Everything has to both serve nature and be easy on the eyes.

“We really want to promote the idea that landscape can contribute to ecosystems, and we want to share that,” said Kate, who within the last month offered her personal garden for The Garden Conservancy’s Open Gardens Day and hosted visitors ranging from a UC Davis bug expert to a renowned garden designer from England.

Professionally, as a designer and consultant, Frey is often on the road. Her work currently takes her to Lynmar Estate winery in Sebastopol, Stone Edge Farm in Sonoma and The Melissa Bee Garden in Healdsburg. She was the director of the Sustainable Landscaping Program at Sonoma State University until the poor economy forced the program into hiatus. She also does consulting for The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens and is completing her first book for Ten Speed Press on bee-friendly gardening.

She and Ben raised five children on this land they purchased in 1985. At home, they take equal pride in their own garden. Here, paths lined by thickly-layered “froths” of plants lead to distinct and half hidden spaces with rustic focal points built by Ben.

Despite the drought, the Freys’ garden doesn’t appear to be suffering, in part because it is filled with low-water-using plants. But they still managed to cut their water use in half — double the 25 percent requested by the Hopland Public Utility District — by setting their drip system to deliver only half the water used last year and by heavily mulching everything, including the compacted silt over gravel pathways.

“The idea is to make it look like it planted itself and takes care of itself,” says Kate. But that’s part illusion, particularly in the spring.

“It’s a matter of coming out here for two or three hours, working frantically and then coming inside and working at the computer, and then driving to clients’ gardens. But it’s a joy to create it,” says Kate, who uses her own garden both for demonstration and experimentation. She’s constantly trying out different plants and has no problem removing anything that doesn’t work.

Set within her exuberant display of plants, from California fuchsia to Coyote mint, Sunflowers and Goldenrod, are Ben’s creations from what Kate calls his “resuscitated wood.” Among them are a chicken coop, a green house and a “hermit’s hut” with a rusty and mangled tin roof that he built for a display garden with a post-apocalyptic theme. It is now a tool shed.

Standing above it all is their home, set tall above the flood plain, which Ben designed and built seven years ago to evoke a Swiss chalet he fell in love with in Europe. He remembers proudly where all the wood came from; the front steps from Pier 3 on the San Francisco waterfront, the front door from the oldest house in South San Francisco.

The Freys have been collaborating since 2003, when Fetzer Winery asked Kate, who had designed and long overseen the gardens at their old Valley Oaks estate, to design a garden for them to enter in The Chelsea show. After winning golds in 2005 and 2007, the couple went on to do display gardens in competitions in Japan and Malaysia.

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

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